A referee’s job is to go unnoticed. It’s not glamorous, but at the end of the day, if a game finishes and the talking points are the players and not controversial decisions by the officials, the refs have succeeded. However, recently in college football there have been several situations where the main takeaways of a game are poor officiating, leaving fans to question if the outcome would have been different if the zebras called the game correctly.
As someone who worked as a youth sports official for over a year, I know being a ref isn’t always easy. It’s definitely much harder to make calls in person than from your couch, and if I’ve felt pressure before doing fifth and sixth-grade basketball, I can’t imagine what it’s like to work a college football game. While some are definitely better than others, in general referees are pretty good. If you consider that hundreds of games are played every week, the majority of them run pretty smoothly. However, the system is far from perfect, and changes to the officiating system can both take pressure off referees and lead to a stronger calling of games. Before detailing these modifications, I’ll explain some of the important errors that show the need for change.
The most discussed call of the 2015 season occurred during a Halloween game between then #21 Duke and Miami. Duke scored a touchdown and successful two-point conversion with six seconds left to take a 27-24 lead in the game. However, on the ensuing kickoff, Miami completed eight lateral passes during a 49-second miracle play resulting in a game-winning touchdown. The chaos on the field was only the beginning. Referees debated for minutes before picking up a flag thrown on the play and giving Miami the win. Obviously, the play went viral, but more so for the missed calls leading to the spectacular touchdown. The following day, the ACC announced it had suspended the entire officiating team for two weeks following four missed calls on the play, two of which would have negated the touchdown. A blatant block in the back was missed, but more importantly, a runner’s knee was down before he threw a lateral pass. While the block in the back would have led to an untimed down from Miami’s own 8, the runner down would have ended the game entirely. Despite the fact that the play should never have occurred, and the game should have been over, Miami kept its win and Duke’s playoff hopes were all but dashed.
Surely, that unfortunate turn of events would be a one-time incident, right? That’s what we all thought until just two weeks ago when Central Michigan upset #22 Oklahoma State. Once again, the ranked team led 27-24 entering the game’s final play. This time, the situation was a bit different- an untimed down near midfield. CMU threw a hail mary pass caught at the 10-yard line, with the receiver than lateraling the ball to a teammate who ran into the end zone. Once again, madness ensued. But in this case, the problem wasn’t any officiating miscues on the play. The play shouldn’t have happened at all. On the previous play, a fourth down for OSU, quarterback Mason Rudolph threw a pass out of bounds as time expired, rather than giving CMU a chance to block or return a punt. The reasoning here is sound, and the referees (correctly) flagged Rudolph for intentional grounding. They then (since it was fourth down) gave CMU a single, untimed down to win the game. The issue here is in the rules- while a defensive penalty on the final play of a half results in an untimed down for the offense, an offensive penalty simply ends the half. Once again, the crew was suspended two games, with the Big 12 replay coordinators also suspended from this year’s bowl games.
Just last week, two more big mistakes were made that may have potentially impacted the results of games. In the matchup between #1 Alabama and #19 Ole Miss, Ole Miss forced a fumble near midfield and returned it for a touchdown, giving them a 24-3 lead in the game. There was an illegal block in the back called on the play, but since it was deemed to have occurred after the ball crossed the goal line, the penalty was enforced on the kickoff. However, instant replay clearly showed the block occurring when the fumble returner was 10 yards short of the end zone. Ole Miss should’ve received the ball 10 yards from the spot of the foul. No touchdown. Ultimately, this one didn’t matter as Alabama won the game 48-43.
During the game between #11 Texas and Cal, the Golden Bears led the Longhorns 50-43 with under two minutes remaining in the game. Needing a single first down to end the game, running back Vic Enwere received the ball on a handoff and bursted through the center of the defense, running straight to the end zone (he should have just fell on the 1 yard line to prevent UT from ever getting the ball back, but that’s not the point). Upon further review, Enwere dropped the ball in celebration before he crossed the goal line. Texas defenders picked the ball up, which should have signified a touchback and UT ball. However, it was ruled that there “was no immediate recovery” of the ball, despite the ball being picked up within two or three seconds of the score. The ball was given to Cal at the 1-yard line where they kneeled out the clock instead of giving UT a chance at a comeback.
Obviously, a primary issue is whether the NCAA should be allowed to change the outcome of games in situations like those faced by Duke and Oklahoma State. For this to occur, there must be an obvious officiating error on the last play of the game which, if called correctly, would reverse the outcome of the game, preventing one team from winning the game. Honestly, I’m pretty undecided about this, and would rather a system where neither team is given a win or loss for the game. What we should be focusing on is making sure these situations never occur.
One way of accomplishing this is to take a page from the NFL’s playbook and have an off-site referee headquarters where officials are watching each game and can communicate with referees on the field. Perhaps each conference has a small team with this job. They can determine any obvious calls and provide the on-site replay officials with the best camera angles for more difficult decisions. This staff should also be able to answer any questions regarding rules and their applications. To me, the most stunning part of Central Michigan’s win is that not one member of the officiating team questioned the call on the field. I’m almost more stunned no member of the Oklahoma State team knew the correct rule either. These additional officials should be able to interrupt and make any changes to the application of penalties and rules if needed.
There’s a reason why Ole Miss’ block in the back was enforced on the kickoff instead of being a foul on the fumble return- whether or not the penalty occurred during the return is deemed “a non-reviewable” part of the play. Why? It makes absolutely zero sense for a penalty to be called but not enforced correctly because during a review of the scoring play, they aren’t allowed to amend that part of the call. This isn’t me saying officials should be able to call penalties after checking the replay, because that would 1) lead to penalties on every play that would 2) make games boring and last forever. However, we should allow penalties to be reviewable parts of scoring plays in these cases, and overall, I’d like more things to be reviewable, especially if decisions can be made instantly from an off-site official.
I think it’s amazing that in 2016, so many replays are inconclusive because we don’t have access to a good angle of the play. While I do not know if the referees of the Duke-Miami game had access to the same camera angles shown on TV, access to more camera angles would have great benefits in shortening replays and being more accurate, especially when questioning when a runner was down or if the ball crossed the goal line. Many of these problems will eventually be solved by location tracking chips in footballs, but having more angles can only help in extended replays.
Lastly, and I think this has more to do with ensuring fair play than anything else, I’d like to see non-conference matchups be officiated by a team from a neutral conference. As it currently stands, nonconference games are officiated with a combination of referees from the two represented conferences. However, this can lead to accusations of potential bias from either group of officials. While I don’t believe that games are currently being rigged in the conventional sense, there may be unconscious biases causing certain referees to making some calls. To take it a step further, instead of being employees of specific conferences, all officials could be available to call all games, with the most important games of the week being designated to the best performing refs.
Obviously, improving the quality of officiating in college football is an important task, and one not to be ignored. These are some of the changes I would like to see made, and I’m open to entertaining other modifications as well to make sure that the outcomes of games are decided by the players.