Fewer snaps = fewer points

Believe it or not, Tennessee's football games are shorter this fall. They only SEEM longer while you're watching them.

Thanks to the new NCAA clock rule, the average SEC game in 2008 lasts 3 hours and 11 minutes, down 12 minutes from the 2007 average of 3 hours and 23 minutes. Moreover, teams are running 10-12 fewer plays than they did last fall. Obviously, the fewer plays you run, the fewer opportunities you have to score.

The new clock rule's impact is greatest late in games, when weary defenses typically are most vulnerable. With a dozen fewer snaps to play, SEC stop units aren't as gassed in the fourth quarter this year as they were in the past. That helps explain why league defenses are allowing just 17.2 points and 281.5 yards per game – the lowest figures since the conference expanded to 12 teams in 1992.

Essentially, the new clock rule is an early Christmas gift for defensive coordinators. Conversely, it is a pain in the butt for offensive coordinators, who are expected to equal their team's 2007 point totals without having an equal number of snaps.

"You used to be able to go into a game and count on the fact you're going to run 70 to 75 plays in an average game," Tennessee offensive coordinator Dave Clawson says. "Sometimes you'd be in the 80s."

The '08 Vols managed just 59 snaps vs. Florida (the Gators had even fewer) and 57 vs. Auburn the past two weekends – losing each time. Clawson isn't saying the new clock rule hurt Tennessee's chances in those two games but it certainly didn't help them.

"There's less possessions in every game," he says, "and it really puts a premium on being able to make a big play and make chunks of yards."

The offensively challenged 2008 Vols don't make chunks of yards. They apparently lack big-play people at the skill positions. Since they also lack a decent passing attack, they'd prefer to rely on their ground game to wear down opponents. That's harder to do, however, now that the games are running a full 12 minutes shorter.

As Clawson explains: "The strategy of lining up, knocking people off the ball and wearing 'em down ... there's a lot less time to do that."

Because there is less time to establish a running game and exhaust an opposing defense, offensive coordinators tend to be more aggressive and less patient than in the past.

"You can be a team that lines up in two tight ends and you knock people off the ball, you wear 'em down and that running game really gets going in the fourth quarter," Clawson says. "Well, that's a hard way to play the game with this quick clock. You've really got to be built now to make big plays and get chunks of yards. That's how it's different."

In its never-ending quest to keep the TV networks happy, college football has changed the clock rules three years in a row. The goal is to complete games in 3 hours, so networks can squeeze a double-header into a six-hour time frame.

Ultimately, football is a much different game since the NCAA began tinkering with the clock rules nearly three years ago. Clawson is amazed by the impact the 2008 clock rule has had.

"I thought it would be a little bit less," he said. "I thought it would take away a possession or two."

Instead, the new rule has taken away three to four possessions per team per game. If you're trailing midway through the final quarter these days, you're probably doomed. As Clawson put it: "If you have a deficit late, you'd better make hay when you can."

As much as he dislikes the new clock rule, Clawson sees a possible benefit. Now that college teams are playing 12 regular-season games, with the potential for a conference championship game AND a bowl game, the season has become a real grind. Shortening the game a bit may help reduce the physical pounding players absorb.

Noting the additional "wear and tear" incurred during a 12-game season, Clawson says: "If this is a way of reducing that, then I think that's a benefit of it.

"But I think the negative of it is that our players practice just as much. Our players work just as hard every week as they've ever worked, but now there's less opportunity to play on Saturday.

"And it really changes the strategy of the game. Two years ago it's a quick clock. Then they change the rule back to a long game. Now it's a quick clock again. You've got to react every year.

"I just wish, whatever they did, they'd stick with it. Three years in a row now it's a different game."

One unintended consequence of the new clock rule has been to level the playing field. Because teams with great talent and depth have fewer plays in which to establish their superiority, more underdogs are able to play them competitively.

"The better team you are, the more (snaps) you want to play," Clawson notes. "When you shorten the game, it gives more chance for upsets."

Since Tennessee probably will be the underdog in six of its eight remaining games, Clawson may warm to the new clock rule in the months to come.

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