Every year the NCAA tinkers with the rules that dictate college football. This offseason was no different.
All told, there were changes to 14 rules this season, but most involve replay authority, field markings, suspended games and other minutia that 99.92 percent of fans will never notice.
For example, there is one change, to rule 9-1-6, that involves blocking below the waist on and around the line of scrimmage. But it essentially just shrinks the size of what was once called the "low-blocking zone." Other low-blocking rules are still in effect.
Here are the five big rules changes that you'll actually notice.
1. Coaches can now be ejected (Rule 9-2-6)
We've seen it in college basketball and other sports for years: a coach gets out of hand and gets sent home early by a referee. Yet in NCAA football, coaches were immune from unsportsmanlike conduct ejections.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee has brought football in line with other intercollegiate sports and increased the accountability a coach has in maintaining decorum. Just as with a player, a coach is now disqualified if he collects two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls during a game.
He can yell and scream and storm onto the field once and stick around until the clock hits zeroes, but he's skating on thin ice.
Will officials pursue this action? That's yet to be seen. College football officials are trained to work with the coach and cater to his needs. Previously, officials could throw unsportsmanlike conduct fouls on the head coach and assess 15-yard penalties (though they rarely did even that). But will they actually eject a coach? The situation would likely have to be dire.
Still, coaches and schools can have some influence in determining if a specific official works their games or not. They don't have direct influence or remotely a final say, but a school's athletic director can make it an issue for an official to ref that school's games. Remember, it's the member schools that hire the conference commissioner, who then hires the supervisor of officials. Coaches can have an influence.
So, don't be looking for these to be handed out for some screaming or a thrown clipboard. A coach would have to be grossly outside the limits of acceptable behavior to receive two unsportsmanlike fouls and be disqualified.
However it's implemented, this is an important tool to avoid some of the displays we have seen at times on national television.
2. Defenders can't trip the ball carrier anymore (Rule 9-1-2c)
There had been an explicit exception in the rules that read: "Tripping the runner is not a foul." That's gone. Now no player can trip any opponent. (This refers to tripping with the leg, not to low tackling.)
3. Any runner "giving himself up" is now considered "defenseless" (Rule 2-27-14)
For those who don't like the aggressive moves by the NCAA and NFL away from dangerous hits, turn back now.
Rules-makers continue to expand the scope of targeting. Now they will protect any ball carrier who slides feet-first, giving sliding players the kind of protection they've had in the NFL, as some have advocated. If a defender makes "forcible contact" to the head or neck of a runner who has "given himself up," the defender will incur a 15-yard penalty for his team and be disqualified for at least the remainder of the game.
Certainly this creates a new gray area for officials. Determining when a player began to slide feet-first and when a defender became unable to shift his target area can be tough, particularly as the head of a sliding player can suddenly move where his chest was a split-second before.
But a key sentence in the explanation of "targeting," rule 9-1-4, is important to remember: "When in question, it is a foul." Remember that when you're screaming at the TV about a frame-by-frame analysis of a play. "When in question, it is a foul."
4. Low hits on the passer are clarified (Rule 9-1-9b)
The reason hits on kickers and passers are specifically called out in the rules? The defenseless nature of their positions. It's particularly complicated with passers, as they are often surrounded by eager defenders or being chased across the field.
Last year, the NCAA made it illegal to hit on or below the knee of a player in control of the ball and in a "passing posture" (the rules avoid the term "quarterback" because, particularly in college, you never know who might attempt a pass). There were exceptions to that rule, including the tackler appearing to make a bona fide attempt at a "conventional tackle."
This year, the words "without making forcible contact with the head or shoulder" were added to the "conventional tackle" exception, to make crystal clear that if a defender is coming in at the knee head- or shoulder-first, he should be flagged. So when you watch the instant replay of these fouls, watch for the contact of that head or shoulder "in the knee area or below" of the passer.
5. Fake field goal loophole tightened up, but with a new gray area (Rule 2-16-10)
For an offensive formation to be legal during a regular play, at least five linemen must be numbered 50 to 79. No matter where they line up, these players are all always ineligible receivers (by number).
When an offense is lined up for a scrimmage kick (field goal, extra point, or punt), they get an exception and can have fewer than five. Some coaches have exploited that to trick defenses into covering the wrong players, or lulling them to sleep, before attempting a fake.
The rules committee tightened up the loopholes.
First, to get the numbering exception the offense must have either:
- at least one player 10 or more yards behind the line of scrimmage, or
- two players at least 7 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Until this year, they only had to have one player at least seven yards back, leading teams to have him take the snap and run. Now they have to be considerably more strategic with their fakes, if they want to take advantage of the "numbering exception."
The other change is one simple word that may be even more restricting. The rule used to say it has to be "obvious that a kick may be attempted." That "may" is now "will," as in, "it must be obvious that a kick will be attempted."
Now, when a team puts a snapper wearing No. 88 on the end of the line so he can run out for a pass, the offense must meet standard-play numbering rules (i.e., must have five other linemen wearing 50 to 79). A snapper on the end of the line does not make it clear to everyone in the stadium that a kick will be attempted, so the offense gets no exception.
Of course, this creates a different gray area. A kick doesn't have to be attempted under the rule, it just has to be obvious that one will be. For example, after a muffed snap, the player attempting to kick could roll out and legally run or pass. Heck, the snap doesn't even have to be muffed. They just need to fake the kick really, really well.