College Football Rules In Focus: Two End Zones, Two Sets Of Rules

Earlier this week, The Student Section looked at other inconsistencies built into college football’s current rule structure. On Monday, we looked at the difference between run-based possession and pass-based possession in the end zone, and how the two were interpreted. On Wednesday, we examined another point of curiosity in the college football rulebook: Some unrecovered fumbles near the goal line are different from others, especially in terms of whether they result in a change of possession or not.

Today, our series on the inconsistencies in college football’s rules concludes with a look at the two end zones.

Sure, they have the same dimensions. They’re 10 yards deep and 53 yards wide. They both have four corners with orange pylons. They both have a goal line on the front end, an end line on the back end, and two sidelines. Teams score six points when they advance the ball into them. Goal posts are placed right behind the end zone, with the crossbar being on the beginning of the end line.

Yet, these two end zones are not treated the same by college football’s on-field rules — not, at least, in a number of situations.


On October 26, 2012, Louisville head coach Charlie Strong couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

As this story documents, a Cincinnati punt returner muffed a Louisville punt at the 10-yard line. The ball rolled into the end zone, where Cincinnati recovered it.

Safety, right? Charlie Strong thought so, as did plenty of fans on #CollegeFootballTwitter.

I watched this game (it was a Friday primetime game with conference-championship significance, after all), and I knew that as I followed along on Twitter, almost everyone on my timeline was going to think that the play was a safety.

However, I knew better — I had seen this play occur a year earlier, also on a televised Friday night game.

Check out this video from the 2011 Hawaii-San Jose State game. Fast forward to the 2:20 mark:

You’ll notice that when the highlight concludes and the next highlight begins at 2:35 in the video, the score hasn’t changed.

YES, it’s true: A kickoff returner muffed the kickoff outside the end zone, with the ball rolling into the end zone. The very same kickoff returner then picked up the ball, gaining full possession of it, only to then fumble out of the back of the end zone.

The play, as you can see, was (properly) ruled a touchback.

I thought the officials committed a horrible error, but no, it’s the rulebook which is at fault, and it’s at fault not just for being inconsistent, but for being vague as well. Here’s Rule 7, Section 6, Article 1, on page FR-84 of the rulebook:

“It is a touchback when:

a. The ball becomes dead out of bounds behind a goal line, except from an
incomplete forward pass, or becomes dead in the possession of a player on,
above or behind his own goal line and the attacking team is responsible for
the ball being there.”

You’ll notice the word “responsible” in that explanation. What does it mean to be “responsible” for the ball being on or behind the goal line? Here is the (somewhat) clarifying passage on FR-84 in Rule 7, Section, 7, Article 1 (which in shorthand, could be referred to as Rule 7-7-1):

“The team responsible for the ball being out of bounds behind a
goal line or being dead in the possession of a player on, above or behind a goal
line is the team whose player carries the ball or imparts an impetus to it that
forces it on, above or across the goal line, or is responsible for a loose ball being
on, above or behind the goal line.”

It’s bizarre and foolish, but it is true: If you’re responsible for a muff and/or fumble on a kick, you are responsible for the ball being on or behind your own goal line, or out of your own end zone through the sideline or the end line. As a punishment for being responsible for this mess…

… you are given not just the ball back, but you’re given the relief of a touchback and possession at the 20- or 25-yard line.

Some kind of punishment. No wonder Charlie Strong was incredulous.


Just think about this simple and profound inconsistency: If you fumble the ball at your opponent’s 1-yard line and the ball hits the pylon, you surrender possession to the other team, and that other team gets a touchback as well. On the other hand, if you muff and fumble a kickoff, causing the ball to go out of the back of your own end zone, you do not surrender possession, and YOU (your team) is rewarded with a touchback.

The offensive end zone, the one a team is driving toward, is treated in one way, with extremely punitive measures given to offensive teams as they try to score touchdowns.

The defensive end zone, the one near which teams start as they field kickoffs or punts, is treated in an entirely different way. Noticeably generous outcomes are granted to kick returners who utterly fail to do their jobs properly. It makes no sense.

Yet, this is the college football rulebook we have, not the one we wish to have, as Donald Rumsfeld might say.

The next time you see a muffed punt recovered by the receiving team in its own end zone, and the next time you see a kickoff fumbled out of the receiving team’s own end zone, don’t expect a safety to be ruled.

First, you won’t get that call. Second, the rules of college football, as currently written, don’t allow for it.

Consistent rules and rule-based principles? Not in this sport.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |