College Football’s Review Problem

College football has an official problem.

More specifically it has an official review problem. Flipping through the channels while watching Saturday’s college football slate, it jumped out at me. It seemed half the time I flipped to a game, a play was under official review. Rather than seeing football players playing football, I saw football players waiting for an official to make a decision

Flip over to Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee … waiting. Check in on Arkansas vs. TCU … waiting. Let’s see what Illinois State and Northwestern are doing. Oh, they’re waiting, I’m shocked. What do I have to do to see football players play football?

Nowhere was it worse than in the Top-10 FCS showdown between North Dakota State and Eastern Washington in Fargo. The game featured nine official reviews and took over four hours to finish.

“That was about a five hour affair, I think,” NDSU head coach Chris Klieman said in his postgame press conference. “What time is it, 10 o’clock? It was a long game.”

This is the new reality for football fans. We begged for more review. “Please,” we said. “Give us more reviews. We want everything to be officiated perfectly.”

This is what we get. We want football games to be officiated perfectly. Every questionable reception needs to be reviewed — every touchdown, every turnover, every play at the sideline, every targeting penalty. Referees are not allowed to make mistakes. They have to stop the game over and over and over to make sure they make the right call every time. It’s disruptive to the game, the players and the fans.

“It was strange in that way,” Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin said. “It was not to anyone’s advantage, both teams had the same goofy flow. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just weird occurrences that happened at different times. You bring in instant replay and there are going to be more stoppages.”

Growing up playing football and being a football fan, it was understood that the officials’ decisions were final. Whether the coaches, players or fans thought a call was right, the ref’s call was law. The referee made his decision and play went on without any disruption.

Did that attempted reception hit the ground? Ask the ref. Did that player go out of bounds at the one? Ask the ref. Should the ball be spotted short of the first down mark or past it? Ask the ref. What he says goes.

Now, it is all about the replay. Nobody respects the official’s decision. In the age of high definition tv, pylon cams and gigantic video boards, everybody can see when they make a wrong call. They can see what happened and if the ref gets it wrong. And he’s going to hear about it. The fans in the stadium are going to voice their opinions and the fans at home are going to tweet about it. That is a lot of pressure to get the call right.

Halfway through the second quarter, the head referee looked like he was in pain every time he had to announce an official review or call a penalty. He knew that every time he opened his mouth, he would be showered with boos. Everybody was sick of play stoppages.
At a certain point, it seems like officials use the review system as a crutch. They are afraid to make conclusive decisions and stand behind them, so they make a call and immediately go under the hood.

They should get the calls right, but not at the expense of actually playing the games. Official review in college football needs to be scaled back. Not every play should be reviewable.

Saturday’s Central Michigan 27-24 upset over No. 22 Oklahoma State showed that even when officials can review plays, they still might get it wrong.

Looking to burn the final four second off the clock on fourth down, OSU quarterback Mason Rudolph dropped back and threw a pass to the left sideline. But no receivers ran a route and the official called an intentional grounding penalty. The penalty includes a loss of downs, which gave the ball to the Chippewas for an untimed down, which they used to heave a hail mary, complete a lateral and score an incredible game winning touchdown.

But the play never should have happened. While there is a rule that says the game can’t end on a live-ball foul, there is a provision in the rule that says an un-timed down will not take place if a penalty on the team in possession of the ball results in a loss of down.

The incomplete pass should have ended the game.

Now, the on-field officiating crew and — you guessed it — the replay crew, whose job it was to fix the incorrect decision, are suspended for two games.

The NFL’s one-challenge per-team policy gets scrutinized for being too strict and not allowing enough bad calls to be changed. “What if a referee makes a game-deciding bad call and the coach already used his challenge?” critics ask. “Do we want referees deciding games?”

Well, now we’ve seen the alternative in action in college football. And the result is not pretty.