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College football finally changes last-2-minute timeout rules

Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire

College football is a hugely flawed sport with a massively deficient rulebook, but as the saying goes, “Ya gotta start somewhere.”

The powers that be have miles to go before they can say their rulebook is fundamentally fair, but change happens one reform at a time.

Last week, college football amended a horrible rule in time for the 2016 season. Praise the Lord!

Several 2016 rule changes are found here, but the one that caught my eye referred to clock-start procedures in the final two minutes of halves (especially fourth quarters). You can read it in plain English: If Team A leads by four points in the final two minutes of a game and commits a penalty, Team B won’t have to call a timeout to stop the clock after a “ready-for-play” restart by the lead official. That’s been the rule, but it won’t remain the rule in 2016, thank goodness.

If the team leading in the final two minutes of a game commits a penalty, the clock won’t restart until the snap. That should be an entrenched core principle at all levels of football. Finally, the college game is joining the NFL and the civilized world.

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You might wonder, “What’s a picture of Bobby Petrino and Gus Malzahn doing at the top of this story?”

As with everything else in life, there’s a reason for it.

In the 2015 season opener in Atlanta, Louisville trailed Auburn in the final minute, 31-24. Auburn committed a holding penalty, so when Petrino called timeout before the clock restart, Twitter exploded with the classic Al Michaels line: “HE DID WHAT?!”

As I documented here at a previous place of employment, some bloggers and a lot of fans didn’t know this rule. They thought Petrino committed the gaffe to end all coaching gaffes.

Yes — and this was not mentioned in the column 11 months ago — Petrino still should have saved his timeout for the following down. Petrino should have sacrificed a 25-second runoff following the penalty so that he could save 40 seconds a down later. Petrino did cost his team 15 seconds. Nevertheless, Petrino was cognizant that the clock would restart on the ready-for-play signal, enabling Auburn to burn 25 seconds had Petrino not called the timeout.

It is as simple a concept as any other: Rules should penalize teams for doing dumb things such as committing a last-minute penalty. College football’s clock-start rules did not do this in the Louisville-Auburn game, and they similarly failed a number of other teams (most notably Butch Jones’s Tennessee clubs — twice!) over the previous few seasons.

In 2016, it won’t happen.

In the long and complicated future of college football — a messy-enough sport as it is — at least one rule will finally bring a new and substantial measure of fairness to Saturdays in the fall.

As something of a postscript, this rule change — if viewed in a much larger context by officiating coordinators and rule-makers in other sports — could open the door to reforms throughout the sports world.

To offer just one example, what if a “purposeful” foul is committed in the final minute of a game? What if basketball rule-makers decided that the fouled team got its choice of one shot and the ball out of bounds; three free throws to make two; or a five-second runoff?

There are ways to ensure that violating rules — whether committing a penalty in a football game or a intent-laden foul in basketball — more severely punish the offending teams.

Maybe, just maybe, college football — in the attempt to merely resolve a longstanding deficiency in its rulebook — could one day become something much more: the foremost agent of change as far as sports rulebooks are concerned.

No, I don’t expect that, but in a year as awful as 2016 has been (in realms not relating to sports, I should quickly add), we all need to find things to dream about.

Thank you, college football, for at least getting rid of the clock-start nightmare in the final two minutes of a game.

Bobby Petrino surely approves.

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