On Substitutions, the HUNH, and a (needed?) Rule Change

Hey all, below is a post I'll be putting in the /r/cfb subreddit. After a bunch of vitriol directed at anyone who supported the rule change, I decided to write this up. Please take a look over it and I'll make any changes before it goes live tomorrow morning. I'm not familiar with SBNation formatting, so roll tide if anything looks wonky.

I’ve struggled to come up with a good title for this post. It’s not meant to be a specific defense of the new substitution rule, nor is it meant to attack the founding principles of the HUNH. That’s why I settled on "On Substitutions, the HUNH, and a (needed?) Rule Change." In general, its purpose is to propose reasons why anyone would rightly have questions about the HUNH. These center on issues of refereeing issues, competitive balance, and injuries. At the end, I will also address several points folks have brought up in response to the rule. Because of that, I really suggest you read the whole post before commenting- chances are I’ve addressed what you’re going to say. And another appeal- please do try to conduct yourselves in a respectful manner. You don’t win arguments by downvoting your opposition; you win arguments by refuting their points.

The HUNH is a part of the game, and it should stay that way. Really, the HUNH is not some new fad- a post I had a week or so ago explored its history and it’s been around in different capacities for over 40 years.

So what happened to spur on this new controversy? No one can deny with a straight face that things *haven’t changed.* In fact, in copying a term coined on RBR by SliceofLife, I’ve taken to calling this new iteration the HUNHNS- the NS being no substitutions. It isn’t that certain coaches have lost (more on that later), because that doesn’t address the fact that this style of offense has exploded, both in popularity and on the scoreboard. Indeed, offense in general has exploded:

Among AQ teams, in 2004 25.9 was the average number of points scored. In 2013, that number was 30.8.

As well, this article points out that historically,

The climb in scoring has been a trend since the 2007. season. Prior to that fall, the national scoring average had only twice climbed above 26.9 points a game since the NCAA began tracking the statistic in 1937.

Over the past six years, however, FBS scoring average has moved above 28 points a game four times and never dropped below 27.

Average scores last year were 30.8 points per team, an increase in 5 points over the last ten years- so we’re seeing a net ten more points per game. There are two reasons why this could be (and it’s probably parts of both). The first, that offenses have been getting a ton of rules in their favor (and not just for safety- Offensive Pass Interference has basically disappeared as a foul, Holding is rarely called, if you look at a QB cross-eyed you get a 15 yard penalty). Isn’t it high time a rule change was actually made to the benefit of the defense? More importantly though, there was the 2008 rule change. What happened?

The 40-second play clock represents a major change in the timing of the game and will impact how the game looks and flows. The purpose of this change is to enhance the consistency of how soon the ball is ready for play once it has become dead. In the past, the play clock was set at 25 seconds and started on the referee’s signal on every play. Now, the play clock will be set to 40 seconds after the ball becomes dead on every play and started immediately. In circumstances when the officials stop the game clock for administrative and other reasons, the play clock will be set to 25 seconds and started on the referee’s signal in the familiar manner. The 25-second clock will be in effect for:

1. Penalty administration.
2. Charged team timeout.
3. Media timeout.
4. Injury timeout.
5. Measurement.
6. Change of possession.
7. Following a kick.
8. Score.
9. Start of each period.
10. Start of a team’s series in extra period.
11. Instant replay review.
12. Other administrative stoppage.

Also, the committee has eliminated the 15-second play clock which was used following television timeouts.


This rule change, that took place in 2008, is the reason why the HUNHNS has become so effective. In the past, defensive substitutions were possible. They were not institutionalized by rule, but they were possible in practice. It was not possible for a team to merely rush up to the line so as to prevent substitutions, as teams do nowadays. This is key to my argument, because it shows that in the past defensive substitutions *were* possible, and that this was changed by the 08 rule change. The HUNHNS is not some hallowed scheme, which has been a part of college football since time immemorial; it is a new innovation and a byproduct of the 08 rule change.

