Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Rules of the Game - College Football Jersey Numbers

This past weekend, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh battled in an instant classic that took three extra periods to decide a winner. The Irish kept their perfect season alive with a 29-26 victory, while Pitt’s upset special fell just short…or more accurately, it fell wide right.

In the second OT, Pitt had the opportunity to kick a field goal that would have won them the game. However, kicker Kevin Harper pushed the 33 yard attempt wide right. His miss extended the game to the third OT where Notre Dame QB Everett Goulson ran in the game-winning TD.

That third OT probably never should have happened.

Notre Dame should have been assessed a personal foul penalty on Pitt’s missed field goal. The penalty would have resulted in an automatic first down for the Panthers at the 8 yard line, essentially guaranteeing victory for Pitt.

But why should the Irish have been assessed a personal foul penalty? They didn’t rough the kicker, didn’t rough the holder, didn’t rough the snapper, and didn’t grab a facemask.  They honestly did nothing wrong.

Notre Dame should have been flagged for having two players wearing the same jersey number at the same time.

It's obvious that two players both wearing #2 were on the
field for the defense on this critical play. The question is,
how much did that even impact the result of the play?
Didn’t notice? Look again. Two players (Chris Brown and Bennett Jackson) both wearing #2 are on the field for the big field goal attempt. This should have been flagged, giving Pitt another chance at game-winning points in the second OT.

Now tell me this…WHY IS THIS EVEN POSSIBLE!?!? As in, why do college teams even allow for this possibility to occur?

Let's break down the "jersey rule" in football.

In the NFL, players are required to wear specific numbers based on their position. For example, #1-9 is reserved for QBs and Ks. #10-19 is the same, except WRs are also allowed to wear numbers in this range. #20-49 are reserved for RBs and LBs (and some TEs in the 40s), #50-59 for LBs and centers, #60-79 for linemen, #80-89 WRs, #90-99 for DL.


This image from the 2009 version of the college football
rule book shows the "guidelines" for player jersey numbers.
The college system is similar, except there is truly no “rule” governing what number a player may wear. The only official rule is that members of the offensive line who play in ineligible positions must wear numbers 50-79. Even that “rule” is not always a requirement, in particular in punt formations where anybody can be “ineligible” as long as they establish themselves as such when the snapper touches the ball.

The rule book actually reads (Rule 1-3, Section 4, Article 1) that “It is strongly recommended that offensive players be numbered according to…” and it lists guidelines similar to the NFL’s. It requires that “Backs” are 1-49, snapper 50-59, guards 60-69, tackles 70-79, ends 80-99. So college football teams do typically follow the same pattern as the NFL, except you’ll see kickers wearing numbers like #98 or #47 because those numbers aren’t needed as much by the rest of the roster.

The most important player on each side of the ball each wear
#5 on their jersey. A bit confusing, but it sure makes for a lot
of #5 jerseys being sold in South Bend!
Since players can wear any number, you have more possibility for players to wear the number they want, no matter what position they play. Take Notre Dame for example. They have a linebacker (Manti Te’o…ever heard of him?) who wears #5, a DT (Louis Nix) who wears #9, and WRs (including #2 Chris Brown) also in the single digits. And, even worse, they allow for multiple players on the team to wear the same jersey number!

Here’s the thing though….there are 85 players allowed on a college football roster. There are 99 jersey number possibilities. WHY ARE THERE DUPLICATE NUMBERS!?!? If there’s no rule saying that a QB can’t wear #92, then why does he have to share a number with a linebacker?

Many teams can LEGALLY cause confusion using this system. For example, since many QBs will NEVER play a snap on defense or special teams, they will share a low-digit number with a defensive back. Sometimes this defensive back plays on special teams and it can appear like the QB is back to return a punt or kickoff. Now in reality a coach would realize that the QB isn’t going to be back there…but who’s to say he can’t be?  Denard Robinson went back to return a kick for Michigan a few weeks ago. Now he doesn’t share a number with a typical kick returner, but what if he did?  That deception can go from a team thinking the typical returner is out there to now a guy who can throw it literally 50 yards from sideline to sideline.

South Carolina may have used this jersey paradox to the best possible advantage back in 2009 and 2010. During that time, starting QB Stephen Garcia and CB Stephon Gilmore both wore #5 on their uniform.  Gilmore was used as a wildcat quarterback for multiple games over that two year stretch. Can you imagine the confusion when there’s a different player taking the snap but he’s wearing the same number as the previous play’s QB? Confusing, yes. Legal, yes, since at no time were both players on the field together for the same play.

If used properly, the duplicate number thing can be a strategy well-used by coaches. To me, it’s just a cheap trick (no How I Met Your Mother references here…) to deceive an opponent. I’d rather have each player be given a specific number and not care if a QB is wearing #39. That way you don’t have intentional deceptions and you don’t have possibly game-altering penalties for something that honestly causes no disruption to the play on the field (as the Pitt-Notre Dame game could have been).  It’s a rule of the game that doesn’t make sense, and I hope they just get rid of it.


  1. In fact, Golson and Te'o both wore #5 vs Boston College and two players wore #6.

  2. But never were on the field together at same time. Thus, not a penalty!


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