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Best Seat in the House: 2020 College Football Rules Changes, Pt. 1

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Boy these things are starting to become more strung out, aren't they? It's not at all that I'm losing interest, it's simply that I want to make sure that the content I'm delivering to you guys is something that will be interesting and useful. I really don't want my posts to become about whining about officiating calls because that does no one any good. But when an opportunity like this one comes up, it's a prime opportunity for another BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE article!

Today we are going to examine and attempt to simplify and explain the major rules changes that will be coming if and when we next have a season. As I have mentioned a few times in some past articles, the football rules committee meets every year to address issues facing the game we all love and addresses different elements about the way it is played. In even numbered years (which, of course is THIS year) the committee is allowed to implement any new rule that are deemed necessary. In odd numbered years, the only changes that will be adopted are those that deal with player safety or that address a "significant impact on the image of the game" [page FR-5 from the official rulebook].

In addition to the actual rules changes, there can also be editorial changes in either year and these typically are done to either clarify a confusing ruling or to help officials understand intent about certain rules. They may change or add a single word that completely changes how something is enforced, implemented, or evaluated. This year, there are 17 of those that I will also cover. So let's get right to it, shall we?

Rule 1

Editorial change 1-2-9 Field surface; Referee signal change

If a field is intentionally altered to provide an advantage for one team, it is a 5 yard foul enforced from the previous spot. Signal used to be:

Which, of course most people associate with a 15 yard foul. The committee brought unity with this one and changed it to this signal:

Which makes much more sense. All illegal procedure fouls are 5 yards, so there's no doubt the enforcement on this one. This brings up an inside joke among officials, "When in doubt, roll it out." Not something we REALLY should do but it means that if you don't know what signal you should use for a foul, do this one because it is a catch-all for a lot of different strange situations. Free kick OOB, illegal field conditions, etc. Signal 19 is used a ton of different places in the rules so the joke is, hey, if you don't know, it's probably this one.

1-4-2 Player Numbering

All players shall be numbered 0-99. Any number preceded by the digit zero such as "07" or "00" is illegal.

The change here is the second sentence. I've never seen it personally but I suppose some teams had or were trying to use a 0 before a number and get an extra jersey number out of it. You can see where that would gain them a major advantage especially with the eligible receivers. You have a big guy who usually wears #59 changes his jersey for a play and comes in wearing "07" and legally reports the change. You then have #7 and #07 in the game at the same time and one of them gets barely covered by the other. Who is the defense supposed to defend? It's confusing and an unnecessary advantage to the offense. Also, it allows the team wearing 0s to have extra eligibles that the other team doesn't get for that game. This is a 5-yard penalty for enforced from the previous spot.

Ed. 1-4-2-d Process for jersey change clarified

The officiating crew informs the opposing head coach and the referee announces the change.

Previously, if a player was changing his jersey number, the wording said that the REFEREE informed the head coach of the opposing team. This change clarifies that anyone on the crew can address this issue. I'm sure this is what every crew was doing anyway but they simply codified it as the official procedure.

1-4-5 a-c Concurrently worn Jersey Allowed. Jersey penalty redefined

A second jersey meeting all requirements of Rule 1-4-5 worn concurrently is allowed. Vests and/or altered jerseys with zippers, Velcro, clasps, or other fasteners is not allowed

Penalty- In addition, Officials shall charge a team timeout at the start of each quarter the illegal jerseys are worn, or a foul for delay of game if all timeouts have been used.

Two part change here; they made it legal to have one jersey worn underneath another as long as BOTH meet the normal rules for a legal jersey (sleeves cover shoulders, full length and tucked into the pants, numerals are a certain size, etc.). This is another that I've never personally seen but if you have someone who needs to change jerseys during a game like in the above scenario where you have someone who wears both #59 and #7 I suppose you would do this to make changing jerseys faster and easier.

