Football Rules

In order to create, manage or coach an effective football team it's important to know the official rules. However, be sure and check with your local organization as rules may vary. The following information is gleaned from the Official NCAA 2009-10 Football Rules and Interpretations, which meet or exceed NFHS rules.

Summary of contents: There are 12 rules for college football, one of which defines common football terms. Rules include players and equipment, formation (layout of the teams), playing field dimensions and markings, handling of the ball (catches, kicks and passes), live and dead ball, starting and stopping of plays, scoring, player and officials conduct, fouls and penalties, officials' duties, and provisions regarding instant play.

  1. The Game, Field, Players and Equipment
  2. Definitions
  3. Periods, Time Factors, and Substitutions
  4. Ball in Play, Dead Ball, Out of Bounds
  5. Series of Downs, Line to Gain
  6. Kicks
  7. Snapping and Passing the Ball
  8. Scoring
  9. Conduct
  10. Penalty Enforcements
  11. Officials' Duties
  12. Instant Replay
Rule 1: The Game, Field, Players and Equipment

This rule is divided into four sections detailing the general provisions for the game, the dimensions of the field and its markings and areas, uniform and personal equipment, and equipment used to section off the field.

General Provisions

The game is played between two teams, maximum 11 players per team. Illegal formation foul occurs when: 1. At least four Team A players are not on either side of the kicker, and 2. when at the snap, at least five players numbered 50-79 are not on the offensive scrimmage line and at least four players are not in the backfield; see rules for exceptions.

Goal lines are set at opposite ends of the playing field, and teams gain points by either running, kicking, or passing the ball across the goal line. The team having the larger score at the end of the game, including extra periods, wins. The referee determines the end of the game.

Games are supervised by up to seven officials; the use of extra judges is optional. Officials include: referee, umpire, linesman, and line judge. Back judge, field judge and side judges are optional.

Four players per team are assigned as team captains. All persons are subject to the rules.

The Playing Field: See publication for diagram details, lines and markings.

Markers and obstructions should not be a hazard to players.

No materials or devices may be placed on the field to prevent normal wear or give one team an advantage over the other.

The Ball

The ball must:

Players and Playing Equipment

This section details jersey numbers, colors, construction of uniforms, player and field equipment.

See Football Uniform Decoration Rules

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Rule 2: Definitions

See Football Glossary and Terms

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Rule 3: Periods, Time Factors, and Substitutions

This rule is divided into five sections. Section 1 explains the start of periods. Main points include:

  1. Halves begin with kickoff. The referee determines which team will kickoff with a coin toss at midfield in the presence of no more than four captains per team and a game official. See rule 3 for details.
  2. Between periods teams shall defend opposite goal lines, with ball relocated at a point corresponding, relative to goal lines and side lines, to a location at the end of the preceding period. Possession, downs, and distance gained will remain the same.
  3. The NCAA tie-breaker system will be used in the case of ties following periods.

See rules for details.

Section 2 discusses playing time and intermissions. Main points include:

  1. Intercollegiate game lasts one hour and is divided into four 15-minute periods.
  2. Periods end when the ball is declared dead.
  3. Intermission is 20 minutes. Team officials may agree to modify times.
  4. A period may be extended under certain circumstances.
  5. Timing devices include game clock, 40-second clock, and 25-second clock.

Section 3 is about timeouts, and starting and stopping the clock. Main points:

  1. Clock is stopped when a timeout is charged, or under other circumstances. Charged timeouts cannot exceed 90 seconds, unless it's a live, televised game.
  2. Game clock begins on a free-kick when ball is legally contacted or crosses goal.
  3. Game clock stops when the ball is declared dead.
  4. Clock begins when the ball is legally snapped on a scrimmage down.
  5. Game clock is stopped but resumed with a snap after a score, touchback, ball goes out-of-bounds with fewer than 2 minutes remaining in a half, a forward pass is ruled incomplete, team is given a charged timeout, the ball becomes illegal, violation is called for illegal equipment, legal kick down ends, a return kick is made, scrimmage kick is made beyond the neutral zone, Team A commits a foul while in scrimmage formation, or when a period ends.
  6. Other reasons the game clock may be stopped include: injury, penalties, fumbles, discretionary timeouts, delays, ball comes into possession of an official, media timeouts, or other interruptions that necessitate a timeout.

Suspension of the game may occur under certain circumstances, and a team may request a charged timeout under certain circumstances. See rules for details.

