Overtime: College Football Games Last Too Long

I've been a lifelong college football fan, but at this stage of my life the games have gotten too long for me.

There's no good reason why it should take more than three-and-a-half hours for a game in which the ball is in play for an average of 11 minutes, according to a Wall Street Journal study. Boring is the word, especially when you are in the stands for the three-minute TV commercial breaks after nearly every score and two minutes on many changes of possession on a punt.

These breaks are, of course, the source of the television revenues that are the lifeblood of major college athletic programs. So perhaps they are the last place to look for ways to shorten games to an average of three hours, which I believe would add to their audience appeal—certainly mine.

In an attempt to measure how the three hours and 20 minutes or more that the ball is not in play gets spent—and where time might be conserved—I spent a recent Saturday watching a succession of games that appealed. My viewing began with the Tennessee-South Carolina game starting at noon, followed by the Florida-Georgia game starting at 3:30 p.m. Then, in the evening, I was interested in watching both the Alabama-Mississippi State game that was due to start at 8:30 and another battle of unbeatens between Notre Dame and Oklahoma starting at 8. I also had a concurrent interest in the third game of the World Series.

With a stopwatch in hand, I tracked the Tennessee-South Carolina game, which lasted three hours and 34 minutes, and the Florida-Georgia game, which lasted three hours and 48 minutes. The time consumed by commercial breaks was less than I would have supposed—about 35 minutes in each game plus three minutes at the end of each of the first and third quarters.

That's not counting the length of charged or injury timeouts or for booth review of rulings by officials on the field. The seven minutes that elapsed before South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore was carted off the field after his knee injury were among the most compelling of the day, as players from both teams assembled around him in a show of concern and respect. A booth review of a Georgia pass completion that took almost as long was much less so and prompted CBS' Gary Danielson to crack "apparently the replay official does not have a flight out tonight."

So if there's not much room for curtailing all these breaks in the action, how can the length of a college game be shortened to three hours—or at least to the 3:06 average for pro games?

The answer is to adopt two rules changes long in effect in the NFL and perhaps a third that would be novel. Namely:

1. Shorten half-time to 12 minutes from the collegiate 20 minutes (In fact, the half-times of both of the games I tracked lasted 24 minutes.)

2. Keep the game clock running on first downs when the ball remains in bounds. In the Tennessee-South Carolina game there were 36 such first downs (out of a total of 48). Eliminating an average 10 seconds of clock stoppage between the end of the play and the clock's restart when the ball is blown ready for play would have cut the length of the game by six minutes.

3. Restart the game clock when the ball is blown for play after an incomplete pass, just as it is after an out-of-bounds play and with the same exception for the last two minutes of each half. (There were 33 such incompletions in the game, and while one can only guess how much time would elapse between the clock restart and an ensuing snap, it seems safe to assume this change would shorten most games by 10 minutes or more.)

The case against these game-shortening rules changes is that they would seemingly reduce the number of plays in a game and perhaps disadvantage a team that's trailing prior to the two-minute mark. Yet while the average number of plays in an NFL game is more than 10 fewer than the 143 average in games played of far this season by BCS college teams, it doesn't necessarily follow that shorter games would necessarily result in fewer plays. It's been my observation that more pro teams more often let the 40-second play clock run down close to zero than many college teams with their no-huddle, hurry-up offenses. I'll bet that a prototypical hurry-up team like Oregon could still get off close to the 85 plays that it's been averaging anyhow.

The silver lining, or dare I say pigskin lining, in a sport that has less than 15 minutes of action in a three hour-plus wrapper comes when you want to watch two or more televised games that are taking place at the same time, as I did on that Saturday evening. With a bit of dexterity in using the pause and fast-forward buttons on my DVR, I was able to watch every play of the Notre Dame-Oklahoma game and the Alabama-Mississippi State game, along with a good bit of the World Series for good measure.

For whatever it's worth, my game plan is to fast-forward my way through about 15 minutes of recorded time on Game 1, then pause it, repeat the process on Game 2, then toggle back and forth. The intervals are long enough to give you a sense of the flow of each game but short enough to avoid the spoiling effect of learning about scores you haven't seen in one game while you're watching another one.

It makes for an evening of fast-paced action that might spare me from the tedium of sitting through interminable commercial breaks in Neyland Stadium, if only I weren't such a die-hard Vols fan.