The first issue that I will bring up has to do with the ability for referees to do their job in the face of these HUNHNS offenses. This is a point that has been brought up by Mark Richt and Will Muschamp, in addition to Nick Saban. This issue is the one that I have the least familiarity with, and thus, this section will be mercifully short. The basic argument goes that because these HUNHNS offenses are moving so quickly, the referees don’t have time to get set (much like defenses) and check for presnap violations and other fouls. In the NFL, the most successful sports section (not sure what to call it exactly, but you get it), the referees dictate the pace of the game. They straight up told Chip Kelly that they run the game, and that it would not be like the NCAA. This is because the refs want to do everything they can to correctly call the game, as much as they do fail to do so. /u/riserrr makes a very good argument that a faster pace means less accurate calls in this thread, so I’ll just let his words speak to this. Now some arguments offered by the loyal opposition are "keep up or gtfo" and "perhaps add another referee like the BigXII did." The first point is rather easy to dispense with- and indeed, it is the lazy argument thrown out whenever possible by HUNHNS proponents. These referees, (data from the thread above) who make $1200 a game (so 14,400 for a 12 game season), are not full time employees. Furthermore, they cannot be reasonably expected to keep up with these athletes who make it their lives to play football, and play it fast (and let’s dispense with the myth that they’re students first, we all know that’s something we tell ourselves to feel happy about the situation). The second is indeed an interesting compromise. Since it is only a year old, I think we need more information and feedback from the refs themselves, but I do admit it sounds intriguing and like it makes sense. I’ve read some preliminary stuff that posits that the addition of the 8th official allows offenses to snap even faster- which elicits a very sarcastic "wooo!" from me. But even aside from that, will it totally solve everything? Who knows.

The main contention I have with the practices of HUNHNS is that it is unfair and breaking the balance between the defense and offense. Now, go ahead and read that again, since I can already feel the comments coming about how it’s okay, because both teams are able to use the HUNHNS. That’s true, but that’s also not what I’m saying. What I *am* saying is that the tactics used by a HUNHNS offense are detrimental to the *balance between any given offense and any given defense.* And indeed, the NCAA sees it as its responsibility to ensure balance between offenses and defenses-

The NCAA Football Rules Committee, which strives to achieve balance between offense and defense, will sort through the numbers in January to see if any adjustments need to be made. source.

Interestingly, the above article also predicts that as a result of the changes, coaches may go towards running the HUNH more.

Now I’m sure some of you are ready to scream at me for using "detrimental" in the above. That’s my opinion, and one that others share (quick note about that- I’ve had several fans send me PMs thanking me for being vocal about the HUNH, because they’re not willing to get downvote brigaded for it. Is that silly of them? Perhaps, karma is worthless after all. But the systematic and visceral reaction that HUNHNS proponents have towards anyone who is against their system is bordering on religious fanaticism. I can certainly sympathize with these other fans for not wanting to be told their opinion is worthless and that they’re idiots. Oh, and this certainly isn’t about this particular rule change either, remember the witch hunt after the supposed Georgia "fake injuries" last year? Y’all need to brew some rooibos tea and calm the fuck down). That important point made, back to my argument. It is undeniable that scoring is up (use common sense, and if that doesn’t convince you, see the figures above). What is at stake in allowing scoring to go up? A fundamental shift in the game, in short.

It is an undeniable advantage for the offense to face a defense that has been denied substitutions. I don’t think anyone will argue that, as many have argued "that’s the point." But, as I’ve demonstrated above, before the 08 rule change defensive substitutions against a speedy team were possible, if by de facto if not de jure. Indeed, even in a more traditional system, substitutions are possible for the defense. This innovation (and make no mistake about it, it is an innovation, not some time-hallowed scheme vital for the integrity of the sport) is exploiting the 08 rule change, and in my mind, is underhanded and cheap- in the same way many of you look down on fake injuries. Now, I allow for disagreements, which is why I try to avoid language like "it’s cheap" because at the end of the day, that’s subjective. But it is an incontrovertible fact that the HUNHNS takes advantage of the 08 rule change to prevent defenses from substituting, a situation that **did not** exist before the change.

Many on this board act like the 9-6 "Game of the Century" between Alabama and LSU was a crime against the integrity of the sport. On the other hand, games like WVU-Baylor, Bama-aTm (2013 version), UCF-Baylor, and Clemson-Ohio State are lauded as "excellent games." Indeed, it is my contention that both these two types of games are poorly played. Of course, I was partial to the 9-6 result because I like defense, as others are more partial to 70-63 as they are more partial to offense. But both games are poorly played. The defense is more than 11 people you send out on the field while your offense rests. Ask yourselves, is there anything compelling about a game like the Fiesta Bowl where neither offense can be stopped? It becomes a question not of "will they score" but "hmm, I wonder if it will be a running or a passing TD" or "I bet he goes in on the right side of the field, rather than the left." Now, whether you agree that this is detrimental to the game is entirely up to you. However, in keeping with the purpose of this post, what I am trying to show is that it is not a bad position to hold- let alone an extreme one. Saban controversially asked two years ago "Is this what we want college football to be?" That’s a question we should all ask ourselves.

