College football games are taking longer, and everyone, including TV, wants to fix that

There’s a touchdown. That means a timeout is coming. Here comes a replay review. Add on another couple of minutes. The offense just made a first down. So the clock stops. And uh oh, here comes that official in the red hat onto the field, the dreaded indication another TV timeout is coming.

You’re not imagining it: College football games are taking longer. And not a small amount longer.

But the television networks and their annoying timeouts aren’t to blame. Nor are the long replay reviews. It’s not even the epic weather delays, because even if you take those out the average college football game has lengthened by four minutes since 2017, now up to an average of 3 hours, 22 minutes, even though the number of plays is going down.

“Four minutes is a lot,” said NCAA coordinator of officials Steve Shaw, who tracks the data. “The why is very complex.”

Perhaps, but there is one main, overriding reason why game times have gone up so much lately: passing. The evolution of college football offenses towards being more pass-heavy leads to more scoring, which results in clock stoppages but also more first downs and more incompletions — although incompletions are also down because teams are becoming better at passing, thus leading to all those first downs, touchdowns and field goals. It’s not that teams are passing more, it’s that they’re good at it.

FBS-wide per-game averages (both teams)

Meanwhile, the number of running plays, which inherently means more times the clock will run after a play, has gone down. There were 79.0 rushes per game in 2002, then 77.6 in 2012 and 74.6 so far this season.

There’s no evidence this is going away. Passing works. And college football has already gone through a litany of tweaks to clock rules through the years, with a couple of more quick fixes perhaps coming. (More on that later.

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