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Substitutions and tempo: Comparing college football's controversy to other sports

Because of tempo, college football is becoming a little bit more like other sports, and a little bit less like traditional football.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

College football's yelling item of the moment: a proposed NCAA anti-hurry-up rule, which would require offenses to linger pre-snap for 10 seconds before playing football. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema has made a case that this is about player safety, eventually escalating it to being a life-or-death matter, to much embarrassment.

The substitution challenges and tactics (depending on your side of the ball) introduced by hurry-up offenses are real. They were accentuated by a 2008 rule change that took the restrictor plates off those offenses. A defense being unable to substitute players because an offense won't let it is indeed a rule hack.

That doesn't mean it's necessarily a rule hack that should be overruled by another rule. The forward pass was a rule hack.

The current hurry-up debate is an extension of the same debate football has been having with itself for decades, about how much scoring a game should tend to produce. But it's an extension that does concern the nature of the sport.

Alabama's Nick Saban, who's distanced himself from the rule, speaks with self-interest when arguing that fast football is more dangerous than heavy football (because all football that we know of is dangerous, and if there's a number of snaps per game that actually produces safe football, we've yet to discover it). But he's not being disingenuous when he asks whether we want football to be a continuous game or not.

Allowing offenses to control defensive substitutions in between plays is a new direction, making one part of football more like other sports. So let's look at other sports.

College football

The substitution rule: Offenses can substitute whenever they want. Defenses can substitute whenever they have time.

The tempo rule: Fire when ready.

Exploitable? An offense that sets quickly can lock in the defense's lineup, thereby killing the same matchups over and over again all the way down the field until someone suffers a suspicious, dramatic injury or remembers what a time out is for.

Other concerns: Some claim to have injury concerns with fast-snapping offenses. But any safety argument against hurry-up football is an argument against football, so.

Pro football

The substitution rule: Yes, there is one.

The tempo rule: An official stands over the ball like Colossus of Rhodes until the defense is good and ready. This is not done for safety reasons. Chip Kelly doesn't like it, as Mark Richt didn't like the SEC's similar rule when he arrived at Georgia after running the hurry-up at Florida State. And now look at Auburn! But, anyway, the NFL is slow.

Exploitable? Not especially.

Other concerns: Pro football is not extremely fun, but its players are well-compensated.


The substitution rule: Incoming subs must notify designated officials, then wait for a stoppage.

The tempo rule: NBA teams have 24 seconds to strike the rim with the ball. College teams have about six hours, it seems like. If the clock's moving, the ball's moving.

Exploitable? Some teams go distressingly fast and jack up all the threesmaking for basketball that some find aesthetically displeasing. Others go way too slow. Every college team goes way too slow, approximately.

Other concerns: Coaches task certain subs with drawing penalties on purpose. NFL coaches get banned for entire seasons for doing that. Basketball needs Bielema's safety reforms.


The substitution rule: Players who leave a game must be either shot into outer space or buried in Omaha until the game has ended. They cannot return to the field. Pitchers and batters wheel in and back out of the game, often just for one drive or snap.

The tempo rule: Everything takes as long as it possibly can. If a batter is dawdling beyond even baseball's limit, he or she can be penalized with a strike. Officials can likewise alter the count to punish pitchers who've discovered the outer boundaries of human patience.

Exploitable? Tempo is a thing to be ground to death by any means necessary. An offensive batter will often try to run as many snaps as possible, in order to tire out the defense's pitcher. Defenses frequently huddle during threatening offensive drives. Coaches stride from their sidelines to engage officials in lengthy verbal duels, the only tangible outcome of which is that coach maybe being ejected. Coaches do this because they have very little else to do during games.

Other concerns: Offensive players constantly pivot around and fiddle with their gear between snaps, making baseball entirely too leisurely for many viewers. Similarly, pitchers throw screen passes over and over whenever a batter has reached first base. And the nature of substitutions means that every matchup adjustment — sending in a right-handed reliever to take care of a right-handed batter, for example — takes forever. There are no injury concerns, though, because no one is moving.


The substitution rule: Subs must catch up to the action in progress. No official will stand over the ball ("biscuit") for them.

