College football games are long and getting longer, outlasting any other professional or top-level college team sports experience.
Even college baseball, the sport pilloried the most by critics for its languid pace of play, doesn’t take as long, on the average, as a Football Bowl Subdivision game. According to NCAA statistics, the average FBS game last season was 3 hours and 24 minutes, the longest in the sport’s history and several minutes longer than the average college baseball game.
And Power Five conferences are going to do something about that for the 2017 season: Ask game officials and stadium operations staff to, pretty please, pick up the pace.
Generally, there are no plans to change rules, cut TV commercial duration or inventory or shorten the 20-minute halftime (it’s 12 minutes in the NFL). But the Pac-12 has taken the first step: It will experiment in non-conference games with a 15-minute halftime break and reduce the number of commercial breaks.
Conferences also are not modifying instant replay rules, especially as they pertain to whether a targeting foul has taken place. Player safety continues to trump all other considerations, and SEC coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said that only five targeting fouls were initiated from the booth in that conference last year.
The average replay stoppage in the SEC, where games lasted two minutes longer than the national average, was one minute, 26 seconds — almost the same as the year before.
“We didn’t extend the game,” he said of the replay process.
The feeling among almost all conferences is that games can be shortened through efficiency.
“Rather than change the rules of the game, they want us as administrators and officials to take some certain steps in an attempt to increase the pace of the game and as a result to decrease the length of the game,” said Dennis Hennigan, ACC supervisor of officials.
One conference, the Mid-American, has set a goal of 3:20 for the average game, five minutes shorter than that league averaged in 2016. The MAC also will experiment with clocks in the stadiums to let fans know much time remains in TV timeouts.
Leaders in major college football don’t want to shorten halftime, which is the province of bands, majorettes, recognition of big-money boosters and accomplishments in non-revenue producing sports. Those activities are considered part of the game-day experience, and their time on the field is considered untouchable.
“I don’t want to be the guy to tell people they can only have 12 minutes for halftime,” said Shaw. “Any attempt to whittle away at that will be seen as a negative.”
TV, passing to blame
Twenty years ago, the average college football game wasn’t much different in elapsed time than the average NFl game.
But last season, the average length of an FBS game was 16 minutes longer than the average NFL game (3:08).
Major League Baseball games last only a minute longer than that and the average NBA game is 2 hours, 15 minutes.
In 1996, the average length of an FBS game was 3:01. In 2013, it was 3:17.
The main reasons are obvious: TV and the spread offense.
ESPN, ABC, Fox and CBS are all scheduling more prime-time games. Therefore, the need to create and fill commercial inventory to pay for those slots is even greater. And because TV is the leading revenue source in the sport, no one is going to ruffle the feathers of the golden goose.
“We will have advertising,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said. “That’s a reality.”
The trend toward the spread offense means more plays and more first downs — and more clock stoppages.
The Big 12, loaded with pass-happy spread coaches, leads Power-Five conferences in average duration of games at 3:36, with Texas Tech averaging 3:48 and Oklahoma State 3:47. Baylor was in fourth nationally (3:44) and Texas fifth (3:41), giving the Big 12 four of the top five teams with the longest average games.
Only one Big 12 team, Kansas State, matches the national average of 3:24.
Texas Tech is the poster team for the four-hour game. Its formula for leading the nation in average game times is easy to decipher: The Red Raiders also led the nation in total offense (564.5 yards per game), offensive plays per game (86.8), passing offense (463 yards per game) and were third in total first downs (360) and third-down conversion (.518).
SEC games are lasting 3:26, and two of the most prolific scoring teams in the league in 2016, Tennessee (second) and Texas A&M third) had the two longest average game times in the conference, 3:41 for the Volunteers and 3:37 for the Aggies.
Alabama was an aberration. The Crimson Tide led the SEC in scoring at 38.8 points per game, led in offensive plays with 1,056, but was 10th in average game time at 3:25.
The Florida Gators were relatively quick, averaging 3:24 to equal the national average.
The ACC had teams on both ends of the spectrum. Pittsburgh (3:38), Florida State (3:33) and Clemson (3:32) were all along the top 15 in the nation in average game time while only Texas-El Paso (2:54) had shorter games than the ACC’s most timely team, Boston College (2:56). Georgia Tech and its option offense was second in the ACC in shortest average games at 3:12.
The top-four scoring teams in the ACC, in order, were Louisville, Pitt, Clemson and FSU. They also were, in a slightly different order, the four ACC teams with the longest games: Pitt, FSU, Clemson and Louisville.
