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College football’s illegal formation rule is simple, but officiating it is tricky

The basic thing: Make sure seven guys are on the line of scrimmage.

Did you just see a college football team get flagged for an illegal formation?

It’s one of the most annoying penalties to get hit with. And as long as it’s called correctly, it’s completely the offense’s fault.

What is college football’s illegal-formation rule, per the NCAA?

There are two components:

  • Offenses are required to have at least seven players on the line of scrimmage at the snap of the ball, including five linemen wearing numbers 50-79 (except on special teams). That’s the formation part of an offense’s pre-snap requirements.
  • If two players are in motion at the time of the snap, it’s an illegal shift. Only backs can go in motion. If a player on the line wants to motion, he has to move into the backfield and come to a complete stop. There’s a difference between players going in motion as part of a designed movement and an offense simply shuffling a lot of guys around as it checks into or out of a play. Officials have to make a judgment call about what’s what, but if two guys are moving when the ball is snapped, that’s always a no-no.

In the rulebook, the illegal-shift rule is lumped with the formation rule. Both carry the same 5-yard penalty. And, after all, shifts are changes in an offense’s formation.

How is this rule enforced?

Illegal shifts are called most of the time. But the main part of the formation rule, dealing with offenses having at least seven of their 11 men on the line, is officiated differently.

The line of scrimmage, strictly speaking, is a tiny, precise piece of the field. It’s impossible for seven players on the offense to be lined up at exactly the same yard line, because officials could measure that down to the millimeter. That would be ridiculous, and it would take a lot of time, so it doesn’t happen. Instead, zebras and receivers confirm with each other before the ball is snapped that a receiver is either on the line or off the line.

The NCAA rulebook says an offensive player “is legally on his scrimmage line when he faces his opponent’s goal line with the line of his shoulders approximately parallel thereto and either he is the snapper or his head breaks the plane of the line drawn through the waistline of the snapper.”

Enforcement matters, because who’s on the line and who isn’t impacts who is an eligible receiver. If one receiver lines up on the line of scrimmage, he might “cover” another receiver on the line of scrimmage in the slot. That would make the slot receiver ineligible and change defensive coverages.

All in all, illegal formation is rarely flagged. Once or twice a game is a lot.

Let me see some penalties.

Here’s an illegal formation, with a left tackle judged to be too deep in the backfield, creating a situation in which Maryland only had six guys on the line:

Here’s an illegal shift, with two players in motion at the snap: