College football playing the long game

North Carolina lineman Mark Uptegraff (62) celebrates as Florida State linebacker Ro'Derrick Hoskins (18) reacts following Nick Weiler’s game-winning 54 yard field goal October 1 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla. The game took 3 hours and 37 minutes.
North Carolina lineman Mark Uptegraff (62) celebrates as Florida State linebacker Ro'Derrick Hoskins (18) reacts following Nick Weiler’s game-winning 54 yard field goal October 1 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla. The game took 3 hours and 37 minutes.

Two games on a recent ACC weekend represented the very best and very worst of college football. Both featured high drama, end-of-the-game finishes. Both took seemingly forever to play, one concluding after midnight.

Nick Weiler’s 54-yard field goal as time expired lifted then-unranked UNC to a stunning 37-35 victory at No. 12 Florida State. Later that evening, Clemson cornerback Marcus Edmond stopped Louisville wide receiver James Quick three yards short of the goal line in the final seconds to preserve a 42-36 Tigers victory in a battle of top-five ranked clubs.

When the ACC clips together highlights from the 2016 season, these two games will illustrate that the league is now playing a higher level of football than at perhaps any time in its 64-year history.

The highlight reel will not show how the UNC-Florida State game that started at 3:35 p.m. dragged on until past 7 o’clock. The three-hour, 37-minute marathon in an age of short attention spans had to be taxing on the 77,500 in attendance at Doak Campbell Stadium as well as those watching on TV. Clemson’s game against Louisville in front of 83,000 stretched for three hours and 44 minutes, and because of a late kickoff at Memorial Stadium concluded at 12:06 on Sunday.

Sadly, those endings are not the most extreme of games that frequently have fans across the country headed to the adjacent parking lots – or home – at halftime. Wyoming’s home game on Sept. 3 against Northern Illinois was delayed two hours and 20 minutes by weather. It kicked off at 10:20 p.m. local time, and concluded with Wyoming winning in three overtimes at 2:34 a.m. Because there are no short drives home in the Cowboy State, fans presumably arrived safely in time for breakfast or church.

Delay of games

College football games once played out in a tidy three hours or less. That was before the advent of widespread TV coverage to where nearly every game played by a Power Five conference team is televised. The shorter games also preceded the proliferation of spread offenses – a more organized version of fraternity flag football – that has led to more passing attempts, more first downs, greater scoring and, in turn, more stops in play.

Mix in replay reviews and injuries and games are going longer and longer. FBS games that averaged 3:07 in length in 2006, lasted 3:23 in 2014. Closer to home, the average length of an ACC game in 2011 was 3:11. Through six weeks of the current season, ACC games have taken 3:22 to play.

It is unclear whether fans – either at stadiums or at home in front of TVs – are upset or not about the longer games. From the ACC offices in Greensboro, there does not appear to be an outcry to shorten the games, according to Michael Strickland, a senior associate commissioner for the league.

“While we do monitor it on a weekly basis to ensure that our game management protocols are being enforced,” Strickland said, “we feel comfortable with the current average duration of our games.”

The NFL attacked the problem of extended games long ago, and changed the way it manages the game. As a result, NFL games in 2014 averaged 3:05.43, and a season ago clocked in at 3:08.18.

“It is something we monitor closely,” said Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman. “We know fans commit a lot of time to NFL games on Sundays, Mondays and Thursdays, so we monitor closely the length of those games.”

The NFL has a couple of factors in its favor when it comes to game management. College halftimes are 20 minutes in length, give or take a few minutes. NFL halftimes are 12 minutes, from the time “the referee punches out until kick,” according to McCarthy. The shortened NFL halftime barely allows players time to return to the locker room, freshen up and return to the field.

Bands and pageantry

ACC officials allow teams to exit the field before starting the halftime clock, and generally allow for another minute or two beyond 20 minutes to resume play in the second half. There never has been discussion about trimming college football’s halftime.

“The band performances are very important to lots of people. So, that’s part of the culture of college football,” Strickland said. “So any significant reduction of halftime would impact the game itself because of the nature of coaching that takes place at halftime, and you’ve got the pageantry of the bands that is part of the fabric of college football that people love so much.”

The NFL also allows for fewer TV breaks than its college counterparts.

The NFL allows the same number (63) of 30-second pods (commercials) for every one of its games. The NFL mandates that play begins immediately after the TV break with teams often at the line of scrimmage when a network returns.

“We have very standard rules and we track every single game to ensure that networks are following our policies,” McCarthy said. “It’s important to the fans in the stadium and fans at home and also the clubs as well. We try to maintain a flow that works for fans, but also the teams on the field.”

Each college conference has its own rules and standards for TV breaks. The ACC, for example, has four commercial formats for games televised on the ESPN family of networks. Those include a base, reduced, expanded and CBS regional format, and range from 68 pods of 30 seconds in length to 80 pods of the same length.

So the difference in commercial pods allowed in every NFL game to the longest ACC game is eight and one-half minutes. Add in the eight- to nine-minute difference in halftimes between pro and college games, and you have nearly 20 minutes of additional time for the amateur version.

Teams that pass the ball more frequently and score more points, obviously, are going to play lengthier games. Granted, the average fan probably is not aware of the trend toward longer games. Yet it certainly is not lost on the fans who remain in a stadium past midnight, fight traffic out of the stadium, and return home in the wee hours of the morning.

Perhaps athletic programs could begin to offer cot rentals for Saturday night games, or at the very least distribute church bulletins to fans exiting the stadium.