There's been a lot of pouring over of the rules in wake of the bizarre finish to the Music City Bowl last night. Tennessee fans are understandably upset, and they may have a point. I'm particularly sympathetic to the interpretation that too many men on the field is a pre-snap penalty, and thus T.J. Yates' spike never legally happened, and the clock shouldn't have been stopped. But only a small minority on the internet is saying that sort of thing; everyone else is pretty much echoing Derek Dooley:
"That's why they have a 10-second runoff rule in the NFL. We don't have it in college, and we probably should get it. It was chaos again. They ran a bunch of guys out on the field, and nobody stopped to allow a substitution. They snapped the ball and got a penalty.
"That allowed them to substitute their field goal unit and kick it. So, I don't know what else to say, other than I'm proud of the team for the effort.
Much of the postgame analysis was devoted to whether college football should have a 10-second runoff rule. ESPN seemed especially concerned that coaches would start intentionally committing penalties at the clock wound down to buy the time to get a kicking team on the field. This all seems predicated on the assumption that, as Matt Zemek put it, "the Tar Heels could be rewarded for committing a penalty." But that isn't at all what happened.
The penalty didn't in anyway stop the clock. T.J. Yates spiking the ball is what stopped the clock. That's why the play was reviewed, to see whether Yates got the ball to the ground before time expired. He did; the third down play was ruled as having happened and ending with an incomplete pass. That is what stopped the clock and gave the Heels time to get their kicking team on the field. Had UNC's kicking team not tried to take the field, the spike would have still happened and the Heels would still have 4th down with one second remaining. Had both teams, the fans, and the ghost of Elvis all stormed midfield and hung around the giant logo, the result would have been the same. UNC had no advantage from their screw-up; they were just moved five yards farther away from the goal line. if anything, it just added to the air of craziness that made Casey Barth's job that much harder.
Yes, had there been a 10-second runoff rule, UNC would have been out of time and Tennessee would have won the game. That would have violated the spirit of the rule – which exists to prevent intentionally drawing a penalty to conserve clock time – if not the letter. And sure, there are tons of penalties assessed every day for violations that brought no benefit to the offending team; rules are rules, after all. But there's no rule about this in college football, and UNC derived no benefit from what they did. Had they tried to stop the clock with seventeen men on the field, at most the refs would have paused the clock, marched off five yards, and immediately started it again. UNC would have no time to snap, no time to kick, and would have left Nashville with a loss. That they didn't was a testament to the heads-up play of Yates, the only guy on the field who seemed like he kept his head.
So add the runoff rule if you like. But its absence didn't help UNC, and you can't blame it for Tennessee's loss. Both teams made enough mistakes to do that, but the last nine seconds of regulation were just one of those crazy confluences of events; it wasn't cheating, even in a legal sense.