The tempo rule: Go fast. Players can be sidelined for a delay of game by making hockey impossible to play (such as by intentionally firing the ball out of bounds or tearing down the goalpost ("moving the net"). Otherwise, everybody just slams into things as hard as they can.

Exploitable? What?

Other concerns: From Wikipedia:

Criticisms of anarchism include moral criticisms and pragmatic criticisms. Anarchism is often evaluated as unfeasible or utopian by its critics. European history professor Carl Landauer, in his book European Socialism argued that social anarchism is unrealistic and that government is a "lesser evil" than a society without "repressive force." He also argued that "ill intentions will cease if repressive force disappears" is an "absurdity."[291]


The substitution rule: Only three subs per game. Only at stoppages. The departing player may never play soccer again until the end of the game, unless he or she does so quietly in solitude on the bench, perhaps in his or her mind. Ejected players cannot be replaced.

The tempo rule: Go fast. Wasting time during a kickoff or substitution can earn a player a half-ejection. It's not as painful as it sounds. The infraction for wasting time is called time-wasting. And if circumstances wind the clock down, an official can just create more time, like God.

Exploitable? Nah. Although, per SB Nation soccer editor Kevin McCauley, "There used to be a hilarious rule in MLS that you could make a fourth sub if your goalkeeper got injured, but they changed it after Bob Bradley used it to sub on a field player in a goalkeeper shirt." Lane Kiffin beams.

Other concerns: Nah.

The argument for a new college football play clock rule, by Every Day Should Be Saturday.


The substitution rule: Seven or 10 or so players may be subbed per team per game, depending on the governing body. Players can't return to the game, unless if they've left the field for 15 or fewer minutes in order to tend to a bleeding wound. This is called a blood bin.

The tempo rule: Go fast. SB Nation's James Dator, an actual Australian, explains:

Rugby splits into two equally popular codes: rugby union and rugby league. The former is the more renowned internationally; the latter is very similar but employs a five-tackle limit to travel the length of the field (think downs).

In either code, hurry-up is promoted. If someone is tackled, he or she is released by the tackler and has to either release the ball on the ground in the ruck (union) or stand up and pass (league). In union there is a penalty for failing to release the ball, which is anti-delay of game tactic. In league the defense has to backpedal 10 meters before the ball is played after a tackle. You will never see an offensive team try to delay in league, because they want to move as quickly as possible and catch a defense off guard for not moving back the 10 meters.

Some rule changes went into effect in the NRL (Australia's biggest rugby league) that promoted moving faster.

The most important part as it pertains to football is this. A quick penalty restart will be permitted on any infringement except 10-meter penalties, for which the referee issues a caution, or within 10 meters of the opposition goal line. The change encourages more continuous play.

Basically, we used to see both sides take time to get set after a penalty, but they're changing it to mean you can quickly pass the ball. Essentially they're trying to make an already fast game faster.

Exploitable? Speaking of bleeding-wound substitutions, teams have gotten in trouble for using fake blood. See the next sport for more on fake blood.

Other concerns: Go fast.

Pro wrestling

The substitution rule: Only one man per team in the ring at a time, except during substitutions and once the competitors agree to disregard this rule. Teammates must touch each other in order to sub, except during mayhem, and the solitary official must witness the touching. Substitutions made during the official's periodic unconsciousness either do or do not count.

The tempo rule: Like soccer, players have to frequently collapse to the ground in agony. Unlike soccer, they prefer to do so all at the same time. When only one player isn't hurt, protocol calls for that player to halt competing and to rile up the crowd or arrange sideline equipment so that someone can be thrown through it. Speaking of blood, if one player wants to bleed from his or her forehead, other players must give him or her the time and space to make that so. Otherwise, there is no way to go too fast.

Exploitable? No. All pro wrestling teams adhere to the rules at all times.

Other concerns: Everything is on the up-and-up.

Relay races

The substitution rule: Substitutes may not compete until receiving a handoff.

The tempo rule: Try your best!

Exploitable? No.

Other concerns: No.


The substitution rule: There's only one player per team.

The tempo rule: Especially huggy or walky players can be docked points for making the crowd boo. There is no way to go too fast.

Exploitable? Yes. A player can be prevented from substituting by entering a boxing game.

Other concerns: Boxing is crooked.


Over the last few years, college football has become more like other sports. When certain teams are playing, at least. Are you OK with that?