Know your 2012 rule changes

A new college football season kicks off on Thursday, and before you settle in for a long weekend of Big Ten action, you should know some of the new rules for the 2012 season. Here's an overview of some of the changes:

1. Kickoffs/Punts. You probably already know about this one. Kickoffs will be moving to the 35-yard line, and a touchback will give the ball to the offense at the 25 instead of the 20. Receiving teams can also call for a fair catch on onside/squib kicks on the first bounce, and if so the kicking team can not make contact until the ball hits the ground twice.

On punts, defenders can no longer try to jump over the punt shield blockers, or they will be flagged for a personal foul.

The goal of both rules is to reduce head injuries. The hope is that some of the high-speed collisions on kickoffs will be avoided and that players going for onside kicks aren't barreled over. The punt rule has two objectives.

"Going over the top of the punt protector and landing on top of them, it’s not only the people that are blocking going high, it’s the guy who’s actually trying to block the kick," Big Ten coordinator of officials Bill Carollo said earlier this summer. "He’s getting flipped over in mid-air and landing on his neck, and that’s a very dangerous play."

Kickoff strategy -- namely whether teams try to pin opponents with kicks just outside the goal line or whether receivers decide more frequently to take the touchback because of the extra five yards -- will be very interesting to watch in Week 1. Teams with great kickoff returners -- like Purdue's Raheem Mostert, Nebraska's Ameer Abdullah and Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire -- may see those weapons neutralized a bit.

"It may be an 'ooh and ah' play for the fans," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "but at the end of the day, as someone who covered kicks and has been on kickoff return teams and had his lips knocked off, I'd much rather be playing under the current rules."

2. Helmets coming off: This is the rule change that could prove the most controversial.

If a player loses his helmet on a play this year, he must exit the game for the following play. The lone exception here is if his helmet is removed as part of a penalty such as a facemask. All plays where a ball carrier's helmet comes off will be whistled dead immediately. Anybody else on the field who loses his helmet during the course of a play must take himself out of the action immediately or risk a personal foul penalty.

Safety is, of course, once again the goal here, and Carollo said the Big Ten had one game alone where 25 helmets came off.

"The whole premise behind that was to make our players buckle up and make those helmets more secure and more safety driven," said Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema, who served on the rules committee that came up with the changes.

There could be some unintended consequences, however. The new rule states that there will be a 10-second runoff if a ball carrier's helmet comes off in the final minute of either half. So if that happens and there are fewer than 10 seconds left, it could end the game.

"I'm not quite sure this is a great rule," Fitzgerald said. "If a game goes down to the wire and you lose a game because a kid's helmet comes off? Wait for that firestorm."

Or what if players intentionally try to knock off opponents' helmets to gain an advantage? Bielema said he's educated his players to grab hold of their helmets and pull them down if they start to feel loose. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said he used to allow players to unbuckle their helmets at times but now insists they always keep them tight.

Just be ready to see a star player have to come out of a game or take himself out of a crucial play because of a helmet malfunction. Bielema said he understands there are some objections to the rule.

"But when you talk about the health and well being of an 18- to 22-year-old who's got his whole life in front of him, nothing is more important," he said.

3. Low blocks: Blocking below the waist is now mostly prohibited with very few exceptions.

Linemen must be within seven yards of the snapper to block low, while backs in the backfield are allowed to do so within the tackle box. All other low blocks are prohibited. So you won't see a receiver taking out a cornerback's knees or linemen going downfield and going low on a run block.

"Our number one emphasis was high hits and defenseless players and concussions," Carollo said. "Well, low hits are just as dangerous, so we’ve changed a few things."

Make sure you know all of the rules changes before football starts Thursday.