Why I love college football's overtime system

It's weird, it's wacky -- and it beats the hell out of the NFL's version, in which a coin toss can be the key play.

By King Kaufman

Published November 6, 2002 5:48PM (EST)

College football's overtime system, which gives each team a first and 10 at the opposing 25-yard line, with the first team to have a lead after a pair of possessions declared the winner, is a crock, a bastardization of real football, a victory for the everybody-gets-a-trophy culture that says fans can't be satisfied with a deliciously, tantalizingly frustrating tie because they paid their money and they must be granted closure, given a winner and a loser, even if that means subverting the very integrity of the game.

And I love it! Don't you? It's fabulous.

There was only one overtime game in Division 1-A this week, a 49-48 single-OT win by Nevada-Las Vegas over Wyoming that I'm going to guess you didn't see. I didn't either. Too bad. It sounded like a wild one, with the teams combining for 1,156 yards and 14 touchdowns. Wyoming, having tied the game 42-42 with a touchdown and a two-point conversion with no time remaining in regulation, scored first in overtime, but missed the extra point. Vegas then scored a touchdown and won on the PAT.

Compare that with the only overtime game of the weekend in the NFL, which plays one 15-minute period of sudden death. The San Francisco 49ers beat the Oakland Raiders 23-20. The Niners won the toss, elected to receive, drove to the 10-yard line and kicked a chip-shot field goal. The overtime lasted eight minutes, 41 seconds, the Raiders never touched the ball and the game ended with a whimper.

"One of the biggest plays of the day," observed Fox TV announcer Joe Buck, "was the overtime coin flip."

Thousands of kids rushed home from the game, burst in the front door and panted, "Hey, Ma, what a game! You should have seen that coin toss!"

The NFL's sudden death system has got to go, because so much weight is placed on the toss of a coin. About one in four overtime games ends with the losing team having had no chance on offense. To be fair, I'll admit that the team that wins the overtime toss wins the game only a little more than half the time, according to NFL figures, but the system leaves a bad taste when one team doesn't get its licks because it said "heads" instead of "tails."

An unscientific online poll by USA Today last month found that about 60 percent of fans favor changing the NFL overtime rules to allow both teams a chance at the ball. I suspect that this number wasn't higher because pro football fans are afraid that the alternative to sudden death would be the college system (also used in high school ball), which a lot of fans deride as "not real football."

It isn't. And that's the best thing about it.

When the NCAA adopted the overtime format in 1996, I wasn't too thrilled. It's not real football, I grumbled. It nearly removes special teams, which can play a huge role in regulation, from the equation. There are still field goals, but they can only win the game if the first team to have the ball has failed to score. Place kicking doesn't have the all-consuming importance it takes on at the end of regulation or in sudden death.

The format also distorts statistics. In the longest game to date, Arkansas' 58-56 win over Mississippi in seven OTs last year (each pair of possessions is one overtime), Eli Manning of Ole Miss threw five touchdown passes in overtime, and that final score didn't reflect the defensive flavor of the game, which was 17-17 after four quarters.

And besides, what's wrong with a tie? The possibility of a tie leads to agonizing coaching decisions in the fourth quarter. Tech has just scored a touchdown in the closing seconds and trails arch-rival State by a point. Should the Techsters go for the easy extra point and the tie, or the much more difficult two-point conversion and a glorious big-game victory? But oh, the torture of that loss if the try fails!

There's often something horribly wonderful about a tie, about being left with that ambiguous feeling, wondering if that was a win kind of tie or a loss kind of tie. In the most exciting college football game I ever saw, the home team, a heavy underdog, rallied from a 30-3 halftime deficit and was driving downfield with the score tied at 33 when time ran out. The crowd didn't know whether to cheer, cry or fall over exhausted.

I resented having that potential for ambiguity removed from the game, but it didn't take me long to come around. The fact is, a college football overtime is one of the most exciting situations in sports. Like a baseball game, it can theoretically last forever. As long as "Team B," as the rulemakers call the team that starts an overtime session on defense, matches Team A, they play on. And they're playing in an atmosphere of end-of-game excitement that isn't dampened by having to manage the clock, which means calling timeouts and limiting the offense to sideline plays.

And yeah, special teams play a big part in regulation, but it's the most boring part. I know it's called FOOTball and everything, but officials should be working overtime trying to figure out how to remove the kicking game from the sport. A punt return for a touchdown is exciting, but it only happens, on average, about once every eight games. Most punts either roll dead or out of bounds, are fair caught for no return or are returned a few yards. If you need me, I'll be making a sandwich. Kickoffs aren't much more interesting. More are returned, but with rare exceptions over the course of a season, if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all. A field goal might just be the most boring play in sports, with the possible exception of a basketball free throw, which doesn't take nearly as long to set up or recover from.

Blocked punts and field goals, or muffed attempts, can be exciting, but only because at the moment the kick is blocked or fumbled, the play turns into a non-kicking play, a wild scramble for a loose ball, and then possibly a runback with a pretty good chance for a score. When everything goes the way it's supposed to go, special teams suck.

What you get in college overtime is offense and defense, and all of it in that part of the field where a score is immediately attainable. The fans are on their feet and the people on the field deciding the game are the people who have played the biggest roles in the game, not some pipsqueak who was cut from the soccer team and whose toughest assignment for most of the afternoon has been staying warm. And about those distorted statistics? Who cares?

The only flaw in the college overtime rules is that a team can kick a field goal without having made a first down. It's easy enough to require that a first down precede any field goal attempt, though if you're going to leave it to me, I'm going to mandate that you have two choices: score a touchdown or give up the ball on downs.

Even with field goals, though, college football overtime is pure, sustained excitement. It's not real football, no indeed. It's better.

King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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