AUBURN, Ala. — The pace of play argument is far from over.
Not by a longshot. On Wednesday, the NCAA Football Rules Committee reconvened and tabled a proposal that would have made it a penalty to snap the ball within the first 10 seconds of the 40-second play clock. If the rules committee hadn’t come to that conclusion, the Playing Rules Oversight Panel — which was scheduled to vote on whether to make the proposal a rule on Thursday before it was withdrawn — would likely have done the same.
Simply, those attempting to get the rule passed didn’t do enough.
To make a rule change for the upcoming season, it had to be a matter of player safety. Those who came up with the 10-second proposal were unable to provide any evidence that up-tempo offenses lead to more injuries.
The person perhaps least surprised by Wednesday’s result was one of the men blamed for its creation in the first place: Nick Saban.
Like a general foreseeing a defeat in a battle before it happens, Saban already had moved his mind past the 10-second rule and was plotting for the next skirmish — presumably on his terms. From the moment he stepped off the plane and on to the tarmac at the Columbus Metropolitan Airport last Friday night, he had a plan of attack in mind. In town for the Georgia Minority Coaches Association clinic, Alabama’s coach knew he would be asked about the controversial proposal during his media availability.
It didn’t take long; to the surprise of no one, it was the first question posed.
After smirking and letting out a slight chuckle, Saban said he didn’t “necessarily have an opinion on the 10-second rule.”
After sidestepping the query, he launched into the three issues he had identified as central to the discussion over hurry-up, no-huddle offenses: Player safety, the role of officials controlling the pace of play and competitive imbalance — or lack thereof.
The player safety issue isn’t new. But give Saban this much — he came prepared. He reached into the past to cite a study from Virginia Tech in 2003, when the school found that found eight players suffered 18 sub-concussive hits in a 10-game span, with an average of 61 snaps per contest.
The competitive imbalance element isn’t new, either. At SEC media days last year, Saban questioned whether football should be “a continuous game” and has stuck with that as one of his key talking points.
Bringing the officials into the fray was a fresh component, though.
And it is here that Saban can be expected to make his next stand.
The injury argument is a moot point until evidence actually surfaces aiding one side or the other. The “continuous game” point, while an interesting hypothetical, seems to be a view that only he shares.
But appealing to officials is something that should draw widespread support among those who are already noted opponents of fast-paced offenses. (Paging Bret Bielema.)
Taking the coaches out of the equation momentarily, inserting officials into the debate was a shrewd move by Saban. (He can be accused of being a lot of things, but being stupid isn’t one of them.) As it is, officials have largely stayed silent on the pace of play issue, letting the coaches decide amongst themselves. If referees take a more vocal role — and agree with Saban that they need more time in between snaps to get into proper position — it might make things more difficult for Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and the defenders of the frenetic offense philosophy.
Would the NCAA back its officials or continue to let coaches police themselves on the rules of the game? Of greater import, could Malzahn and Co. round up enough support to overcome it, as they did with the 10-second proposal?
At the moment, that’s still uncertain.
The fact it’s even become a topic of discussion is notable — and exactly what Saban had anticipated. His place in the game means that his voice carries weight. Whenever he gives his thoughts on a subject, it immediately makes headlines.
This doesn’t mean he's invincible. Far from it. Consider the resounding rejection of the 10-second proposal as one such example.
By reframing the discussion last week, Saban has shown he’s not going down without a fight.
He may have conceded the battle, but he’s not willing to do the same in this philosophical war.