The 2014 college football season does not feature a rule change as potentially dramatic as last year, but there are points of emphasis Ohio State fans will want to be aware of nonetheless.
One of the changes does speak to the type of foul that made the biggest headlines in 2013: targeting. While the rules governing how a "defenseless receiver" can be hit legally remain in place, the NCAA football rules committee made a common-sense change to the administration of the penalty. Now if the replay official deems the hit to have been legal, not only is the ejection rescinded, so is the 15-yard penalty. Last season, the first in which targeting included an automatic ejection that could be overturned on replay, the 15-yard penalty applied regardless of the outcome of the review.
The news is not all good for defensive players, however, as the committee opted to extend the roughing the passer foul to include "forcible contact at the knee or below to an opponent who is in a passing posture." All contact below the knee is not prohibited, but officials have been instructed to watch for a defensive player "forcibly" driving a shoulder, helmet or forearm into the lower leg of the passer. "Legitimate wrap-up tackles" with contact at or below the knee remain legal.
Aside from actual rule changes, there are a few of points of emphasis this year. According to the National Football Foundation, officials have been instructed to more closely manage sidelines (keeping coaches and players out of the restricted area between the sideline and the field of play) and unsportsmanlike behavior.
Bill Carollo, the coordinator of officials for the Big Ten, spoke during the summer about several other issues that were addressed this offseason with conference teams, some fans will notice and some they might not.
Most noticeable will be the addition of an eighth official. The "center judge" will become the second man in the offensive backfield, and his addition figures to help with one of the points of emphasis Carollo said the league officials will be watching more closely this fall: holding. It is also hoped having an extra official in the backfield will free the side judges and other officials on the other side of the ball to watch more intently for defensive pass interference, another point of emphasis.
"It's not just a ball spotter or anything like that, it's a legitimate position," he said. "We want to get better coverage on the running play, and once we do read pass, I want my line of scrimmage men to get down field and now I have five guys helping with pass interference."
Asked what officials are looking for when it comes to holding, Carollo admitted the answer is not black and white.
"People say, 'Well, holding, I'm going to watch his hands and if he grabs or restricts outside the frame (that is a foul),'" Carollo said. "OK, those are all in the rulebook, but that's not what we look for. If he's holding him on the inside, that's probably a good block so far... don't get me wrong, we do watch that, but the real answer is we watch their feet. We watch the offensive blocker's feet, and when my feet get beat by you going to the quarterback, now I'm chasing him and I'm going to take him down because he's going to get my quarterback. When my feet get beat as a blocker, that's gonna be holding. So that's the red flag."
As for defensive pass interference, Carollo admitted his officials are not as good at regulating press coverage as he would like them to be.
"There's a lot of hand fighting, you see it on Sunday and you see it on certain teams in our league, and our officials aren't as consistent on that," he said. "There are a lot more decisions. Did I get you in the body, did I get you on the inside arm? And I'm trying to get away as a receiver. You can do it beyond five yards downfield. You can't do it while the ball is in the air. It's a tough play for my officials, but that doesn't mean you should shy away from it. Let's spend more time on it, let's get better at it."
The third issue Carollo said he addressed with his officials during the offseason had to do with game administration, particularly dealing with offenses running at a very fast pace.
To better understand all of these things, Carollo had his officials take part in mini-clinics from some of the league's coaches who specialize in blocking, pass coverage and the hurry-up offense.
"I think we're trending from an advocation to a vocation," Carollo said. "We spend a lot of time with coaches at practice, watching video. I want their football IQ (officials) to get jacked up much higher. I want them to be as smart as the coaches. They are experts on the rules. They are experts on officiating philosophies or mechanics, but to get that one or two percent better, I think if I get them educated more on the coaching side and understanding a 3-4 defense verses a 4-3 defense, understanding on a bubble screen what you're trying to do."
As for any lingering fallout from the emphasis on calling targeting last season, Carollo said he is pleased with the results.
"I see a lot of behavioral changes," said Carollo, who noted fewer targeting fouls were called last season than the year before. "I see a lot of players on offense blocking, not taking cheap shots, and I see guys making tackles on defenseless players with their head to the side, their head is up, they're using their arms to tackle. Because before they were just throwing their bodies and leading with their head. Launching is a problem. Thrusting upward and trying to get one in the jaw is a problem. It's good for them because it will probably separate them from the ball, but you don't want to do that. You can hit them in the ribs and crack five ribs if you want, but don't hit them in the head. That's just a high alert. It's not going to go away. We're really strong on targeting, and we expect that the numbers will continue to come down.