The NCAA rule change that drew the most notice in the offseason might go mostly unnoticed by fans once the college football season is underway.
For the first season since 1967, the clock will continue to run, as it does in the NFL, when a team makes a first down on a play that ends inbounds rather than stopping until the chains are set and the referee signals ready for play. The exception is during the last two minutes of the second and fourth quarters.
The primary rationale for the change was to cut the number of plays to reduce players’ potential injury exposures, national supervisor of officials Steve Shaw said — not to necessarily shorten the nearly 3 1/2 hours it takes to play the average game.
The importance of limiting exposures will grow as more teams play in the College Football Playoff. The playoff goes from four to 12 teams in the 2024-25 season, and further expansion is possible after that.
The NCAA Football Rules Committee projects that the new rule will trim seven or eight plays from the average of about 180 per game in 2022. An eight-play reduction over a 12-game season would save 96 potential injury exposures per team, and there would be over 100 fewer exposures for teams that advance to the playoff.
The new rule will be used on every NCAA level except Division III, which was granted a request to delay its implementation until 2024.
Shaw said he expects consternation about the rule to wear off much like changes to blocking-below-the-waist rules did last year. The blocking rule drew initial outcry from coaches, Shaw said, but the transition went smoothly and the net result has been fewer lower-body injuries.
“No one is going to look up in the middle of the first quarter or middle of the second and say, ‘They didn’t stop the clock on a first down and that just ruined this drive. That's just awful,'” Shaw said. “It’s just one of those things that will disappear, and when you get your final numbers at the end, you may see seven plays less in a game that no one would have known at all.”
A couple other changes address pace of play. One bars a team from calling consecutive timeouts during the same dead-ball period. The second eliminates playing an untimed down when a penalty occurs as time expires in the first and third quarters. The play following the penalty will carry over to the following quarter.
Coaches’ opinions vary on how much it will impact games.
North Carolina's Mack Brown and Maryland's Mike Locksley are worried fewer plays will cut down on opportunities for backups who need development.
“Unlike the NFL, we’ve got 85 scholarship players, 120 in our program and they all want to play,” Locksley said.
Of course, the way a game unfolds usually determines the number of snaps for reserves, with more available when the score isn't close.
TCU, for example, had 10 of its 15 games last season decided by 10 points or less. It had no starting defensive linemen play fewer than 590 plays from scrimmage, according to Pro Football Focus, and only two D-line backups got 100 snaps.
Georgia had two of its 15 games decided by 10 points or less, and no starting defensive lineman was on the field for more than 531 plays. Eight backups got at least 100 snaps.
Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy said the new first-down clock rule will allow teams to more easily protect leads in the fourth quarter if they are effective running the ball. Gundy's offseason emphasis was to upgrade his run game, which ranked ninth in the Big 12 last season, and the new rule adds urgency.
“If you can’t rush the ball, and you have to throw passes and the pass is incomplete, the clock stops,” Gundy said. “The new rule allows us to effectively rush the ball and use the clock if we want to.”
Texas' Steve Sarkisian said his players, especially quarterbacks, will need to heighten their awareness about potential clock management changes late in second and fourth quarters.
Central Florida's Gus Malzahn, Clemson's Dabo Swiney, Pittsburgh's Pat Narduzzi and Oklahoma's Brent Venables said they expect the rule to make no tangible difference.
Then there's Big Ten coordinator of football officials Bill Carolla, who joked that the guys on the chain crews will notice the difference more than anyone.
“They’re old, broken down players or officials who just want a front row seat to see coaches,” Carolla said, “so they’re going to have to get down there a little bit quicker.”
AP Sports Writers Aaron Beard in North Carolina, Stephen Hawkins in Texas, Mike Marot in Indiana, Cliff Brunt in Oklahoma, Jim Vertuno in Texas and Steve Megaree in Wisconsin contributed to this report.