Treatise on Clock Management

On the heels of the UGa/Bama game, the famous Les Miles game a few years ago and some of the other things we've seen this year, I'd like to address clock and timeout management in college football

There are a few things about college football that simply astound me. For example, when I watch a highlight from practice with coaches constantly yelling, motivating, blowing the whistle, barking instructions, etc., I am always amazed at the energy that they bring. I am also hugely impressed by the whole recruiting process which involves building a silo of potential recruits years in advance, travelling for those recruits, making your school's sales pitch and then ultimately bringing in some recruits and feeling the pain of getting spurned by others. These are activities of coaches where I say, "wow, it takes a special wiring for some people to be a coach." The average fan is clearly not even close to this level.

However, on the other hand, I don't recall one single example of thinking to myself, "wow, these college football coaches are operating at a higher level when it comes clock and timeout management."

Below are some observations on (i) what I would consider ideal clock management and (ii) what I observe in college football today.

  • Timeouts are way more valuable in the 2H than the 1H. You rarely ever see a 1H 2-minute drill in college football and thus you don't really need to focus on timeout management in the 1H. In the 2H however...
  • As such, I think it is generally a bad decision to burn a 2H timeout on a "random" drive in the 2H (eg, with the playclock running down on 2nd and 8). There are obviously some exceptions where you would want to use this timeout on the "random" 2H drive (eg, if you have a big lead, if it's like 3rd and 1, if the ball's on the opponent's ~25 yard line, others). However, in almost all other cases, I'd argue that taking the 5-yard delay of game penalty is better than burning a 2H timeout.
  • If you think of the three timeouts as a "currency," you can say that the maximum "value" that a timeout has is amount saved by stopping the clock between plays while on Defense (eg, ~45 seconds). As such, timeouts are much more valuable to use on Defense (when you can stop the entire 45 second period) vs. using a timeout on Offense (when you are only saving the time difference before spiking the ball).
  • As a result, I think the most underutilized opportunity to use timeouts is when the opponent has the ball (and the lead) with about 7 minutes left. If the Defense uses 3 timeouts during this sequence, they can get the ball back with ~6:40 left in the game (still plenty of time) as opposed to getting the ball back with like 3-4 minutes left if the clock drains (not very much time left). I think we saw this scenario in both the Syracuse and UConn games. This would allow you to "exchange" your timeouts for the maximum value (ie, ~45 seconds).
  • The biggest clock management misuse of all involves the MASSIVE advantage the offense has with the clock stopping on first downs to move the chains. During two minute drills, you see most frequently the offense making a 1st down and then slowly setting up a play with the clock wound and moving. In a game with 1 minute left, these 15 seconds of set-up time are hugely valuable and often wasted. More teams need to spike the ball right away in that scenario. I argue that the seconds on the clock are WAAAAAYYY more valuable that a single down when you have four downs to gain 10 yards. Let me paint this scenario, say the Offense makes a first down at their 40 yard line with 1-minute left in the game, would you rather (i) spike the ball and be at 2nd and 10 with :58 seconds left on the 40 yard line or (ii) set up a play and snap the ball on 1st and 10 with :42 seconds left in the game? To me, the choice is clear.
  • I am surprised there is not a time management cheat sheet showing the exact clock formula for when you are able to go into "victory formation" and knee the ball. For example, if it's 1st down and the opponent has no timeouts, then you can begin kneeing the ball at the 1:55 clock mark (I'm making the time up). Or, for example, if it's 2nd down and the opponent has 1 timeout, you can begin kneeing at the 48 second mark. Basically it's a table showing that on X down, with the opponent having Y timeouts with Z time left in the game, you can knee the ball. I have never seen or heard of this, but you would think this cheat sheet would be widely known.

I'd be curious to hear other thoughts on this, but I'm always amazed by the (i) over-use of timeouts on random 2H drives and (ii) under-use of spiking the ball on 2-minute drills.

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