The second part of this rule brings unity to all jersey fouls. Previously, if you wore an illegal jersey of any type you would be assessed a 15 yard foul and that was the end it. But illegal numerals carried penalty of being assessed a team timeout but no yardage. What they did here was make both of them the same punishment. 15 yards from the succeeding spot AND a team timeout is charged. If you don't have a team timeout, an additional 5 yard foul is assessed. Big punishment here. The NCAA is sending a message with this, don't screw around trying to wear goofy jerseys in goofy ways to try to gain an advantage. I know Pat loves the ol' midriffs and tearaway jerseys, but buddy those things are dead and gone and will never return.

Rule 2

2-27-12 Ejected/Disqualified player redefined

Article 12.

a. Disqualified Player

1. A disqualified player is one who is declared ineligible for further participation in the game and is allowed to remain in the team area.

2. A player serving a first-half suspension due to his disqualification in the team's previous game may participate in pre-game warm-up activities. During the first half he may remain in the team area but may not participate in the first half of the game

b. Ejected player

1. An ejected player is one who is declared ineligible for further participation in the game and is not allowed to remain in the team area. This player must leave the playing enclosure under the escort of team personnel before the next play after his ejection. He must remain out of view of the field of play under team supervision for the duration of the game.

2. A player serving a first-half suspension due to his ejection in the team's previous game may participate in pre-game warm-up activities. During the first half he must remain out of view of the field of play under team supervision.

Quite a few words here that really set up a difference between two classes of players that are not allowed to play in the game. Most of the time that you are removed from the game by an official it will now be an EJECTION. Some examples of this are fighting (obviously), receiving two unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, flagrant personal fouls and using tobacco. Notice something important missing here? TARGETING. If you are removed from the game because of targeting, you are deemed "Disqualified" but not "Ejected." This rule allows those players to stay with the team but simply cannot play. If either happens in the second half, then in the next game he can be in the team area and can participate in warm-ups but he may not be seen from the field if he's been ejected.

Rule 3

3-1-1 Pregame Warmups

Pregame;
b. When any Squad Member enters the playing enclosure prior to the officials escorting the captains out for the coin toss, the head coach or an assistant coach from that team must be present on the field

c. When Squad Members are present within the paying enclosure subsequent to the officials' jurisdiction, they must be wearing their jerseys or have their numerals readily available. Any player without their numeral readily visible must leave the playing enclosure


Pretty self explanatory here and it really is mostly a procedural thing. I cant imagine there are many scenarios where a coach is not present for the coin toss before a game but they are simply mandating that now. My thought is that this is something that came up in one of the lower levels and was put into place for JUCOs and schools like that. I've personally never had a college game where the entire team is not present for the toss.

The second paragraph addresses situations where something occurs before the game...such as a pre-game fight or violating the pre-game warmup barriers. The penalty for these rules is a 5 yard succeeding spot foul. The change was put in place because if we have to eject a player before the game starts, we need to know exactly who that person is. Without any distinguishing feature, they could go back to the locker room, get dressed and we'd never actually know who that person is that is ineligible for the game. Most likely, we'll see teams with Under Armour type shirts with numbers on them. Very few teams do pregames with their actual jerseys worn. There is a term in c that we will get to in just a few paragraphs; "officials' jurisdiction." That rule was changed this year as well.

Ed. 3-1-3-g-3 excep. Penalty Enforcement exception in Extra Periods

(Exceptions: Penalties for flagrant personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct fouls, dead-ball personal fouls and live-ball fouls treated as dead-ball fouls are enforced on the succeeding play.)


Alright, this rule needs some setting up to understand where it applies and what was changed. It took me a second after reading it to understand "now WHAT?" Rule 3-1-3 is where the overtime periods are codified. It tells you how the tiebreaker works, that we play from one side of the field starting at the 25, each team gets one possession, etc. Section G in that article deals with fouls after a change of team possession. An example of this is in a 21-21 tie first possession series of overtime. Clemson loses the toss and ND chose to play defense.