Combine scoring and teams with a strong national TV schedule, and fans can be assured of long games.
Four of FSU’s five longest games of the season were nationally televised 8 p.m. starts. Clemson, which led the league in average number of plays with 81.3 per game, started two of its longest three games and three of its six longest at 8 p.m.
The Power Five team with the shortest average games, in no surprise, was the traditionally run-oriented Big Ten at 3:22.
Halftime will be monitored
Bandleaders and home teams be forewarned: Conference officials say one of the major ways to shorten game times is to make sure a 20-minute halftime doesn’t become 23 or 24.
“Halftimes are going to be 20 minutes, and when the 20 minutes goes to zero … we were going to blow the whistle and kick it off,” Shaw said.
One measure will be when the 20-minute clock starts. In the past, halftime did not officially begin until after coaches conducted their interviews with network TV and the teams had completely cleared the field.
This year, officials will start the halftime clock after time has run out, there are no injured players on the field and there are no replays ordered.
If a band overstays its time, a delay of game penalty can be assessed on the home team.
Another administrative change will involving coming out of timeouts. The sideline official with the red hat who gives the field officials the clearance to resume the game coming out of commercials will now have to leave the field with 30 seconds left, at which point the crew on the field will take over the timing.
“We’re working in different ways with our schools and our media partners to be intentional and focused around halftimes, making it as close to 20 minutes as can be managed, making sure we’re in and out of media breaks quickly,” Sankey said. “And also within the game itself, around certain plays, scoring plays coming to mind, that we move … with a sense of urgency to keep the game flowing as best we can.”
Coaches balk at rule changes
Coaches, regardless of whether they have an offensive or defensive background, are dead-set against changing the rules to make college games shorter, foremost among them, the rule that stops the clock with every first down.
“You’d be changing the whole game, the concept of the game,” said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher.
“I’m all for it, without changing the [rules regarding clock stoppages],” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “I would be in favor of it if you’re talking about [reducing the games] 15 minutes or so without changing the structure. I like the way the game is played now.”
Missouri coach Barry Odom said the league’s own housekeeping procedures may be enough.
“Let’s look and see what happens this year and see kind of where it plays out in the grand scheme of things,” he said.
Stoops also said there’s a structural difference between the two sports that makes rule changes in college unnecessary.
“Their season is so long [four preseason games, 16 regular-season games and as many as four post-season games] and their games are shorter,” he said. “They don’t have as many players on their roster as we do. I think that’s a totally different situation.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain did agree with the desire of conference commissioners to police the games a bit tighter.
“I do understand the importance in television,” he said. “I understand the importance of staying on time. I think the tweaks that they’re talking about … I don’t think you’re really going to notice it. I think there is a need to speed up some of the things that go in in between.”
Sankey said making the college game more like the NFL is not the answer.
“We want to be very careful about not impacting directly the game itself,” Sankey said. “The college game stands unique.”
Bowl games lasting longer
Bowl games, all on national TV platforms, averaged 3:32, and the New Year’s Six bowls, topped by the 4 hours and 12 minutes it took for Southern California to outlast Penn State in the Rose Bowl, averaged 3:37. Clemson’s victory over Alabama in the national championship game lasted 4:08.
None of the 40 bowls were over in less than three hours. All but 12 lasted longer than the national average.
Of course one question might be raised: What does it matter? Is it that important for college games to be sped up to get closer to the NFL model?
Fisher gave a terse, “no,” when asked if he thought the issue was a major problem.
In an interview with ESPN earlier this year, Washington State coach Mike Leach said the NCAA would be “idiots” if they shortened game times through rule changes.
Shaw, one of the men involved with administering college football rules, also wonders if the issue isn’t overblown.
“The college game is beautiful, and it’s different from the NFL game,” he said. “They’re in a tight window on Sundays. They need to get the 1 p.m. games over so they can switch to the 4:15 p.m. games and their entire goal is to stay within a three-hour window. Everyone also runs, more or less, the same kind of offense in the NFL. Our game is different because we have so many different styles of play. Army-Navy is going to take less than 3 hours. Other games are going to have two teams that pass the ball a lot more.”
But there’s still a creep to the four-hour mark that those leading the college game don’t want to see, in the age of attention-deficit sports fans.
“We hope that this will be a topic of conversation, but want to be very careful about not impacting directly the game itself,” Sankey said. “The college game stands unique. We think it should, but again we’re open to this conversation and look forward to it happening.”
In the meantime, fans should plan ahead – especially if their team passes, scores points and plays a lot of night games.