The Impact of College Rule Changes
by Trevor Whenham - 08/31/2006
When the college football season kicks off tonight, the games will look different. The NCAA (and by that I mean the TV networks that pull the strings of the NCAA) got tired of games running four hours or longer. To solve that problem, a number of rule changes have been instituted. The changes will unquestionably shorten the games, but they are going to have a other major impacts as well. We just can't exactly be sure how they are going to change them. That's a problem when you are trying to bet on the outcomes.
The first change we'll see in each game is a shorter tee for kickoffs. They used to be two inches tall, but they have been chopped in half this year. That will cut down on the distance kickers can boot the ball. That means that there will be fewer touchbacks and less airtime, so defensive coverage won't have as much time to set up and there will be more returns. That's the theory, anyway.
Kickers are skeptical that it will make a significant difference to their performance. What will have an impact, however, is that the clock will start as soon as the ball is kicked instead of when the receiving team touches it. This will make the biggest difference late in games - a team will be able to kill the last few seconds of the game by kicking out of bounds instead of having to stop a kick return.
The clock is getting tinkered with in other ways that will make change the game as well. When the balls changes possession, the clock will start right away, not when the ball is snapped. After a first down, the clock will roll as soon as the ref gives the ready signal, not at the snap.
A college team runs about 70 plays in a game. Coaches anticipate that the changes will cost a team about 10 plays per game. Some, like Urban Meyer, who runs a high speed offense at Florida, suspect that that number will be as many as 20. What isn't known, however, is exactly what impact that will have on the game from a betting perspective. It should mean fewer points scored, but it is unclear how teams will compensate.
What is certain is that the totals will be affected. Bookmakers are being forced to adjust the totals that they post. If a team has 15 percent fewer plays, it makes sense that they will score 15 percent fewer points. Or at least it might. Totals are being calculated like they normally would, and then being adjusted downwards. The big problem, at least for the first week, is that there is no way to tell if that will be enough. Bettors don't seem to think so. When the Cal-Tennessee total was first posted by Pinnacle it was set at 55. It got drilled hard, so much so that it is already down to 44.
It's not just totals that will be affected, either. Spreads will be affected as well, especially in games that have large spreads. Take Texas Tech-SMU in the first week, for example. The spread is at 27. Under normal circumstances, Texas Tech, with its explosive offense, would have no trouble at all covering. Their passing style will be particularly affected by the change, however, costing them several plays. Bettors have to decide if Texas Tech, or other heavy favorites, can score all the points they need in much fewer plays. It is that much more unpredictable, because the favorite will have less time to overcome a touchdown by the underdog, or even a long, clock eating possession by the lesser team.
The changes add some wrinkles to the handicapping process. The new rules unquestionably favor teams that predominantly run over those that are pass-happy. If a team runs on almost every down then they are looking to kill the clock anyway, and the new rules will just make it easier for them. Passing teams which favor shorter drives will have less time to do their thing, and each drive will eat up more clock time. You will have to decide how much of a difference the changes will make in a particular game, which team it favors and how much of a difference it will make.
Some teams just like to come from behind. Notre Dame would have beaten USC if the game ended a minute earlier. Really, USC took the first half off in almost every game. Penn State may have ended the season undefeated if Michigan hadn't struck in the last minute. For teams that like to come back in the final seconds, these changes are disastrous. If the game is shorter, there is less time for a team to get their act together and start scoring some points. It would be like taking a horse that is a closer and shortening the stretch by a furlong. Again, it is an uncertain wrinkle that we will have to factor in to our decision making process.
When you take young players and put them under pressure, they make mistakes. In the first few weeks, before teams really get the hang of the new rules, the end of games will be sneaking up on teams, and the pressure and urgency will be ratcheted up on an offense that is trailing, or a defense that is trying to hold a lead. That could lead to some sloppy finishes early in the season. There are always sloppy finishes early in the season, of course, but this could make it even worse.
What do these changes mean for our handicapping? In the long term, probably not that much. Teams will get used to the rules, coaches will quit complaining, bookmakers will figure out how to deal with the new circumstances, and bettors will learn to cope. For the first few weeks, however, it could be chaos. The only thing we can really do is sit back, be patient and let things sort themselves out. Or just be brave, pick a pet theory, and jump right in.