The 2021 NCAA Catch-Up: New Rules & New Picks

Fall is the time for football across the US. Though many sports fans will keep working on their NFL fantasy team and following their hometown squad every Sunday, even more fans turn their eye toward their local college team.

Unlike any other sport in the world, the NCAAF has created collegiate divisions that draw in nearly as many spectators as the professional league. In 2019, the NCAAF drew in 54,142 spectators to each game, on average. The NFL drew in 66,151, barely outperforming college ball.

Still, most football fans don’t waste their time comparing leagues. Instead, they look to them for different reasons. College football is about hometown glory, the alma mater, and vanquishing cross-state rivals. It’s also the most bet-on sports league in the US, with oddsmakers offering college football picks long before the season start.

The NFL, on the other hand, is the final frontier for the NCAA’s top players, as well as the highest tier of quality talent and competition in the sport. Most bets focus on Super Bowl Sunday or predicting a league MVP.

Recent expansion teams have piqued interest in the NFL, but it’s the NCAAF that’s more often subject to changes. During an uncertain 2020 season, NCAA officials took to reworking the rule book. With ample time to reconsider arcane rules and new policies before a schedule 2022 rulebook overhaul, there’s a long list of changes not all fans may be aware of.

The Laundry List of Changes

Most of the NCAA’s policy changes are centered around rescheduling and forfeiting games. Each conference has opted for a different scheme; the SEC will allow forfeits, but won’t be rescheduling any matches. The Big Ten allows for both, so long as both teams agree to a reschedule.

Another notable shift in the NCAA is the emphasis on ‘targeting’ and other dangerous contact fouls. Officials will be looking closer than ever for target violations. The effort is part of the NCAA’s push to reduce head injury and promote player safety. However, this is likely to be one of the most contentious. (and confusing) calls seen in the 2021 season.

Other relevant rule changes cover gameplay, including:

Overtime 2-point conversions: In the past, teams were required to attempt a 2-point conversion after a touchdown if the game ran into a third overtime period. In 2021, teams must run a 2-point conversion play post-touchdown if the game is in its second overtime period. This rule change is designed to bring overtime games to a close quicker.

Clock Adjustments: In the past, Instant Replays saw clock adjustments at any point in the game. in 2021, the clock will only be adjusted after a call change via Instant Replay in the final two minutes of the second quarter and the final five minutes of the fourth quarter.

Unsportsmanlike conduct: In the past, only players and coaches were subject to violations related to unsportsmanlike conduct. In 2021, this rule will extend to certain stadium staff, including video board and lighting system operators. This is designed to limit the number of distractions for players.

Player Compensation

Arguably the biggest change in NCAA policy doesn’t cover gameplay rules. Instead, it covers player compensation. In mid-summer, the NCAA announced it would lift a ban on player compensation. Effective on July 1, the NCAA would allow college players to earn a profit from sponsorships that use their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

This is an answer to the age-old critique of college football, in which top universities like Ohio and Alabama rake in hundreds of millions in profit from elite programs. Players don’t see a dime (aside from athletic scholarships) of these earnings despite being the key reason a university’s football program succeeds. Instead, they head to the NFL in hopes of a seven-figure contract.

The NCAA policy change has seen a handful of players sign multi-million-dollar contracts. Bryce Young of Alabama has a deal with Cash App that could be worth $1 million. Meanwhile, Milo’s Sweet Tea has jumped on both sides of the Alabama-Auburn rivalry by sponsoring both Bo Nix and Malachi Moore.

Some, like Derek Stingley Jr., have opted to hire a marketing agency to handle his deals. He’s already signed with Walk-On’s, with more potential deals in the mix—but he’s wisely left it to the pros to handle his NIL campaigns.

The biggest move comes from Duck Kayvon Thibodeaux. He’s partnered with Nike big-wig Phil Knight and lead shoe designer Tinker Hatfield to create an exclusive NFT. This, coupled with a six-figure memorabilia deal with Oregon, will see Thibodeaux set himself up with industry pros who will likely push to work with him into the NFL.

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The Clemson Blood Test

Though shifts in NCAA NIL policies have many looking at player deals, many pundits are instead keeping their eye on Clemson. It’s not a new trend, as the small school has risen to unforeseen heights since Dabo Swinney took over.

However, there’s a bit more at stake this year. With star quarterback Trevor Lawrence graduated to the NFL, the Tigers will need to find their footing quickly—especially if they ever plan on being considered a blue blood talent in terms of football.

Unsurprisingly, all eyes are on Oklahoma and Alabama to compete for the national championship this year. Like other blue blood teams, they have a long history of winning for long stretches of time—regardless of how well (or poorly) they’ve done in recent years.

Consider Nebraska and Texas, which have total all-time win counts above 900. They’re still pushed to the top of most preseason Top 25 lists, from AP to Yahoo Sports, despite their weak records in recent years. Clemson, with a total all-time win count of 768, is coming close to earning its place amongst blue blood NCAA teams.

Still, most of this could rely on Swinney’s leadership and isn’t promised to continue when the head coach leaves for green pastures. The 2021 season will be a pivotal look into what Swinney can do now that he’s without the elite quarterback he groomed into stardom—but just as much of the Tigers’ fate could lie in the hands of its marketing department.

Consider blue blood teams that have no record-based right to be heralded as top football programs due to recent season records, including Texas A&M and Notre Dame. The schools are known for being ‘football schools’, and have the associated branding, insignias, and mottos to emulate success on the gridiron.