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Football far removed from days of drawing plays in dirt

HUNTSVILLE – Welcome to college football bowl season in the 21st century.

The topics of eligibility and, except in the case of Florida State, injury have given way to opt outs and transfer portals. Old-fashioned sign stealing has given way to espionage. Coaches no longer need certain players to come near to hear a play or scheme.

In Nashville this week at the Music City Bowl, one topic of discussion was whether or not each team would use helmet communication. Maryland will, Auburn won’t.

Meanwhile, across the country in California, iPads became a conversation piece when Alabama players revealed they were barred from taking iPads home while preparing for its CFP semifinal Rose Bowl clash against Michigan.

As for the comms technology, the NCAA is allowing teams in 14 bowls outside the CFP to use it a la the NFL, including the Music City Bowl. Teams also will have at their disposal sideline tablets to review replays, also used in the NFL. Some high schools use comms.

For bowl season, the NCAA is allowing up to six players to have helmet communication. Maryland plans to use two for offense and defense and at least one for special teams.

While Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze says he hopes the NCAA adopts these technologies permanently, the Tigers aren’t using helmet comms against the Terrapins. Auburn will utilize the sideline tablets.

“It was just a lot of things in a short amount of time to try to process,” he said. “I said, ‘Look, I’m OK. We’ve signaled now for 12 games. I think we’ll be OK for a bowl game.’ It doesn’t bother me at all if Maryland chooses to do that. It just felt like an awful lot of conversations were having to be had, and I was in the middle of recruiting and trying to get ready for a bowl game, and I didn’t want to meet with these different manufacturers. I just said, ‘It’s just not that important to me for a bowl game.’”

Both teams had to agree on using helmet comms. Auburn rejected it but agreed to let Maryland do so. In comparison, both Ohio State and Missouri agreed not to use the devices in the Cotton Bowl. 

“December’s got enough challenges,” Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz said. “For us to try to communicate on the sideline and get the communication in was something that just didn’t make a lot of sense for us.”

The iPad issue is nothing more than a case of security in light of events that have unfolded at Michigan this season. Michigan has been embroiled in the sign-stealing, spying investigation involving Connor Stalions in a scandal that cost Wolverines head coach Jim Harbaugh a three-game suspension. 

A USA Today story relayed that “multiple Alabama players said that the coaching staff had been restricting them from bringing their iPads home to review practice film and were only watching collectively in position groups as a security precaution.”

However, sign-stealing allegations against Michigan evolved around Stalions using a network of confidants to film future opponents’ sidelines during games. In-person scouting is prohibited by NCAA rules.

It seems the potential for espionage spooked the Crimson Tide staff.

“It was just, you know, what Michigan’s known for, what they have out there just with the play call-stealing, so we don’t want to play into that,” Alabama running back Jase McClellan said.

Football sure has come a long way from drawing plays in the dirt.


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