Thu Nov 05 01:31pm EST
In the span of a little less than a month, the SEC has gradually devolved into the Twilight Zone where the league's officiating is concerned, culminating this week with the legitimate possibility of Urban Meyer, respected, championship-winning coach of the No. 1 team in the country, being fined or suspended by the conference for publicly criticizing a non-call on a hit against his star quarterback. How on earth did the Chosen Conference back itself into this corner?
Here's a short timeline of all hell breaking loose:
• Oct. 3: Officials threw two ridiculous flags for illegal celebration following successive touchdowns by Georgia's A.J. Green and LSU's Charles Scott in the final two minutes of the Tigers' dramatic win in Athens:
The call against Green, in particular, drew enough heat to force the league to issue a public mea culpa admitting that Green's celebration didn't warrant a flag. (It was silent, oddly, on the equally bogus flag against Scott.)
• Oct. 17: After a quiet week (CBS' nationally televised game on Oct. 10 was Alabama's wholly uncontroversial, 22-3 beatdown at Ole Miss), the same officiating crew that drew so much scrutiny at Georgia two weeks earlier flung itself back in the kiln with a series of sketchy calls on an eventual Florida touchdown drive to tie Arkansas at 20 in the fourth quarter of the Gators' last-second, 23-20 escape, particularly phantom pass interference and unnecessary roughness calls against the Razorbacks in a span of three plays:
Feeling accountable to fans to uphold its "integrity," the conference summarily suspended the crew for three weeks, specifically citing the "lack of evidence" for a flag on the unnecessary roughness call against Malcolm Sheppard. Some pundits applaud the move for its transparency and responsiveness; other (ahem) suggested repeatedly undermining officials in public would open a Pandora's box that opened every routine bad call to a round of criticism and mini-scandal, and that retribution and acknowledgment of mistakes should remain behind closed doors, through private channels. The conference also reprimanded Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino for publicly criticizing the same bogus calls that the head office itself had just publicly deemed worthy of suspension.
• Oct. 24: Officials in Florida's win over Mississippi State fail to overturn a Gator touchdown despite an obvious fumble by UF's Dustin Doe before he crosses the goal line, and also fail to throw a flag on Alabama's Terrence Cody for tossing his helmet after blocking Tennessee's game-winning field goal attempt at the gun, though the ball was still in play. Both MSU coach Dan Mullen and Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin publicly criticize the no-calls; both are swiftly reprimanded by the league office. Tennessee assistant Ed Orgeron and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson both take public shots at the refs, too, but don't draw any response from the conference. (Maybe if Vandy's loss at South Carolina had been on national television ...)
Commissioner Mike Slive, tired of the sudden spate of belly-aching from his coaches, swears off warnings and reprimands in favor of an immediate fine or suspension the first time any SEC coach dares to criticize the officials for anything.
• Oct. 31: Florida's Brandon Spikes gets a little dirty against Georgia's Washaun Ealey in a pile-up:
The obvious personal foul went unnoticed by officials in the game and likely would have gone unnoticed, period, if not for the alert zooming of CBS' cameras, which helped turn a rather forgettable 15-yard penalty in an uncompetitive game into the SEC officiating scandal du jour. Dragged under by the rising tide of suspensions, Florida vowed to sit its star for the first half this Saturday against Vanderbilt; facing added backlash for perceived leniency, Spikes volunteered to sit for the entire game. (What a guy.)
But let's go to the tape! Was Spikes poked in the eye himself? Was Ealey playing dirty, too? Did Georgia hit Tim Tebow late with no repercussions? How can you single out one dirty play in a game chock-full of them?
That's what Urban Meyer wants to know, specifically regarding an alleged late hit by UGA's Nick Williams against Tebow:
"That should have been a penalty in my opinion. Obviously it should have been. You've got to protect quarterbacks. That's the whole purpose. It's right in front of the referee.''
So here is the end result of "transparency" when it comes to policing bad calls: Two days before one of the biggest games of the season, everyone who follows the SEC is consumed instead by poring over run-of-the-mill "cheap shots" on obscure plays from a ame that ended five days ago and wondering whether or not the conference actually has the guts to drop the hammer on its most visible, most successful and highest-paid coach. Over a comment he made at a press conference about a play barely anyone would have ever remembered in a game that was decided by 24 points.
This is stupid. It's been stupid from the beginning -- as bad calls go, every play in question over the last month is fairly routine, exactly the kind of familiar griping and frustrated sniping that goes on after close losses as a matter of course. (As opposed to a truly egregious killer like the Fifth Down or the Oregon-Oklahoma onside kick in 2006 or, if you think it was a bad call -- I don't -- the pass interference flag that kept Ohio State alive in overtime against Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl.) In the end, none of the bad calls in the SEC this year directly affected the outcome of a game. None of them resulted in an injury. These were ordinary mistakes, the kind officials have been making (and will continue to make) for decades, and that fans gripe about for a couple days and move on. The extraordinary media reaction, in the current environment, might have been expected. But for the SEC to voluntary and unnecessarily open a box that it can only close by fining or suspending Urban Meyer is stupid. And it's too late to turn back now: Either Meyer gets what's coming to him or the lid is blown wide open to non-stop complaints about anything and everything for the rest of the season. This is exactly what the league asked for when it decided to repeatedly, publicly acknowledge ordinary mistakes in the first place.
In the meantime, the WAC has suspended a replay official for a bad call in Boise State's 45-7 win over San Jose State. Good luck with that, guys.