At lunch recently, a few of us were discussing tiebreakers, specifically, the different ways the NCAA and the NFL conduct overtime.
Here’s some background:
The National Football League began an effort to prevent games from ending in a tie score in 1974—50 years ago next season.
For 37 years deadlocked teams played an extra 15-minute period of sudden death—first team to score wins, even if only one team plays offense. A coin toss decided who got the ball first.
In 2012 the league finally decided that both teams should have a chance on offense—unless the team with the ball first scored a touchdown on that possession (not just a field goal) or the team on defense somehow scored on that initial possession.
And six years ago, the 15-minute overtime was reduced to 10.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association introduced tiebreaking—in a completely different format—in the 1995-96 bowl season, followed by the 1996 regular season.
The basis of college football overtime, which has never changed, is: Each team gets the ball on the 25-yard line and maintains possession until it scores or fails to make a first down in four plays (same as regulation football), lose possession via a pass interception or fumble, or miss a field goal attempt.
Both teams get an equal number of opportunities to score, alternating possessions continuing until the tie is broken.
Initially, teams could kick the extra point after touchdowns in each of the first two possessions, then were required to attempt a two-point conversion after a third touchdown.
Only if the game remained tied after each team had four possessions would the teams then be required to go straight to two-point conversion attempts without first scoring a touchdown. The alternating two-point plays would continue until the tie was broken.
In 2021 the rules changed, requiring a two-point conversion attempt after a touchdown on the second possession, and mandating alternating two-point conversion attempts beginning with the third set of possessions.
So far this season, 11 pro games have gone to overtime. (The Broncos have won or lost all of their games in the regulation 60 minutes of play.)
Last weekend, nine college games went into extra time, the most of any week this season. Through 11 weeks, 57 games have been decided by the NCAA’s tiebreaker approach.
In case you’re wondering about local impact:
Coach Prime’s CU Buffs have played two overtime games this season, beating Colorado State and losing to Stanford (ugh!).
The CSU Rams have had only that bitter experience in Boulder, and only one Air Force game has been decided by fewer than 10 points.
Wyoming opened its season with a 35-33 upset of Texas Tech in two overtime periods.
And Colorado Mesa beat a Football Championship Subdivision team (formerly Division One) for the first time in more than two decades by knocking off the University of San Diego 28-21 in OT in the second week of the 2023 season.
A few other tidbits:
The first NCAA overtime game was the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl. Toledo kicked a field goal for the only points in extra time to beat Nevada 40-37.
The longest overtime college game so far this season was Indiana’s 29-27 victory over Akron in four extra periods—decided by a trick-play two-point conversion.
The longest overtime college game in history was a 20-18 victory by Illinois over Penn State that took NINE periods. (Regulation ended 10-10.)
Two National Championships have been decided in overtime: Ohio State over Miami 31-24 in 2003, and Alabama 26-23 over Georgia in 2018.
The issue in that lunch discussion I mentioned was, “Which type of tiebreaker is better?” You are welcome to your opinion.
I guess I’m a purist. I think football games should be decided the same way in overtime that they’re contested in regulation. So, I vote for the NFL model. If 10 minutes of extra play doesn’t decide things, so be it.
One can argue that the college model still requires teams to play football as they did during regulation. To that, I say, “except for starting every possession in scoring position.”
That’s why I detest the ghost runner on second base to start every extra inning in Major League baseball, and shootouts in the National Hockey League after one brief overtime period goes scoreless.
To me, basketball at all levels does it right: Play on!
Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at firstname.lastname@example.org.