Delays: Players must be prompt and on the field of play at the beginning of each half. Illegal delays result in penalties.

Substitutions: May legally replace regular players between periods, after a score or try, or between downs.

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Rule 4: Ball in Play, Dead Ball, Out of Bounds

A ball becomes live when it is legally snapped or free-kicked. A live ball becomes dead when an official sounds the horn or legally declares it dead. Circumstances under which the ball may become dead include:

  1. When the ball goes out of bounds or carrier's progress is stopped.
  2. Any part of the carrier's body except hands and feet touches the ground, or carrier is tackled or loses possession of the ball.
  3. A touchdown, touchback, safety, field goal, or successful try occurs or unsuccessful field goal attempt crosses the neutral zone and remains untouched by Team B, lands in their end zone, or goes out of bounds.
  4. A try fails.
  5. Free or scrimmage kick crosses neutral zone after kicking team catches or recovers it.
  6. Such a kick comes to rest and no one secures it.
  7. Kicks involving invalid fair catch signals.
  8. Return or scrimmage kicks go beyond neutral zone.
  9. Forward pass touches the ground.
  10. Certain situations where team A fumbles are caught or recovered by another team A player.
  11. Live ball not in possession touches something inbounds other than player, his equipment, an official or official's equipment.
  12. Simultaneous catch or recovery of live ball.
  13. Live ball becomes illegal.
  14. Airborne receiver is prevented from returning to the ground.

See rules for further details.

Players have 25-40 seconds to put ball into play after it is ready for play unless play is suspended.

Player is considered out of bounds when any part of his body touches anything other than another player or game official while on or outside the boundary line.

A ball in possession becomes out of bounds when either the ball or the carrier touches the ground or anything on our outside boundary line other than player or game official.

A ball not in player possession is out of bounds when it touches the ground or another player, official, or anything else on or outside the boundary line.

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Rule 5: Series of Downs, Line to Gain

A series of four consecutive scrimmage downs are awarded to the team next to put ball in play by a snap, or other circumstances that starts play.

Line to gain for a series is established 10 yards ahead of the most forward point of where the ball became dead, unless the line is in the opponent's end zone in which case the goal line becomes the line to gain. The most forward point of the ball between the end lines determines distance gained or lost by a team during a down.

In some cases, the continuity of a series of downs is broken; see rules.

Section 2 explains fouls and penalties that may occur during a down or change of team possession, between downs and series. See rules for details.

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Rule 6: Kicks

Free Kicks

In any case of free kick formation, the yard line through the most forward point from which the ball is kicked becomes the kicking team's restraining line. The receiving team's restraining line is 10 yards beyond that point. In the case of a kickoff, the kicking team's restraining line is its 30-yard-line. Free kicks after a safety is its 20-yard-line.

Free kick formation balls must be kicked from team A's restraining line and on or between the inbound lines.

Team A players may not touch a free kick ball until after it touches a team B player, goes beyond team B's restraining line, or touches player, ground, or official or anything beyond team B's restraining line.

If a free kick comes to rest inbounds and is not secured by another player the ball becomes dead.

If a free kick is caught or recovered by the receiving team, the ball remains in play. If caught or recovered by the kicking team it becomes dead and belongs to the receiving team, with exceptions.

When opposing players simultaneously recover a rolling or free kick, the ball becomes dead. See rule for further details.

A free kick that goes out of bounds between goal lines and is untouched by team B player is a foul. When a free kick goes out of bounds between the goal lines the ball belongs to the receiving team at the inbounds point. If it goes out behind the goal line, ball becomes the team defending the goal line.

A scrimmage kick not crossing the neutral zone remains in play. Kicking team's inbounds players may not touch a scrimmage kick that has crossed the neutral zone before it touches an opponent or it's considered a violation. If a scrimmage kick crosses the neutral zone and touches an inbounds player, any player may catch or recover it. A player blocked by an opponent into such a scrimmage kick cannot while inbounds be considered to have touched the kick.

If a scrimmage kick is caught or recovered by a player of the receiving team the ball remains in play. The ball becomes dead when a player of the kicking team catches or recovers a scrimmage kick that has crossed the neutral zone and the ball belongs to the receiving team at the dead-ball spot, with exceptions.

See rules for details about kicks going between or beyond the goal line, legal and illegal kicks, illegal touching, out-of-bounds players, and fouls by the kicking team.

