Earlier this year, the NCAA football rules committee allowed conferences to experiment with a new, more "collaborative" instant replay system. The ACC and SEC have responded by developing centralized command centers to assist in-stadium crews on all replay reviews this fall.
The Big Ten will use its own replay collaboration procedures in 2016. But the league has decided to have the referee and replay officials in the stadium booth work together more closely, instead of going to a one-stop shop in the conference office.
"I'm a big believer that the decision should be made by the officials who are on the field or tied to the game, not front office people," said Bill Carollo, the Big Ten's coordinator of football officials. "You're moving the judgment from the field to sometimes 1,000 miles away."
Here's how replay will work in all Big Ten games this season: when there is a review, the referee will be handed a computer tablet so he can watch the same replays that the officials in the booth are seeing. In previous years, the referee simply listened on a headset as the replay official decided whether to overturn a call or let it stand.
Big Ten referees have been instructed that they are to be in "listen mode, not talk mode" during the review, Carollo said, and they won't have any control over the video they are seeing. But they can offer input if they think a rule is being misinterpreted or if the replay officials are missing something. The replay official always will have the final say on the decision, but involving the referee will allow the on-field crew chief to better explain those decisions to fans and to coaches on the sidelines.
"They're kind of the last check, to make sure we don’t make a mistake up there," Carollo said.
The tablets, which have been outfitted to prevent glare and withstand weather conditions, were tested behind the scenes at the past two Big Ten championship games and during some league spring games last month. League athletic directors approved the system, which is far more cost-effective than a central command center.
Of course, the Big Ten could easily afford to set up a centralized system and will also test that out this fall (more on that in a bit). But Carollo not only thinks that in-stadium crews should be relied on, he is not sure whether a command center is necessary.
He offered the following numbers on replay during Big Ten games in 2015. A total of 17,762 plays were subject to replay. Of those, 225 plays resulted in a stoppage of play for a review. Calls were reversed 34 percent of the time, which is about the annual average. Carollo said mistakes were made on about a dozen plays, and of those, about half of them were technical details. A second wasn't put back on the clock, for example, or the ball was spotted on the wrong hash when play resumed.
So only about a half-dozen reviews all season involved major errors, and given how difficult some of the judgment calls are in football ("Was that a catch?"), there are always going to be some disputed decisions.
"If we only fix one or two mistakes [per year], is it worth to spend $1 million?" Carollo said.
That said, Carollo understands there's no price tag for a botched call that costs a team a shot at the Big Ten title, or perhaps even a College Football Playoff berth. So the league is investigating a central command center, too.
Every week during league play, Carollo said, a group of officials will gather in the Big Ten office and will be tied in electronically to a select few games. They will make their own decisions on replays, though it is simply a mock exercise. The Big Ten used that system in some spring games as well, including Michigan State's.
At the end of the season, Carollo will go back and compare the accuracy of the in-stadium crews to the mock centralized one and see if there's a notable difference. The Big Ten will also compare notes after the season with other leagues, including the ACC and SEC, to see how their systems worked.
"If it gets results, down the road maybe it does make sense [to go to a command center]," he said.
Carollo worries, however, about what he calls "unintended consequences" of each league having one set of people in a conference headquarters handling all replays. Conspiracy theories could abound and transparency might be a problem. Carollo envisions a potential national replay center, where a set of unaffiliated NCAA officials review every Power 5 or perhaps all FBS games in one, secure location.
Perhaps that awaits in the future. For now, the Big Ten is content to expand collaboration between the referee and replay booth, and see if that helps get more calls right.