The final point I wish to discuss is the injury question. Now the very second this is brought up, the loyal opposition begins screaming "where’s the hard data, where’s the studies bobosarus!" There has not been any exhaustive study. However, the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports also recommended the committee propose this rule change.

from the NCAA release

his rules proposal also aligns with a request from the Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports that sport rules committees review substitution rules in regards to player safety.

As well, doctors have noted that they believe the HUNH leads to more injuries, there just hasn't been a study on it yet. link here, with reddit comments . It's not concrete, but again, it's not like the injury excuse is made up. It makes logical sense, and there are medical professionals- who know more than you do- saying that it should be considered. No studies =/= no reasoning. I don’t need to see studies to know that playing in traffic is dangerous.

As well, /u/thedunadan has crunched some numbers and come up with some preliminary results. Big ups to him for crunching some numbers.

I think, when you look at all three factors above, there is a compelling case that at the very least, we should look into the injury angle some more. The HUNHNS operates as its base principle in tiring out the defense. When tired, your technique begins to fail, and when your technique begins to fail, you are more susceptible to injury. That is not subject to debate. What is, however, is if the increased likelihood of injury resulting from a lack of technique from tired players is "worth" changing the rules. And really, I think the most damning bit of all of that is that the NCAA’s safety committee has recommended that rules commissions look into it. Again, they know more than you or I do.

**Answering common criticisms**

I’ll now attempt to answer some of the common criticisms of the rule change.

Nick Saban only wants this because he can’t beat the HUNH!!!!!

When you look at the games, statements like this are a little dumb.

Knight was so on the ball, they could've run just about any offense and beat us. And need I remind everyone that it shocked us so well because we were unprepared for it? Suddenly the amazeballs offense is held to ten in the second half. Oh, and I'm sure AJ having 50 picks had everything to do with Saban's inability to beat the HUNH.

And again, Gus's amazing offense was held to 28. Not an amazing performance, but hardly worthy of a grand Saban conspiracy. Rather, the inability to hit field goals and the offense's inability to pick up one yard in two tries would be much higher on my "why god did we lose this game?" list.

And in 2013, we beat two of these supposedly unbeatable offenses. Ole Miss, who we shut out thanks to Freeze's insistence on going for it on fourth- although it is important to note that we did stop them on fourth- and Texas A&M. The game against Johnny is really the only one deserving of any sort of cringy conspiracy comments, because they scored 42 blessed points on a defense that knew what was coming, and was keyed into stopping it. Although I wonder if it would've been close if Yeldon knew how to hold onto a ball. Would've been up by 28 at that point, but there's no point going into a counterfactual. It's no secret our defense wasn't so good this year, look at what LSU did to us until they remembered they're LSU.

In 2012 we got some shock and awe from the Aggies, due in part to scheme and in part to our yearly post-LSU letdown. And after the greatest offensive scheme in the history of offensive schemes got ahead 21-0, the defense buckled down and made it such that the Aggies needed a last minute interception on the goal line. And good God the play calling. Enjoy Nuss, Michigan. Ole Miss still ran a hunh in 2012, and they still lost. We also struggled against LSU and UGA.

So instead, it appears that Alabama struggles when playing top ten teams, when playing after a tough, physical opponent, and when the offense doesn't execute. In other words, we lose just like when other teams lose.

Saban’s a dinosaur! He won’t adapt!

Actually, if you look at our recent recruiting classes, you will see that indeed we are moving to a smaller, quicker defensive line. And indeed, Saban has hinted that under Kiffin we will run some HUNHNS next year (as much as I wish we wouldn’t). Shows that he certainly knows how to play within the rules. (Oh, and in the past, he’s always prefaced his statements about the HUNHNS with comments about how it is his job as a coach to get the defense ready to stop it.)

Saban is an underhanded bastard sneaking this in during the middle of the night! This aggression will not stand, man.

Actually, everything is following the process of a rules change. The committee proposes it, there is a period where other coaches can send their reactions into the committee, and they vote on it after a period of time has passed. The vote will be tomorrow, Thursday, March 6th FYI.

Yeah? Well he should adapt anyhow and be better. That’s how college football works.

As I demonstrated above, the HUNHNS is a new consequence of the 08 rule change.

Well the fatties should learn to be better. Train better!

I hate how smugly people throw this out. I can respect you need to be conditioned. HOWEVER, offensive and defensive players do not do equal amounts of work. Anyone pretending otherwise is just kidding themselves. Defense is reactive.

both teams can use the HUNH, it’s not unfair if both can do it!

I know I addressed this above, but sometimes people do have a hard time with this. It’s not about team A vs. team B. It’s about offense vs. defense. The fact that any team can use it is frankly irrelevant.