Interfering with a player of the receiving team legally attempting to catch a kick is interference foul. See rules for details.

Fair Catch

When a team B player makes a fair catch, the ball is dead and becomes team B's ball. Any interference in a fair catch is a foul. Fair catch is given to a player who after muffing the kick can still complete the catch, but ends when the ball touches the ground. Rules for fair catch apply when the scrimmage kick crosses the neutral zone or during a free kick. The fair catch provision is intended to protect the receiver who, after a valid signal, agrees that neither he nor a teammate will advance after the catch. Ball is put back in play by a snap by receiving team. See details regarding valid signals, illegal blocks and contacts.

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Rule 7: Snapping and Passing the Ball

Play starts with a legal snap, with exception. The ball can not be snapped between an inbounds line and the nearer sideline. See rules that apply for when after the ball is ready for play and before the ball is snapped, and penalties regarding illegal snaps, shifts, and false starts.

The defensive team requirements between ball being ready for play and a snap include:

  1. No player may touch the ball unless it's moved illegally, and no player may interfere with an opponent.
  2. Players may not enter the neutral zone causing offensive lineman to react or cause dead ball foul.
  3. Players may not use words or signals that interrupt opponents preparing to put ball in play.
  4. Players aligned within one yard of scrimmage may not attempt anything that would cause a false start.
  5. No player may be in or beyond the neutral zone at a snap, and all players must be inbounds.
  6. Players may not hand the ball forward except during a scrimmage down under certain circumstances.
  7. Team A players may not advance loose ball near the snapper.
  8. During a live ball, a carrier may hand or pass the ball backward except to intentionally throw the ball out of bounds.
  9. Play continues when a backward pass or fumble is caught by inbounds player, with exceptions.
  10. A hand-to-hand snap received by an offensive lineman is illegal.
  11. A backward pass stopping inbounds without being secured by a player is a dead ball.
  12. A legal forward pass is made by team A during scrimmage downs before team possession changes, with exceptions. See rules for illegal forward passes, and "eligibility" circumstances.
  13. A forward pass is complete when it's caught by a player of the inbounds passing team and the ball remains in play, with exceptions.
  14. A forward pass in incomplete if the ball goes out of bounds or if it touches the ground and is not controlled by a player. See rules for other provisions regarding incomplete passes, pass interferences and illegal contacts, ineligible receiver downfield, and illegal touching.

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Rule 8: Scoring

Point values are:

Touchdowns are awarded when the carrier of a live ball crosses the opponent's goal line, a player catches a forward pass in the opponent's end zone, fumbles or passes are recovered, caught or intercepted or awarded in the opponent's end zone, with exceptions. Or when a free or scrimmage kick is legally caught or recovered in the opponent's end zone, or the referee legally awards a team a touchdown.

Try downs are awarded when a try results in what would otherwise be a touchdown, with exceptions.

See rules for other scoring opportunities including field goals, safety, and touch backs.

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Rule 9: Conduct

Flagrant fouls by those subject to the rules can result in personal fouls or disqualification.

Acts of misconduct include: Striking, tripping, clipping an opponent, running into or roughing a kicker or holder of a kick, or illegally interfering with the ball, a player, or official, while game is in play. See rules for exceptions, details, and penalties.

Unsportsmanlike conduct by players and officials resulting in fouls include: Use of abusive, obscene, or threatening language or gestures, or "acts that provoke ill will or are demeaning to an opponent, to game officials, or to the image of the game". For details, and additional prohibited acts, see rules.

For information regarding penalty enforcements, see Rule 10.

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Rule 10: Penalty Enforcements

See official rules for details of penalty enforcements.

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Rule 11: Officials' Duties

Officials arrive one hour before kickoff, and duties end when the final score is given.

Each game is supervised by four to seven officials. Details about their responsibilities are published in the Football Officials Manual, under the Collegiate Commissioners Association. Officials are expected to abide by the rules in the manual.

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Rule 12: Instant Replay

Videos are made of the game in order to review plays for the purpose of confirming, reversing, or retaining on-field decisions made by officials. It is assumed that decisions are correct, unless the video convinces officials that a ruling was incorrect. Without the instant replay, whatever ruling was made on the field stands.

All institutions are allowed but not required to use instant replay, but anyone opting for it must comply with rules. Elements reviewed generally include: scoring, passes, dead or loose balls, kicks, number of players on a team during a live ball, and downs. See rules for further details, including procedures for reversing an on-field decision.



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