To overtime or not...

College football or high school spring jamboree? As Saturday's Bama/UT tilt once again proved, the current college overtime system for deciding a winner is definitely exciting. <br><br>But is it college football?

In the sense that college players participate, and college coaches direct the action, of course it is. But there's also no question that the quick-hitting action wears players to a frazzle and makes a mockery of game statistics.

Tide Head Coach Mike Shula spent 16 years as a coach in the NFL before taking the Alabama job. The Tide had previously lost this year to Arkansas in extra periods, so Saturday's five-session marathon was his second experience with the college version.

"The emotional highs and lows that you go through... I know that in any other overtime I've never felt like this," Shula said.

The physical toll alone can be frightening. In a normal college game, an every-down offensive lineman can expect to play around 60 or so snaps, depending on how the game plays out. Saturday's interminable contest added 45 downs to the total.

Brodie Croyle looks to pass against Tennessee. Adding in the overtime stats, Alabama and Tennessee combined for almost 1,000 yards of offense. (Barry Fikes photo)

"When you go back and watch the tape, the hitting was unbelievable on both sides," Shula said. "We were hitting them and they were hitting us."

With exhausted athletes dragging themselves onto and off the field, there's no question that injuries become a concern. But the biggest argument against the present system is that it simply isn't college football. The rules themselves are set up to produce an offensive orgy, turning otherwise evenly matched defensive struggles into point-fests.

At the end of regulation Saturday Alabama and Tennessee were knotted up at 20 apiece. Endless snaps later the grueling game finally ended at 51-43, a score that didn't even resemble the reality of the regulation game.

Shula commented, "I don't know about the injuries. I realized Saturday night that when you go through multiple overtimes, your offense that scores then comes back out the next time. They're still on the field. Defensively you're on the field a long time. It's hard for the defense to catch its breath.

"If the offense goes down and scores, then they've got to come right back. The next thing you know they're out there again on their own 25, having to try and stop the opponent again. It's definitely unfair to the defense."

The college system was installed some years back, supposedly to solve the "problem" of ties. Think of the horror! Two teams fight each other tooth-and-nail for 60 minutes of football, only to finish up tied. The injustice of it all!

Of course Shula's college playing career actually included one of those "wretched" ties. In 1985 he led a memorable comeback against LSU in Baton Rouge, finishing tied with the Bengal Tigers 14-14. And yet somehow his psyche managed to survive the experience.

Imagine if the Los Angeles Lakers and San Antonio Spurs fought back and forth in a terrific basketball battle, only to have the outcome decided by a three-point shooting contest. Or what if the Yankees and Marlins played to a deciding seventh game, then picked a winner based on a home run derby?

Or what if a World Cup Soccer match was decided on a free-kick shootout? Wait, they already do that...

The truth is that college football was played for decades with the occasional "sister kissing" tie, and the game got along just fine, thank you. Championship games--or even bowl games--are one thing, but regular season contests like Saturday's are another subject entirely.

Shaud Williams ended up running the ball a grueling 40 times Saturday. (Barry Fikes photo)

"Someone said it's almost unfair that after you go through a couple of overtimes for either team to lose," Shula said.

The NFL has had overtime for quite awhile, though it's only been applied to the regular season (for one extra quarter) in recent years. But their system--though possibly less exciting--much more closely resembles actual football. If a pro game ends up tied after regulation, a coin flip is held and the ball is kicked off to the winner. After that, first team to score wins.

All regular football rules and strategies apply. Special teams are still important, and athletes have their normal chance at rest in between series.

In college, the football is placed on the 25 yardline of the defense--already in field goal range. Each team then takes its turn on offense ad infinitum. It's basically the football equivalent of nailing two boxers' feet to the center of the ring, and forcing them to trade roundhouse punches until one topples over.

No one doubts the system creates excitement and strategy. But is it football?

Shula commented on overtime in the NFL vs. college. "I think they're both good systems. They're definitely unique from each other. People talk about the NFL overtime that if only one team gets the ball and scores, that's not fair. But I kind of like that overtime, too.

"I know one thing. I would like (the college) format better if we had won both our games this year."

Overtime in the NFL is more--well, professional. With play proceeding in the extra period in a businesslike fashion, just like during regulation. Is the college system better suited for the college game?

"I go back to high school," Shula responded. "In Florida they put the ball on the 10 yardline then did the same thing (as in college). You might think there would be more ties if the college overtime was like the NFL's. I think they're both exciting."

Shula wasn't an official participant, but as a high school player he stood on the sideline for one of the most famous NFL overtime games ever. Father Don was then the head coach of the Miami Dolphins, and Mike was there for their epic playoff battle with the Chargers.

Here is how the Pro Football Hall of Fame describes the action:

"The San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins faced off in what turned out to be one of the most exciting, emotional and exhausting games in pro football history in the AFC divisional playoffs. The game was played in Miami's Orange Bowl on January 2, 1982, and was finally decided by a 29-yard field goal by San Diego's Rolf Benirschke after 13:52 minutes of overtime.

"The real drama, however, was created by the determination of the players of the two teams under the trying circumstances of the must-win game staged on a warm, humid evening in Miami. San Diego jumped off to a 24-0 lead but Miami rallied to even the score at 24-24 early in the third quarter. Each team added a touchdown in the third and fourth quarter to set the stage for the dramatic finish.

"The Chargers' Hall of Fame tight end Kellen Winslow, exhausted by the extreme heat, had to be treated several times on the bench but he caught 13 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He also blocked von Schamann's kick as time ran out." (Winslow, of course, is the father of current Miami Hurricane star tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr.)

The point is simple. That epic NFL battle was decided in overtime, but it was also a legitimate (though admittedly extended) football game.

"I've been in a couple of games like (Saturday's)," Shula said. "I didn't coach in it, but I was on the sideline for the San Diego/Miami game back in 1982 in their famous overtime playoff game."

In their quest to make the game more exciting, the college rules makers have gone too far, needlessly tinkering with the system. For example, after two overtime sessions, should the two teams have the audacity to still be tied, from that point forward they must eliminate extra point kicks after touchdowns. Instead, they're required to go for two (a play rarely used in a normal college game).

Exhausted by the end of the game, Charles Jones finished with 15 tackles.

Shula commented, "The two-point requirement is difficult, too. It makes sense, because you want to eliminate the continued overtimes. But once you go and you score... To have a game that's been fought so hard and played so closely to all of a sudden come down to a two-point play one way or another, that's tough, too."

Getting ready for one or two overtime periods is one thing, but Bama's five-period slugfest--adding almost another half of football--defies preparation. Normally a coaching staff will go into a game with four or five goal-line plays, suitable also for a two-point conversion if needed.

"In the past we've gone in with a specific two-point play," Shula explained. "Now we'll probably have two or three or four plays that we like inside the five yardline. We count those as two-point plays. In a particular game, if a certain play is working then that might become a play for two-points.

"We used up all of our two-point plays Saturday for sure."

Of course the bottom line is that a loss is a loss. Overtime or not, Alabama needs a win--any kind of win--to turn its season around.

"You'd like to see all the hard work and the things that we've asked them to do where they've responded--you'd like to see it pay off," Shula said. "And it hasn't so far. But you've got to believe that eventually it will."

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