Philadelphia, PA – Of all the months in the year, August is the one that is filled the most with hope, optimism and excitement for the new college football season.
Those emotions come from the changes that will take place from the previous season. The new polls, the new conference alignments and the new players all play into that.
Usually the new rule changes don't register on many people's radar. Very few are concerned with the adjustment of pylon logo placement or the visibility of yard lines.
However, this season there is one drastic change that will be included that will certainly affect the product on the field. Officially added to the NCAA rule book in the spring and since dubbed the 'targeting rule', the regulation boils down to a simple goal; protecting the players.
The rule in and of itself is actually an addition to a previous rule that protects against targeting the crown of the helmet or defenseless players. Before there was just a 15-yard penalty for such an infraction. The NCAA did not feel it properly put into perspective the graveness of the situation.
Now instead of just the 15-yard penalty, the offending player can be disqualified for the remainder of the contest. If the infraction occurs in the second half that disqualification can even carry over through the first half of the next game, pending a review by the national coordinator of football officials.
In a sport that is violent by nature and has long glorified the jarring hits that get plastered across magazine covers and highlight reels, such a rule goes with the new trend in football. That trend is an increasing concern with player safety, especially in terms of mental health, which can obviously be greatly deteriorated by repeated blows to the head.
Even though such precautions are certainly a positive, there are many across the football landscape that feel these types of penalties are too restrictive or subjective.
"I'm not the only one against this rule, rules in order to be effective have to be enforceable and you've got to be able to see it," Washington State head coach Mike Leach said. "If I get these guys across the room and I have them run full speed at each other and I ask you in a split second to tell me which one lowered their head first, I bet you can't do it."
Leach's comment get right to the heart of the issue with this rule. No matter how well intentioned, the rule simply has too much gray area. Football is a game of speed and athleticism where decisions and actions are made in split seconds. Penalizing a player for making a tackle in which there was no malice but a helmet happens to hit the ball carrier could be crippling to defenses. Having to think through and change how tackles are made could be the split second difference between a run of a couple yards and a touchdown of 70.
"I understand the rule, but as a defensive player it's going to be difficult to fully adjust my game to all of that rule," UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr said. " I'm going to play within the rules that I've always played and play like I've always played, full speed and attacking. If I get penalized because of it, then so be it, but I'm going to play the way I play football."
Barr is one of the most hyped defensive players in the country entering this season, a year removed from piling up 13.5 sacks. He echoes many of the concerned sentiments of the defensive minded in the college football world.
Subjectivity like this rule creates and the type of power it gives officials, could be detrimental to players like Barr. After all referees are human beings and as such, can become emotional, especially in high pressure situations. There are times when it is clear a player was acting out of malice but there are other times when it is clear the other way.
Where this rule becomes an issue is in the plays somewhere in between. Whether or not a ball crossed a goal line or left a player's hands before his knee touches down can be determined empirically. But intention isn't something that can be visibly seen. Like Barr and others fear, there could be players sent to the showers early, who did nothing more than make the only play they could to stop the guy with the ball.
However there are positives to the rule, even if football purists complain that it weakens the game.
Stanford head coach David Shaw has built a defense that is known for its aggressive style and hard hits. Shaw is understandably wary about the rule, but also feels that with proper technique, it shouldn't be an issue.
"I think you need harsh penalties for guys that do something outside the rules of the game. At the same time we teach tackling every single day," Shaw explained. "There is nothing that's going to stop our guys for from playing the game, they love to play the game and we use the proper techniques and it needs to be emphasized, as it has been. It needs to be as safe as it can be."
A rule like this is obviously made in the name of safety. That is what should be considered most important. In a world where the NCAA has made some questionable decisions about its handling of athletes, it is a step in the right direction.