It's time for college football to shorten games for the fans and players
As exciting as the games might be, their length is making it difficult for almost everyone involved
Clemson-Alabama II ended at 12:27 a.m. ET. The best finish to a national championship any of us can remember occurred with far too many fans fast asleep early Tuesday morning after a four-hour, eight-minute classic.
When too many adults with work the next day can't see Deshaun Watson and his skilled Clemson receivers beat Alabama's suffocating defense, college football has an issue to address. When too many kids have no hope of staying up the entire game -- my 10-year-old and 7-year-old lasted until halftime -- college football has an issue to address.
The games are too long. They're too long for the players, too long for the fans and too long for the long-term growth of the sport.
ESPN and the College Football Playoff want the championship game to reach the point where viewership isn't impacted by yearly matchups. They want it to be a mini-Super Bowl where it's appointment television no matter who plays. How can that possibly happen when the dramatic Clemson-Alabama finish occurs after midnight Eastern on a Tuesday morning?
Viewership for ESPN's combined broadcasts of Clemson-Alabama was down 3 percent from the same matchup last year and down 24 percent from Ohio State-Oregon in 2015. This year's figures don't include 710,000 viewers who streamed coverage (up 21 percent from last year), nor out-of-home viewing in bars and restaurants that will be added later, according to Sports Media Watch.
Still, the dramatic Clemson-Alabama game was the fourth-lowest rated national championship since the start of the BCS in 1999, ahead of only Alabama-LSU (2012), Miami-Nebraska (2002) and Southern California-Oklahoma (2005). Having two teams from the South, where viewership is high no matter who plays, certainly limited the audience. Pairing some combination of USC, Texas, Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State would be the ideal matchup for viewership since SEC states will watch no matter what.
Yet it's also fair for fans to wonder why the CFP National Championship feels like a drawn-out World Series game with endless pitching changes and batters stepping out of the box. At least the World Series gives viewers a minimum of four games to watch, including some on the weekend. College football's championship game is a one-shot deal on a Monday night in a sport you know plays long games.
This is hardly a new issue for college football. In 2006, the sport overreacted way too much and disastrously used a running clock after changes of possession. Games got much shorter but the rules infuriated fans and coaches in the process because they made no sense.
This came after the classic Rose Bowl in January 2006, with Texas and Vince Young dethroning USC, that lasted three hours, 59 minutes and ended at 12:25 a.m. ET. Interestingly, Clemson-Alabama lasted nine minutes longer than Texas-USC despite Monday's game featuring 13 fewer points and 13 fewer first downs. Scoring and first downs equal clock stoppages.
Why was Clemson-Alabama slightly longer? Commercials have something to do with that. So do longer replay reviews, more plays and more incompletions. Watson and Jalen Hurts, the two quarterbacks Monday, combined for 89 pass attempts and 39 incompletions. Young and Matt Leinart had 81 passes and 22 incompletions in 2006.
It would be one thing to say Clemson-Alabama and Texas-USC are one-off exceptions, great games worth staying up late to see. But they're not exceptions. What casual viewers saw Monday, until many dozed off, was too often typical of the long games college fans must endure.
The average game length in the Football Bowl Subdivision this season was three hours, 24 minutes. That's up 12 minutes per game from 2010. In 1996, the average game lasted 3:01 and people still enjoyed the sport just fine.
The networks could cut down on their 30-second commercials (average of 68 per game). Who hasn't attended a game when the fans and players are anxiously waiting for the restart but television isn't ready? It's particularly troubling with so many night kickoffs because fans have to drive home very late. Now, whether TV wants to reduce the number of commercials while rights fees continue to increase is another question.
Halftimes could be shortened to pick up the pace. However, many fans like seeing performances by bands, which are part of the sport's pageantry. There are concession stand visits and bathroom breaks to consider as well. There also will be arguments that a 20-minute halftime is appropriate for players to properly recuperate instead of the NFL's 12-minute halftime.
Similar to the NFL, coaches could get a set number of challenges to ask for plays to be reviewed (unless replay is needed for safety issues, scores or plays in the final two minutes). Coaches probably won't like that additional scrutiny on their decision-making. But hey, their salaries keep going up to mirror the NFL and they continue to create staff sizes like the NFL, so they can figure out how to challenge calls like the NFL.
The easiest way to speed up games and help with player safety has stared college football in the face for years: Adopt NFL clock rules. Keep the clock running after first downs. Feel free to stop the clock after first downs in the final two or five minutes of each half to allow for comeback attempts.
There will be traditionalists who holler about fewer plays. It's fair to point out that lower NCAA football divisions have far shorter games with around the same number of plays as the FBS.
However, even the FCS isn't immune to longer games. The NCAA's second-highest division has seen game lengths increase by an average of 10 minutes over the past two years.
By reducing plays, some might argue that Clemson wouldn't have produced the dramatic finish to beat Alabama -- that many people missed -- without running 99 plays to wear out the defense. Perhaps. I tend to think strategies would shift -- you could still creatively use tempo, just maybe not over 99 plays -- and Watson would still find a way to win.
The alternative is games continue to creep longer and longer. That could result in casual fans (but likely not the die-hards) losing some interest. Unpaid NCAA players are increasingly questioning why they're adding hits to their bodies over the course of a season that could impact their long-term health and professional future.
Consider Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, who skipped the Sun Bowl to avoid injury and prepare for the NFL. McCaffrey led the FBS in all-purpose yards while touching the ball 314 times. In 2008, when games were 13 minutes shorter and had eight fewer plays, the top all-purpose running back was Cal's Jahvid Best, who had 237 touches.
Touches per game: McCaffrey 28.5 in 2016, Best 19.8 in 2008. If college football leaders think players aren't counting these hits to their bodies, they're kidding themselves. The sport could improve its product while helping player safety at the same time.
Coaches, athletic directors and commissioners appropriately say that eight playoff teams would make the season too long. Yet the game has already added many more plays on players' bodies over the past decade for the sake of money. The 12th regular-season game arrived permanently in 2006 despite an overwhelming majority of coaches opposing the idea. Conferences keep adding championship games. The postseason has one more game for two teams thanks to the playoff.
Look at the winning teams in the classic Clemson-Alabama and Texas-USC championships. By playing two more games during an age of higher scoring and tempo, 2016 Clemson ran 279 more plays than 2005 Texas. Based on the national average for plays per game this season, that's the equivalent of 2016 Clemson playing four more games than 2005 Texas.
Young left Texas for the NFL after his junior season with 1,175 career passing and rushing attempts combined. Watson heads to the NFL after his junior year at Clemson with 1,641 combined passes and rushes. In other words, Watson has more than an additional entire year of throws and runs accumulated on his body than Young did.
Watson was 10 years old when Texas-USC played their lengthy thriller in January 2006, a game that inspired him to perform like Young against Alabama.
"I just remember that last night and sitting in my mom's room because I always have football on, and just seeing him really running to the corner of the end zone and kind of jumping up, and then at the end just seeing all the confetti come down," Watson said. "It's one of those games that [like Monday] night, where it just came down to the very end, and he pulled it out, and I did the same thing for my team."
Maybe there were enough 10-year-olds who saw Watson's finish to be inspired a decade from now. Let's hope so. (Though I pity the poor teachers of those kids Tuesday morning.)
But banking on kids and adults staying up ridiculously late to watch your championship isn't a winning strategy.
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