Trevor Lawrence drops back to pass on the first play and throws the ball right into Kyle Hamilton's gut and he catches the ball. Overtime, turnover (change of team possession); Rule 3-1-3-g is in play now. During Kyle's run, Avery Davis is excited and is standing 1" off the field and the Head Line Judge has to run around him on the sideline. Before the pass was thrown, a Clemson OL held Daelin Hayes preventing him from sacking Lawrence.

On this play, we have two live ball fouls, one by each team and the one against ND is a "live-ball treated as a dead-ball". Last year, if this had happened then both fouls would be declined by rule (which is what rule 3-1-3-g states) and ND would get the ball and a chance to win the game. With this rule change, however, ND would have to DECLINE the holding foul so that they can keep the ball and this new exception says that the block below the waist would be enforced at the succeeding spot. So the next play would be Irish ball at the 40. Something to note, this is not simply all 15-yard fouls, it has to be specifically the ones that were mentioned. A block below the waist, facemask, something of that nature does not apply here because it is not a flagrant, dead-ball, unsportsmanlike or live-ball treated as dead-ball.

Ed. 3-2-2-f Play Clock Operation

The play clock shall be set appropriately and continuously display this time (40 or 25 seconds) and hold.

Real simple change here and not much impact to the actual game it just helps alleviate some confusion and avoids a misunderstanding. If the game clock is less than 40 or 25 seconds and the play clock is greater than that amount (ex. :35 seconds remaining in the game and play clock is 40) then the play clock is to be set and left at the 40 or 25 number. What we were having in games would be the previous play would end and the play clock operator would just keep the play clock going during the down. When players got up and back to the LOS, play clock would tick :01, :00. You can imagine how that could make you wonder what's going on. Did we just have a delay of game? The procedure now is to reset the play clock to whatever it should be and just leave it there.

Ed. 3-2-4-a No Tenths of Seconds

The game clock shall not display tenths of seconds

One second, I need a moment of jubilation....YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!!

OK, thanks, I needed that. As a back judge, one of my big duties is to be in charge of the play clock and I also have a good bit of responsibility on the game clock. We don't do it for college games much anymore, but when we have 5 officials, it is the B who is responsible for both clocks. Game timing is a big part of my job and this one has been a nightmare for a LONG time. In my pregame I ALWAYS tell clock operators "DO NOT LEAVE 1 SECOND ON THE CLOCK EVER!!!" If there's a play that ends with 1 second, I tell them I want you to let it tick to 0 and if we need to replace that second, that will be our call.

The reason we do this is to bring fairness to the game. We don't need homer clock operator stopping the clock with :00.02 on the clock so that the home team gets one last play to win the game. It's a nightmare to officiate and only causes problems. The rulebook already states that the minimum time to realistically get to the ball and snap is 2 seconds so anything less than that, we just want to get rid of. This tenths of seconds thing is a godsend.

Ed. 3-4-3 Guidance on Referee Starting and Stopping the Clock

As a guideline, referees should consider invoking this rule (starting the clock on the snap) when the game clock is under 5 minutes of each half.

This rule comes to us primarily from the NFL. In the playoffs last year the Tennessee Titans stole a strategy employed previously by the Patriots where they were winning the game and the clock was running. They intentionally kept fouling until the clock ran out and there was nothing the officials or the opponent could do to stop them. This rule has already been in place in the NCAA where if the officials recognize that this bit of "gamesmanship" is being used to bleed the clock out, we can put a stop to it. This editorial change reminds the referees that under 5 minutes is when it will likely be necessary.

3-5-3 Team B substitution foul changed to live-ball foul

Team B is allowed to briefly retain more than 11 players on the field to anticipate the offensive formation, but it may not have more than 11 players on the field when the ball is snapped. The infraction is treated as a live ball foul.

Penalty- Live-ball foul. Five yards at the previous spot

This is another one of the changes that brings continuity to two rules that are very similar but were enforced differently. Previously we had two rules pertaining to too many men on defense. If the defense had 12 in formation and one of the players was running off the field while the ball was being snapped, we blew our whistles and killed the play and enforced 5 yards. If we had not done our jobs properly and only discovered 12 players after the end of the play, we allowed the play to occur and it was a live-ball foul which gave the offense a chance to either accept the play or the penalty. Now, we just have the one rule for 12 players on defense. It's a live ball foul and the dead ball variety is gone.

