Would New NCAA Kickoff Rule Mean A Touchback On Every Other Kickoff?

The NCAA's rules committee wants more touchbacks. Among the suggested changes: moving kickoffs up to the 35 from the 30, limiting the running start space for coverage teamers, and moving touchbacks out to the 25. This isn't quite Greg Schiano's call to eliminate kickoffs in the name of safety, but it could still turn almost half of all kickoffs into formalities.

Let's talk about numbers!

In 2011, there were 8,361 kickoffs in FBS football. Of those, 1,375, or 16.4 percent, resulted in touchbacks. (That percentage is the same as the NFL's in 2010, before new rules were installed.) Auburn and Oklahoma State whapped the majority of their kicks into the end zone, while New Mexico State, UAB and UL-Monroe mustered nary a touchback.

Returned kicks averaged about 21.7 yards per runback. As 21.7 is fewer than 25 (I went to college), it would generally be prudent to accept a touchback under the new rules.

However, as we saw in the NFL this year, plenty of special teams units would accept the new arrangement as a feature to exploit, rather than as an alteration. Instead of belting the ball every time just as they had been anyway, kickers will often hang the ball high and try to land it within the five or 10. As coverage men will be five yards closer to the returner from the beginning of the play, there's an opportunity for skilled kickers to almost function as punters by putting the ball as close to the end zone as possible without sending it in.

Via ESPN's Stats & Info, we can see the effects similar rule adjustments had on the NFL in 2011. Touchback percentage more than doubled, from 16.4 percent to 43.5 percent. Excluding onside kicks and balls kicked out of bounds and such, only 53.4 percent of kickoffs were actually returned.

Both college teams in 2011 and NFL teams in 2010 accepted touchbacks at the same rate, so it's fair to think new college rules would have about the same effect as they did in the pros.

Also via ESPN, the average starting field position slipped from the 26.4 to the 22.1. (Those extra four or so yards per drive surely helped boost the big numbers put up by so many NFL quarterbacks, even if by a little bit.) Touchdowns on kick returns fell from 23 to nine.

Since there's not readily available field position data for college games en masse, it's hard to say exactly what kind of impact such a rule change would have. If the goal is safety, then yes, it should cut down on the number of full-steam collisions per game.

I wouldn't mind seeing almost* all kickoffs replaced with something like what Schiano suggested. After scoring, a team would be given the ball at its own 35, effectively working with a fourth-and-15 situation. They could either punt to the other team's 25 or 30 or so, or they could attempt a conversion. Besides the safety stuff**, onside attempts would be replaced by actual football plays, rather than decided mostly by bounces.

* We must have a kickoff to start each football game. And to make it fair, the second half should start the same way. But we can think flexibly about the others.

** Safety stuff.

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