College Rule Changes and Totals
by Trevor Whenham - 09/04/2008
Are you familiar with the current time clock rules in college football? I can't blame you if you aren't. After all, this is the third consecutive season in which they have changed dramatically. We'll get into he specifics in a second, but the important thing is that the changes have had an impact on not just the length of games as intended, but also the number of points scored in games. For bettors, and especially those who like to play totals, that's a big deal. A swing of just a few points per game on average can make a big difference in your profitability if you aren't paying attention to it.
It's obviously important, then, to have a good sense both of what the actual rules are, and what their impact has been. To do the latter we'll compare the first week of games in each of the last three seasons to see what the impact has been on totals. That is useful because in each case the bettors and oddsmakers won't have had a chance to adjust to the new rules, so we can get a real sense of what they mean. Before we do that, though, we'll review how the rules have changed through the years.
Heading into the 2006 season, the NCAA was concerned that games were taking too long. They claimed the motivation to change this was to make games more watchable for people in the stands. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the real reason was to make games more attractive for television, though. Regardless, they tried to shorten games in a number of ways. Most significantly, they started the clock running as soon as the officials marked the ball. It worked, knocking 14 minutes off the average game, making it three hours and seven minutes long. There was a serious downside, though. The changes meant that an average of 13 fewer plays were run, and five fewer points were scored. Fans love scoring, so that was deemed unacceptable. Back to the drawing board.
Last season, things were returned back to how they were in 2005. That wasn't acceptable either. Games actually ran a minute longer on average than they did in 2005. NCAA officials had become too fond of the shorter games to give up on finding a way to get them at an acceptable cost.
That leads us to this year. There are two big changes to how the clock is run. First, the NCAA has adopted the pro-style play clock. That means that teams have a 40 second play clock, but it starts running as soon as the last play ends. Previously it was a 25 second clock that started once the ball was made ready. Teams still have a 25 second clock on the first play after a change of possession. That move will force slow officials to speed up, and it should give an advantage to no-huddle offenses because it could earn them more time at the line of scrimmage to assess the defense. The second change is that outside of the last two minutes of a half the clock starts after a player goes out of bounds as soon as the ball is made ready. Previously, it only started at the snap.
So what impact has this had? First the raw numbers. In 2006, the first week games went over the total 24 out of 43 times, or a rate of 55.8 percent. The next year the first week games went over just 18 times in 45 games, for a rate of 40 percent. This year, the first week saw 19 out of 40 games go over, or 47.5 percent. The sample sizes are obviously small, so it would be dangerous to draw hard and fast conclusions. What we can do, though, is examine whether the changes make sense. We know that 'overs' generally aren't good news for the books - the public favors the over, so books are more likely to lose if a majority of games go over. That means that they would likely tend to set the totals slightly higher than perhaps would be fair to compensate for public tendencies. That makes 2006 significant. A lot was made that year about the rule changes and the large impact they would have on scoring. The books obviously overcompensated. In 2007 it was the public's turn to overcompensate. The dreaded rule changes were out the window, and the public anticipated higher scores. The books were able to set lower totals knowing the public would favor the over, and the results are clear. This year's results also make sense. The rule changes were less publicized this year, and were expected to have less of an impact. It follows, then, that the books weren't able to do as well as they did last year, but better than they did in 2006.
The average points scored in those first week games over the three years support those theories. In 2006 teams scored an average of 45.8 points. That was down from the previous year, but not by as much as the books feared. In 2007 the average jumped up to 49.2 points per game. That's up, but not as significantly as the public might have guessed, so the large majority of games went under. In the first weekend this year scoring was up slightly to 51.6 points per game. The slight increase again accounts for the improvement in public performance, but the increase isn't significant enough to make a big difference.
What does this all mean? If you are a successful, serious totals bettor then probably not much. It appears as if scoring should be about the same this year as it was last year, which is up from two years ago. If you keep looking for games in which you have a serious edge, though, then the scope of the changes due to the rule amendments probably isn't big enough to significantly change what you do. In other words, if what you are doing isn't broke, don't try to fix it. If you aren't finding success on totals then you probably need something other than the rule changes to blame.