2020 is the season in which the naive idea that the SEC doesn’t play favorites died.
At least three times this fall, SEC officials and Auburn have made this abundantly clear.
At a critical juncture in the Kentucky game, television cameras showed the Wildcats’ Chris Rodriguez plowing up the middle and apparently into the end zone. However, it was ruled he went down at the 1-yard line.
An immediate video review put the call in the hands of the head replay official in the video review center at the SEC’s Birmingham office. But those officials upheld the ruling on the field, fumbling a call so obvious even the SEC Network announcers kept reminding viewers it was a touchdown.
That play changed the momentum of the game, ultimately helping Auburn take its season opener.
We know about the Bo Nix fumble at the end of the Arkansas game a couple weeks later. That botched call gifted Auburn with a win, plain and simple.
A couple games later, and it was Ole Miss getting the short end of the stick.
Deep in the fourth quarter, Ole Miss kicked off to Auburn’s Shaun Shivers after it had just scored a touchdown to go up 28-27. The ball appeared to graze Shivers’ finger before it bounced into the end zone, where a referee called it a touchback and whistled the play dead.
But reviews showed Shivers had almost certainly touched the ball. Plus, there’s the fact that after the ball glanced his finger, he turned around and started hoofing it, not slowing down until the ball crossed the goal line. No way he runs like that unless he thinks he could lose a fumble.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn then sent his offense into the game to line up and snap the ball before any more deliberation could be made. He wouldn’t have done that if he thought Auburn was in the clear.
This time, the referees didn’t even bother reviewing the play. Auburn kept possession and went on to score the winning touchdown.
The biggest problem here isn’t getting the initial call wrong.
Missed calls happen, after all. No, the travesty lies in how poorly the replay referees, both on the field and back in the SEC office, are doing — or not doing — their jobs. Instead of putting in the extra effort to get a call right, it seems they are content just to get home as quickly as possible. “I don’t think you got people that are doing this on purpose. I think they’re just tiptoeing through the tulips of life. ‘La-dee-da-dee-da,’” says Mike Irwin, a college football analyst for the northwest Arkansas-based Pig Trail Network.
In terms of quality of play, the SEC is college football’s best league, but in terms of quality of replay refereeing, it’s bush league. “This kind of stuff is embarrassing for the conference office because it doesn’t just involve officials on the field,” Irwin says. “It involves guys in the replay booth at the game and guys in the replay center at the SEC office in Birmingham. It’s like they’re all just oblivious.”
Sure, that appears to be part of it.
But let’s not kid ourselves here. There’s also some good old favoritism at play. For one, the SEC office’s location in the middle of Alabama all but guarantees this will be the case. It’s filled with graduates of nearby universities like Alabama and Auburn. Many of these folks grew up cheering for the Crimson Tide and Tigers. I’m sure they try to be professionally objective for the most part, but that doesn’t seem to encompass making calls that could hurt the teams they grew up loving.
Still, home cooking isn’t news. It’s as old as sports.
What’s changed in the last few decades, and made the SEC more biased than ever, is its expanding pocketbook.
The NCAA’s Power 5 conferences, as a whole, bring in about $8.2 billion dollars. The nation’s best football programs — including the SEC’s Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and Florida — drive a big part of that:
The SEC is “a have and have not league,” Mike Irwin adds. “It wasn’t that way initially when Arkansas went in in ’92. It is that way now. If you are perceived to have a large television market, which Arkansas doesn’t but, for instance, Texas A&M and Florida do… if you get a lot of national publicity, that helps. And if you’re somebody that’s going to make a major bowl, or do well in the NCAA tournament or whatever, these things matter to the SEC office.”
Arkansas knows the pain of Ole Miss all too well here. The Hogs have been done wrong many times by SEC referees before this year’s Auburn debacle, with perhaps the most infamous instance coming in 2009 against No. 1 Florida. See that at 1:30 below:
That game did result in the SEC suspending that crew after essentially admitting it made a mockery of their profession. But such open, public feedback is sadly the exception, not the norm.
Consider the crew which worked the Arkansas-Alabama game escaped any kind of public censure or suspension. Instead, it was “quietly put into time out” the following week.
A couple days after the Ole Miss mess, the SEC admitted that it had been wrong. Its too-little, too-late statement read: “Because the play was not appropriately stopped for further review, the necessary slow-motion view of the play was not viewed by the replay official to determine if the ruling on the field should have been reversed.”
Lane Kiffin wholeheartedly agreed, Retweeting this video:
The SEC then came down hard on Kiffin, fining him $25,000 for saying the same thing its office had just admitted: that the replay referees blew it.
SEC officials cited a league bylaw that states, in part, that “criticism of officials or the officiating program by institutional personnel is absolutely prohibited,” and comments on officiating “are to be directed only to the Conference office.”
This is rich, considering the biggest reason that the SEC rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars (many of which it pockets instead of spending on ongoing referee training) is the quality of its football players and coaches. If anybody deserves more protection from criticism, it goes to reason it should be the cash cows, not replaceable zebras.
“Quarterbacks, after they throw a game-losing interception, have to sit in front of 20 people and get asked, ‘How are you feeling right now?’ ‘What did you see on that play?’ ‘Why did you throw that interception?’ ‘Does it hurt?’ ‘How does it feel?’ They have to answer to their mistake,” says Michael Borkey, a Mississippi-based sports radio host.
“The coaches have to do it. Sit in front of cameras and everybody asks, ‘What went wrong? ‘Why did you run that play here?’ ‘Why did you put that guy in the game?’ ‘Why did you make that decision?’ ‘Why didn’t you call a time out?’”
And on and on. The only groups that escape public accountability and transparency are the referees and SEC officials.
“How can anybody look at this and think what the SEC is doing is fine? It’s not,” Borkey asks. “It’s unacceptable.”
Nothing, however, will change for smaller market teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas until one of two things happen. Either the SEC moves its office to a less biased, more neutral location like St. Louis, or a team like Arkansas decides enough is enough and leaves for the Big 12.
Only then, perhaps, will SEC officials see what an embarrassment some of their own have become.
Hear Michael Borkey’s rant against the SEC office in all its magisterial glory:
Check out this new video from the ever-entertaining R.J. Young:
And for our latest blog, see Jim Harris’ new column: