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Timing I$ Everything...By Nelson Lardner

Does it seem as if you're watching more college football, now, but enjoying it less?

Not because of the quality of the competition! NCAA Div 1-A is more competitive than ever, thanks to the lower scholarship limits per program, which were installed to provide greater potential buoyancy for the Rutgers and Wake Forests of the world.

It's because the NCAA Rules Committee jiggered the book -- to make the games shorter, obstensibly to avoid the dreaded four-hours-by-the-clock affair. What's left unsaid is painfully obvious to most tube viewers, and we'll address it, in a bit.

As for the rules in question, to be certain all witnesses are on the same page: 3-2-5: When the ball is free-kicked, the game clock will be started and subseqently stopped when the ball is dead by rule. SOOOOOOO . . . the clock starts when foot meets ball on a kickoff or punt -- not when they're fielded by the receiving team.

3-2-5-e: When Team B is awared a first down, the clock will be stopped and will start on the ready for play signal. BY STARTING AT AN OFFICIAL'S SIGNAL, rather than on the subsequent snap, individual conference studies indicated this move alone would shave 7-8% off total game times.

Be thankful the officials shepherding the kids continue to stop the clock on first downs. Altering that wrinkle to the current non-stoppage following firsts that's de rigeur in the pros was considered . . . but it was thought to be just a little tooo NFL, don't'cha know?

After initially ticking off a whole lotta' big-name coaches, many HCs quickly caught on to the gamesmanship aspects of the new directives . . . especally glomming onto how easy it was to put away a game late, with the lead, in a most-efficient manner. Then, of course, somebody had to take it one step further . . . and it turned out to be one of the brighter kids in the freshman class, first-year Wisconsin HC Bret Bielema.

In Wisconsin vs. Penn State -- the game in which JoePa wound up tending to his own personal version of the Battle of Wounded Knee -- Bielema and his charges burned up the end of the first half in their own, delightful way. Going unmistakably offsides on two consecutive kickoffs, they mercilessly killed the final 23 seconds of the half in a game Wisky wound up winning, 13-3.

This kind of thing puts greater weight on careful management of time-outs, so as to be less vulnerable to such cupidity. But make no mistake, the coaches know they've been had . . . but most will look at their paychecks, sigh in contentment, and keep on keepin' on. Though the typical contest is running 14 minutes shorter than in '05, games still go on and on. Last week's Oregon/USC rout still took over 3 1/2 hours. Syracuse/South Florida took 209 minutes, for heaven's sake. Not a few television networks/stations wanted more commercial time during these presentations, and they got their wish. You can see it on your screen. You've endured five-minute breaks laden with back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-BACK spots. You well know who's putting you through this. One network, spectacularly-adept at getting the money, and best-known by its initials (one of which is an "S") springs immediately to mind.

Higher commercial volume remains an irritant, but it's not the only culpirit sustaining the modern horror show, The Game Which Refuses To Shorten. I'm a fan of college replay, being of the "If you can get it right, you should" school, but the majority of such replay decisions make most NFL reviews look like snap judgments. The zebras have a legitimate out, here: if it's not clearcut, the call on the field stands. After a couple of looks, it's difficult to justify sustained handwringing . . . yet another bodyblow to a game's legitimate pace. Rule, Solomon, and play on.

Heaven knows, good money was made in September by sharp players, who quickly grasped that unders were going to be the way to go, early. It took most books three full weekends to catch up with this obvious, throbbing concept. NCAA football unders maintain a slim advantage in results for shotgun players (unlike the NFL, where the "overs" are maintaining a slight edge, at this writing), but the college board's hardly the cherry patch it was, two months ago. As has long been the case in both the colleges and the NFL, excepting obvious weather-aided unders, the most certain isolated total plays still involve overs, though the player needs to be very, very selective in his approach.

'Course, what the powers-that-be COULD have done is reduced the length of college quarters to, say, 13 minutes, while leaving everything else alone. Fully expect the post-season rules-committee sessions to address the likes of the Wisky/Penn State shenanigans. But since everybody wants to get theirs, and the commercial-block sizes will resist all efforts to contain them, we'll have to like it or lump it. Thank Walter Camp that Saturday afternoons offer hosts of overlapping games, so that those with adept remote-thumb can switch themselves happy, despite the networks' determination to slow some games to a painful crawl.

Nelson Lardner

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