The Sport is thriving right now, the people want more offense! Who cares if it breaks balance!

That is a tough argument to make, that just because right now the sport is doing well when it also happens that offenses are increasing their potency. You could just as easily argue that the BCS is a great thing, because there has been a lot of support. Or that one conference/team dominating football is good for the sport, because viewership is up. Both statements would really be laughed at if they were said in any other context. Indeed, the increased popularity of the sport could be due to a number of factors- ESPN pushing the sport now that they have the TV deals, growing population means that of course popularity is going up, etc.

This will ruin comebacks!

Actually, it won’t. And the committee made sure to pre-empt that when they decided on a ten second run off. Baylor’s stats show that they rarely went before 10 seconds, and when they do snap earlier than that it’s only one or two seconds. More data here y’all. Indeed, most educated debaters of this topic acknowledge that it’s more about preventing the threat of a snap than a snap itself- because if you try to sub, the offense will rush to the line and snap the ball for a free 5 yards. Oh, and remember that rule change? That added an extra 15 seconds that the offense can sit on the ball when trying to eat clock, and it didn’t adversely affect comeback bids. In further deference to the idea of comebacks, the rule wouldn’t apply within the last two minutes.

So what, safety doesn’t matter in the last two minutes?

This is an incredibly lazy argument to make. Anyone with even the smallest amount of reasoning will see that this stipulation is made to allow comebacks more leeway- they’re more likely to snap above 30 seconds if they’re looking at only a few seconds remaining in the half. So why the final two minutes, what makes them special? That’s how it is, the final two minutes are a period of time that we as football fans have agreed upon as being different. Why is there not a ten second run off when a penalty is committed outside of two minutes? Because the two minutes of any given half are different. It’s not CFB, but in the NFL there is a two minute warning. It’s accepted by football culture that the two final minutes are different.

Offenses dictate the pace of the game!

And they will continue to dictate the pace of the game, even if this rule were implemented. Defenses will not substitute on every play. If they did, you wouldn’t have to worry about running a HUNHNS, the defense would tire themselves out easily enough by sprinting on and off the field. Again, I refer to what I typed above, that by de facto defenses could substitute before the 08 rule change and the incipient rise of the HUNHNS. This rule would ensure that the opportunity still exists for defenses to substitute, as it has always been.

The HUNHNS allows teams to bridge a talent gap! It gives us upsets!

Yeah, it does, but that doesn’t change the fact that the NS part of the HUNHNS exploits the 08 rule change and is unfair. However, the rest of it- the HUNH- will still be run, and I wager will still be run effectively. And as I said above, the defense won’t substitute every play, so running it that quickly will still be an enormous benefit. You can still spread a defense out, and you can still run very quickly. This rule change won’t be the demise of the system.

Your style of offense seeks to tire people out too! Isn’t that just as much of a safety risk?

Yes, it is. You know what the difference between Alabama’s offense and a HUNHNS offense is? We allow the opposing defense to substitute. That choice is denied by the HUNHNS.

Where’s the concrete studies about injuries!

There aren’t any, but as I’ve addressed above that does not mean that there is no basis for a safety argument.

Well if it’s so dangerous and we want to get rid of injuries, let’s just not play the fourth quarter! Or Maybe we should limit how many 5 star players you get?

This one. This one right here makes me so angry when I see it, because it is usually upvoted to the sky as if it is the wittiest fuckin thing that’s ever been posted here. Rustles my jimmies a bit.

Listen. That’s true, if we absolutely want to stop injuries let’s quit playing the game. BUT, the discussion we need to have is if the amount of injuries saved is worth changing the rules. That’s up for us to decide amongst ourselves. But saying "Yeah, well let’s just cancel the game" is just the height of intellectual laziness. Please, we’re trying to have a discussion like adults.

And about the whole "hoarding 5 star players gives an unfair advantage." I’m not really even sure this argument stems from, other than jealousy and a petty desire to say "oh, you’re taking away my toy Nick Saban? I’ll take away yours." Recruiting is part of college football. And having a highly rated class doesn’t mean you’re automatically good. Look at Texas. It would be a pain to enforce. Basically, stop being petty.

Which brings me to my final remarks on all this. If you’re going to participate in this discussion, please do it respectfully. The vitriol in every thread about this topic has been ridiculous. Don’t be petty, don’t go for the quick joke, this is an attempt to have a discussion about this possible rule change. My aim hasn’t been to convince you, although if I did, that’s great. My aim has been to show you that a discussion about a possible change is justified, and that anyone advocating for such a change is not coming out of left field.

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