Beginning with the 2018 season, a kickoff will not have to reach the end zone in order to qualify as a touchback. If the receiving team signals for a fair catch on a ball that has traveled inside the 25-yard-line, it will be treated as a touchback.
This is the latest in a series of moves by the NCAA in an effort to make these special teams plays safer. Now there’s more incentive than ever for the receiving team to accept a touchback, whether it’s the old-fashioned way or via the new fair catch rule.
This is not going to do anything for the excitement level of games, but then again I’m sure that a lot of returners who catch a kickoff between the goal line and the 25 will be inclined to gamble on a return, since that’s a difficult habit to break. Plenty of dudes are still going to have a green light.
The rule may eventually lead to more efficient decision-making by coaches who are realistic about the sort of talent they have on hand—calling the fair catch 100% of the time on a ball that lands between the goal and the 10, for instance, would be prudent for a lot of mid-major tomato cans facing much faster opponents, when the likelihood of getting to the 25 on a return would be far less than certain.