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Is Increased Pace Of Play Leading To More Injuries?

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The pace of play was a contentious subject between college football coaches this spring. CFBMatrix gathered some data to find out if there's a link between up-tempo offenses and player injuries. What they found is shocking.

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Kevin C. Cox

Before the Oklahoma could get the Schooner back on the trailer after their depantsing of the Crimson Tide in the Sugar Bowl, Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban was lobbying the NCAA to slow down the game. Cowering behind a thin veil made of player safety concerns, he pushed for a 10 Second Rule. The proposed rule stated that if an offense were to snap the ball before the play clock read 29 seconds it would be some sort of backwoods, 5-yard, delay-of-game penalty.

"I don't care about getting blamed for this. That's part of it," Saban told ESPN.com in March. "But I do think that somebody needs to look at this very closely.

The Sooners and their up-tempo offense embarrassed the Tide on national TV. Alabama and their old-man-style of football is losing it's grasp around the throat of college football, but Saban claims he's only looking out for player safety concerns.

"The fastball guys say there's no data out there, and I guess you have to use some logic. What's the logic? If you smoke one cigarette, do you have the same chances of getting cancer if you smoke 20? I guess there's no study that specifically says that. But logically, we would say, 'Yeah, there probably is.'" Saban explained.

Using the facade what's best for the players, Saban and fellow SEC coach Bret Bielema, Head Coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks, spent most of the off-season trying to convince anyone that would listen that the game needs to slow down.

"Not to get on the coattails of some of the other coaches, there is a lot of truth that the way offensive philosophies are driven now, there's times where you can't get a defensive substitution in for 8, 10, 12 play drives," Bielema said during SEC spring meetings. "That has an effect on safety of that student-athlete, especially the bigger defensive linemen, that is really real."

What's really real, is former Big 12 member, and proponent of the hurry-up, Missouri just faced Gus Malzahn and Auburn's version of the spread in the 2013 SEC Championship. The no-huddle spread offense has announced it's arrival in the SEC, and it has Saban and Bielema checking their underwear every time they leave the film room.

Not surprisingly, a few coaches around the country don't agree with the duo's unsubstantiated claims.

"Let's not distort the facts because of your personal agenda," Arizona Head Coach Rich Rodriguez said in a pretty fantastic YouTube video.

"Makes no sense," said Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney via ESPN.com, "hide behind player safety is wrong because it's just not factual."

"I just know this, OK," Mizzou Coach Gary Pinkel said while attending SEC Media Days. "Never once in all those years in the fastest league I think that plays football, in the Big 12 did I have my team doctor, my trainer, any of my coordinators walk into my office and say, 'I'm concerned about the health of our football team.' It didn't happen ever. Didn't happen last year or the year before."

"The offense ought to have the opportunity to go up and snap it. If the offensive line is in better shape than their defensive line?", said LSU's Les Miles during SEC Media Days. "Oh my goodness. That would be unusual, wouldn't it? So the idea that it has really anything to do with injuries is a joke."

The NCAA was forced to table the proposed 10 Second Rule. For good reason too, the no-huddle offense has brought parity and excitement to college football like it's never seen before. Teams like Oklahoma State, Oregon, Baylor, and Clemson have risen from the depths of despair to challenge for conference crowns and more. Even teams like Arizona, Arizona State, and NC State are making things interesting.

Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy hit the nail on the head when he Tweeted, "College Football is constantly evolving. Coaches have to make adjustments based on their team, their talents and their opponents."

It's simple really, either change with the sport, or get left behind.

At the risk of becoming the laughing stock of America, Saban continues to try and protect his antiquated ways, but insists he's only concerned about player safety.

"Everybody's trying to characterize what I'm trying to say and crawl into my head, but I can't emphasize enough that the player safety issue is what's at issue here." Saban said in March.

Is there a player safety concern though? The good folks over at CFBMatrix decided to collect some data, in order to find out if there was any truth to Saban's and Bielema's bemoaning.

Comparing 2012 Pace of Play Stats to Starts Lost to Injury By Conference
Starts Lost
Offense
Plays
Per Game
Starts Lost
Defense
Plays
Defended
Per Game
Starts Lost
Total
Plays Faced
Per Game
Starts Lost
Per Play
BIG 12 59 78.6 79 77.6 138 156.2 0.0069
PAC 12 112 77.6 102 78.4 214 157.1 0.0089
ACC 102 78.0 140 78.0 242 156.0 0.0102
SEC 165 72.9 124 74.6 289 147.5 0.0109
BIG TEN 161 75.4 103 76.6 264 150.9 0.0114

Not only do the stats say increased pace of play is not contributing to more injuries, it actually shows conferences snapping the ball more frequently have less injuries. Like significantly less. In 2012 the Big 12 Conference snapped the ball almost 9 times more a game than the SEC, but has around 40% fewer injuries per play.

The correlation continues when you expanded the data over the time period the up-tempo offense exploded in popularity.

2009 - 2012 Pace of Play Stats Compared to Starts Lost to Injury By Conference
Starts Lost
Offense
Plays
Per Game
Starts Lost
Defense
Plays
Defended
Per Game
Starts Lost
Total
Plays Faced
Per Game
Starts Lost
Per Play
BIG 12 317 81.4 278 81.1 595 162.4 0.0065
PAC 12 464 76.9 484 78.2 948 155.3 0.0109
ACC 485 76.5 576 77.3 1061 153.7 0.0112
SEC 538 73.9 560 75.8 1098 149.7 0.0114
BIG TEN 565 76.1 439 76.3 1004 152.1 0.0112

From 2009 to 2012, the Big 12 played the most amount of downs per game, but also had the fewest lost starts to injury. The PAC 12 ran the second most amount of plays, and had the second fewest amount of injuries... You can see where this is going.

There is something else that indicates the strength of the relationship between the two stats. The Big 12 easily leads in number of plays, and similarly has a large lead in fewest injuries. Meanwhile, 2-4, and even 5th run closer to the same number of plays, and the injuries per play maintains the roughly the same spacing.

As CFBMatrix aknowledges, a full study is needed, but so far it's evident there is a connection between the styles of offense and injuries. It's just not the connection Nick and Bret keep claiming. I wonder if they would now be willing to advocate to shorten the play clock? You know... for the players' safety.

The CFBMatrix Pace of Play Summary Report