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Instant replay is great, but it can be better

I love college football. I am a big fan of the video instant replay process, and feel the system results in far more correct calls being made on the field compared to the few that are botched. We tend to remember the botched replay rulings far more vividly though, and understandably so. It is these moments that drive fans crazy because we feel we see a pretty clear call on our TV screens being missed by some replay official in a booth that, in theory, is seeing the same thing we are.

On Saturday night in Ohio State’s double-overtime victory at Penn State, the Buckeyes were on the receiving end of a couple of questionable calls that helped to build a 17-0 halftime lead. On Penn State’s opening drive of the game, Christian Hackenberg was picked off on a pass by Ohio State defensive back Vonn Bell. At first glance it looked like a terrific job by Bell to get in the way of a pass by Hackenberg as he adjusted to jump in front of the pass and grab control of the football close to the ground. Except, as you can see in the image above, the football appeared to touch the ground before Bell had any real control of the ball. A video replay looked to be an easy call to allow Penn State to retain possession, but after apparently not getting the correct feeds for review in the replay booth, the official ruling was the interception would stand. Ohio State would score a touchdown on the possession a few plays later for a 7-0 lead.

Ohio State later avoided having a delay of game penalty called on a field goal. Video showed two, maybe three, seconds had run off the clock after the play clock expired on a 49-yard field goal to give Ohio State a 17-0 lead in the first half. A five-yard penalty would have resulted in a 54-yard field goal try or would have led to Ohio State punting away to a Penn State offense that at the time was doing nothing. I do not know what Urban Meyer would have done in that situation, nor do I know if whether or not Sean Nuernberger would have converted on a 54-yard attempt. What I do know, is one of the officials on the field missed an assignment to watch the play clock expire before the snap. It happens, and sometimes teams will get an extra second due to the human element of the game, but two seconds in football is almost unheard of and inexcusable.

OSU non delay of game FG (2014)

A couple of weeks ago a Big 12 video replay official stepped in to correct an error on the field in the West Virginia-Baylor game. The replay came after West Virginia was penalized for an ineligible receiver downfield. The replay official took action to determine if the receiver really was beyond the line of scrimmage on the play and he ended up correcting a call on the field. Replay officials are not to review penalties, but the official was right to review where the pass was caught. That’s the official word from the Big 12 office as well, backing the replay official’s decision to step in and correct an egregious error on the field. Perhaps replay officials should be given the power to catch missed delay of game calls as well.

Officials on the field are going to miss calls. It happens. It is the human element of the game. Instant replay is designed to avoid allowing mistakes in judgement form officials have an impact on any game though, and this weekend showed why even the instant replay system could benefit from some tweaks.

Changing the instant replay system is certainly not a new idea. The calls for adjusting the system have been going on for years, yet here we are still nitpicking over the few instances when replay fails at its primary job.

In today’s technological age, there is simply no excuse for a technical error in the video replay booth

The Big Ten official and video replay official in State College on Saturday night offered a rather lame excuse. It also showed a lack of awareness of the NCAA rulebook regarding instant replay procedures.

“The play technically was not thoroughly reviewed due to some technical difficulties with the equipment,” John O’Neill, the head official for the Penn State-Ohio State game Saturday night, said after the game. Asked if there are any provisions to receive any other replay feeds available in the stadium (perhaps the one showing on the national broadcast or the one airing on those big fancy HD scoreboards in the stadium), O’Neill said that was not possible.

“The feeds that the replay team looks at are the feeds you get at home,” O’Neill explained. “We can’t create our own rules. The replay rules are clear that we have to use the equipment provided. So, and the team reviewed what they had.”

If the replay officials do get the same video feeds we as viewers receive at home, how replay official Tom Fiedler managed to come to a different conclusion than my entire Twitter timeline is unexplainable. Second, the rules are clear the replay official must use the equipment is has been provided. But…

The last part of that rule suggests a replay official may use any other form of video available if needed. Would a newly installed HD video scoreboard suffice? What about two of them, as Penn State has at each end of the stadium. How about any of the TVs in the press box? How about a live feed on an iPad? Did you know you can even get video on your phone these days? I have all of those available to me in my living room (well, except the HD video scoreboard… for now), so I fail to see how not having a video feed is excusable. It just is not an excuse.

This is not a unique problem of course. Many times since the introduction of video replay in football we have heard coaches suggest they did not have a video feed available before calling for a challenge. Coaches waiting for a replay in the middle of a game between plays I can get behind. But when officials pause the game for an official video review, the bottom line is doing everything possible to make the correct call. Instances like the one Saturday night in State College should never happen. If you pause the game for video review, it should not be restarted until every resource has been exhausted. I do not believe that to be the case in the Penn State-Ohio State game, and I hope something can be done to ensure it does not happen again in any game in any conference.

Centralized instant replay centers can remove the hassle in-house technical errors

It seems to me there is a pretty easy way to go about avoiding the hassles of any possible in-stadium technical errors. Move all instant replay operations to a central location. The NFL does it. The NHL does it. Major League Baseball does it. It seems to be a pretty good plan, and it should be incredibly simple to set-up. Heck, I can do it right from my home office with a couple of different DVR boxes and TVs. You do not even have to work too hard to make something like this happen over night if you really wanted (although changes to systems typically do not occur until the next season, so I will patiently wait for 2015 if needed).

No team should be a victim of a faulty replay feed, as a blown replay can change the outlook of an entire game at any time. So move all Big Ten instant replay to the Big Ten Network or Big Ten Conference offices and have a replay official in each stadium call up the Chicago office for a ruling. The SEC can move all replay operations to the SEC Network headquarters. The Pac-12 has their own Pac-12 Network studio as well. Conferences without a specialized cable network can still move these operations to the conference offices, or even combine efforts with another conference if needed. It seems to me this would be a pretty simple solution to avoid any potential hassles in the future.

It would also be nice to get some transparency regarding instant replay decisions as well. This is something the NHL and MLB do very well, and it helps to strengthen the system in my opinion. If you want fans to put trust in the system, give them a reason to. Officials do explain the reason for the decisions on the field in brief, but providing a more detailed analysis of a decision helps to support the ruling for all. The on-field officials are simply relaying information from the booth (or in this hypothetical situation, the conference office), so there is a chance they do not even know for sure what the replay official is seeing. Let’s address that while we are at it.

It is the responsibility of the conferences to make these changes, not the NCAA

We can criticize the NCAA for a number of things, but this burden falls on the conferences if any changes are to be made. The NCAA has provided the groundwork for the instant replay procedures, but it is not the NCAA paying the officials and referees. The conference takes care of that, and this is not about to change anytime soon. If the NCAA wanted to take strides in strengthening the game, it would start paying officials themselves to enforce the rules as the NCAA sees fit. This would, in theory, lead to some uniformity between officiating crews across the country, which is another concern with officials. But this simply is not likely to happen, so the responsibility falls on the conferences to determine how to best correct any issues regarding the sport of football.

This may actually be a good thing as well. With the game shifting to a point where power conferences can have their way and move the needle more than ever before, any call for some reform or changes form the Big Ten or SEC or Pac-12 or Big 12 will have an impact. If these conferences decide there are ways to improve a very good system, who would argue or stand in the way? I believe officials want the games to be called correctly, even if it means having a call on the field reversed. Conferences do not want bad calls getting in the way of the game either.

It’s time, college football. Your instant replay system is great. No team deserves to ask questions about the instant replay system after a game. Don’t let it happen again.

About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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  1. […] State went toe-to-toe with Ohio State in a game that was marred by two poor displays of Big Ten officiating. If nothing else, the game showed a need for the Big Ten and other conferences to assess the […]