There has been a lot of discussion about the new kickoff rule in the SEC, which moves the kickoff back from the 35 yard line to the 30. What we plan to do here is examine the statistics from last year, and see who may benefit the most.
Yahoo Sports thoughtfully supplies us with some statistics to help us out. Last year, the kickoff return leaders in the SEC looked like this:
So from the above stats, we see that the top 4 kickoff return schools were Auburn, Arkansas, Kentucky and Ole Miss. After examining their rosters, each of those teams should return their top 2 or 3 kickoff returners. Kentucky should have the injured Rafael Little available for kickoff returns this year, which increases their profile on this statistic.
According to this article, Urban Meyer predicts that the average kickoff will land around the 9 yard line, versus the 4 yard line last year. Mark Richt thinks that the additional space created by moving the ball back will be a factor, and he is likely right -- longer kicks will be fielded outside the end zone.
Assuming Meyer is correct, that would place the ball for the leading return teams, on average, between the 32 and 35 yard line. What this means is that there will be a temptation now, especially against teams who have very dangerous receivers and are having a hot season returning the football, to kick the ball out of bounds and concede the return to the 35 by penalty, rather than risking a much deeper return.
It has also been suggested that squib and pooch kicks might be used to minimize the chance of a big return, which is certainly a possibility. However, my feeling is that teams who are very concerned about their opponents kick returners will be inclined to kick the ball out of bounds and concede the 35.
In any case, never in college sports history has special teams been more important. I can imagine some extreme creativity will be seen in the kicking game this year, and it will provide for some very exciting plays. Mark Richt of Georgia says he expects to return 75-90% of kickoffs versus the 25% they returned last year.
One other negative impact this could have is on the skill players. Kickoff returns at a 75-90% clip will increase the possibility of injury. That will impact the season if that happens. Let's just hope it doesn't.