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Significant change in targeting rule will draw charges of favoritism

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Officials have been told that if players target an opponent's head, they had better call a penalty. (USATSI)
Officials have been told that if players target an opponent's head, they had better call a penalty. (USATSI)

HOOVER, Ala. -- Steve Shaw was one of the best college football officials in the country when the SEC talked him into leaving the field three years ago to become the league's supervisor of officials.

So when Shaw told the assembled SEC media on Wednesday that a rule change for this season "is the most significant change I have seen in my career" then we should all take notice.

The broad term for the rule is "targeting." Simply put, it's when the defensive player launches his body or uses his elbows or forearms to "target" the head of a defenseless player in an effort to get the big hit -- the one that makes the highlight reels and gets the attention of NFL scouts. These hits also cause a lot of concussions.

The rules against this kind of hit were already in place. The change is that this season, in addition to a 15-yard penalty, the offending player can be ejected from the game. If the player is ejected in the first half, then he will sit out the rest of the game. If he is ejected in the second half, he'll also sit out the first half of the next game.

If a player is ejected, the replay official automatically reviews the play. The replay official has the authority to put the player back in the game if he feels the hit did not rise to the level of ejection.

This is not going to be a popular rule with the fans or the players or the coaches. They will howl that the rule is bound to be applied inconsistently. Or that the officials will eject their players but turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others.

I've gotten more than one tweet from exasperated fans saying something like:

"Why don't we just go ahead and just play flag football?"

"People watch football because it is a 'contact' sport!"

"Why don't we just put SKIRTS on the players!"

"We have heard all of those concerns and we appreciate that the fans are so passionate," said Shaw. "But trust me that these changes are very important to the rules committee and to the commissioners. It is going to happen." Exhibit A of what we're talking about is this hit by South Carolina defensive back D.J. Swearinger against a receiver from UAB. Swearinger was penalized on the play but was later suspended for the next game with Missouri after the conference office reviewed the tape.

This year that hit would carry a 15-yard penalty and immediate ejection. Because the infraction happened in the second half, Swearinger would have sat out the entire first half of the next game.

It's called "behavior modification" and the threat of immediate ejection is expected to be the modifier.

"Playing time is a motivator to our players and we think will have a pretty significant impact," said Shaw. "What I hope with this is that this gets through to the players, they change their behavior."

As you might imagine, coaches are not entirely thrilled by the prospect of losing a key player in the middle of the game.

"If it's my guy getting hit I'm going to be yelling to protect my guy," said Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen. "But if it's my guy getting tossed, I'm going to scream that they are taking the aggressiveness out of the game. What you have to do is coach guys not to go high. When it happens in practice in the next team meeting we point it out. We tell our guys, 'Hey, you can get ejected for that.' You can complain all you want but ultimately as coaches and players we have to adjust."

"It's a game-changer, no doubt about it," said Butch Jones, the new head coach at Tennessee. "It will change the way that we coach tackling. You just can't go high. I'm concerned that it changes everything for the safeties. I heard that Chris Petersen at Boise was working with rugby teams because they tackle from the side."

That turns out to be true as the Seattle Times reported on July 12 that Boise State had worked on new tackling techniques with the local Snake River Rugby Club. After talking to a lot of people on this issue, the reality is best described in an argument I had with a fan on the subject:

Fan: "There is the possibility of all kinds of mistakes with this rule."

Me: "Yep."

Fan: "Somebody is going to get thrown out of a game who maybe shouldn't be."

Me: "Yep."

Fan: "This is going to cost somebody a big ball game."

Me: "Probably so."

The bottom line is this rule change, and the reason people like Shaw believe it's so significant, is bigger and more important than any single player, any single game, or any single season. With a class-action law suit on concussions against the NFL working its way through the court system, college football officials know they have to be proactive on this subject. Someday they may have to sit in a court of law and be asked the following question: "Did you do everything you could to make the game as safe as possible?"

The answer to that question had better be yes.

Shaw said he hopes the reaction to the new rule will be like that of two years ago, when it was determined that an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty (like dancing backwards into the end zone) during the course of a scoring play could take points off the board. Fans complained about the rule but that fall it was called only once in the SEC -- when LSU punter Brad Wing gave an ever-so-slight showboat to finish off a fake punt.

"That was a situation where there was a lot of talk about what was going to happen," said Shaw. "Then we only called it once. We're hoping that is what happens here."

That probably won't be the case. Somebody is going to lose a key player for a key game. Charges of favoritism will come -- that it will be called against the little guys but not the national championship contenders. There will be complaints about inconsistency -- you called this but you didn't call that.

All that is going to happen.

But here is the bottom line: The officials have been told that this is a point of emphasis for this football season. Simply put: Officials have been told that if they see it, they had better call it.

"Let's put it this way," said Shaw. "My guys understand they will be in more trouble for NOT calling it than calling it."

It's going to be interesting.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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