Rule 6

Ed. 6-1-2-a Penalty for Illegal kick on Free Kick

Penalty -€” Dead ball foul. Illegal Kick. Five Yards from Previous Spot.

This takes away one of the options for the receiving team on this foul and makes the ball dead. You rarely will see an illegal kick on a free kick anyway, but when it does happen the receiving team now will either accept the penalty and it will be re-kicked or they decline the foul. Previous, it could be tacked on to the succeeding spot. This editorial change only applies to the situation where the ball is marked ready for play and the kicker moves the ball and kicks it. The rule states that the official will hand the ball to the kicker, he will place it somewhere on the kicking team restraining line between the hashes and the referee will signal the ready for play. It must be kicked from that spot unless there is a charged timeout or a penalty. What this is affecting is where a team is trying to surprise onside kick and they line up in a normal kicking alignment and then after the whistle is blown, they move the ball quickly to a hash and onside kick before the receiving team has time to react and get aligned to cover it. Now, as soon as the kicker picks it up and moves it, it's a foul and the whistle will be blown.

Ed. 6-1-11/6-3-12 Clarified player out of bounds on kick play

A team A player who goes out of bounds on a free kick play may not return inbounds during the down (Excep. this does not apply to a player who is blocked out of bounds).

Clears up a bit of confusion about what the foul actually is. The previous rule made it illegal for a kicking team player to go out of bounds during the entire DOWN that a kick occurred, even if the actual kick play was already over. This is a case of where semantics and definitions matters. A DOWN is defined in the rules as a unit of the game that begins (in this case) with a free kick and ends when the ball is declared dead. A PLAY has many different definitions. You can have a running play which is the time from when a ball comes into a player's possession, a passing play which begins with a snap and ends when the ball is caught (and there are FORWARD pass and BACKWARDS pass plays), scrimmage kick plays which begin when the ball is snapped and ends when it is either caught or declared dead, or a free kick play when the ball is placed on a tee that begins when the ball is kicked and ends when it is caught or declared dead.

Here's an example of this:

To begin the game, Harrison Leonard puts the ball on the tee and kicks the ball to the 15 where Navy player #15 catches it. He is running with the ball and Bo Bauer steps out of bounds then tackles #15 at the 30 yard line.
Last year, since Bo went out of bounds on his own during a free kick DOWN, he fouled. The new change would make this legal because the actual kick play is over. It's now a running play. The reason for this is because the reason this rule exists, as I'm sure most of you realize is to keep gunners from running free down the sideline where they can't be touched and coming back in bounds and making a play. This year, for it to be a foul, Bauer would have to have gone OOB while the kicked ball was still in the air.

There are two changes this affects but the change is the same for a free (kickoff) or scrimmage kick (punt/FG).

6-3-14-a Protection for snapper on scrimmage kicks enhanced

If Team A is in a scrimmage kick formation at the snap, any Team B player within one yard of the line of scrimmage must be aligned completely outside the frame of the body of the snapper at the snap.

Snappers on a scrimmage kick are given one full second of protection after they snap the ball before they are allowed to be hit. They are in an inherently vulnerable position because their head and necks are pointed downwards and it takes a second for them to get back up and in a position to protect themselves. This rule is adding an extra safety measure so that they cannot be attacked directly at their heads.

Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of this series. We have successfully gone through the first six rules changes out of eleven and the first nine out of seventeen editorial changes. Some of these are fairly impactful and others just make things more comprehensible and in line with similar rules. Personally, I find each of these as necessary and a real positive step to make the game better, cleaner, and safer overall. Next week I will be covering the changes in rules 9, 10, 11, and 12. Have comments, questions, or need something clarified? Please leave a comment below and I will do my best to address the masses.

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