As the mud buggy race that is the 2015 college football season powerslides its way into mid-November, there's really only one steadfast rule during a year when absolutely nothing has been steadfast: Any team can alter the path of the postseason. And anyone claiming to have foreseen victories from Oklahoma State, Nebraska, Navy or Arkansas this weekend either has a closet full of one of those team's apparel, or is totally lying.
But the team that has attracted the lion's share of the spotlight over the past month is the oft-forgotten third team that lives on every football field for every kickoff. It's the one dressed in vertical stripes, the eight officials between the lines and the two in the replay booth.
In case you've forgotten:
The end of the Miami-Duke game two weekends ago resulted in a two-week suspension of the entire officiating crew.
On Saturday night, Michigan State's hopes of running the table were dashed by Nebraska, and a TD catch was made by a receiver who had run out of bounds and back in to make the grab. Whether he was pushed or not had to be reviewed ... and reviewed again. Ultimately, he was ruled to have been shoved and the call stood. The Big Ten office backed the call Sunday night.
One month ago, the Big 12 issued an apology for a mis-measured, post-penalty first down during Oklahoma State's win over Kansas State and initially misspelled "accurracy" in its official statement.
Saturday night a Pac-12 line judge ruled an inadvertent whistle on what looked to be a drive-ending fourth-down play for Washington State. By rule, the play was done over and Wazzu scored on the following play against Arizona State. On Sunday, the official was suspended for one game.
During Oklahoma State's win over Texas at the end of September, a rare defensive holding on a run play set Longhorns coach Charlie Strong off on a tirade that ended in a second penalty and ultimately resulted in a SB Nation column claiming anti-UT ref corruption to the point of suggesting that Texas leave the conference.
Was that column over the top? Sure. But it also represents a tone that's becoming more common when it comes to addressing college football officiating. Over the past month, particularly after the Miami-Duke game, it's an easy refrain to find, whether scanning social media timelines for hot takes or scanning the satellite-radio dial to hear increasingly pointed criticisms from booths that have never shied from defending the home team. Football fans and media have always questioned -- and booed -- the men (and now women) in stripes. No one knows that better than the people who have taken on the job, people who also have other jobs during the week. These days, those questions and jeers have more launching pads than ever before. And yes, they know that, too.
"Certainly the social media era has changed the dynamics of how football officiating is viewed, and no one enjoys being pilloried on Twitter or anywhere else," says Rogers Redding, the College Football Officiating (CFO) national coordinator. "But what we understand is what we knew before we ever got into the officiating business: a partisan view always impacts how someone shapes what they see on a play. The social media era has not changed that fundamental principle, but it has changed how it is expressed. And that in turn has ramped up the scrutiny on the officials. That may make the job more challenging, but it hasn't changed the fundamental nature of what officials do or how they approach the job."
Redding started officiating SEC games in 1988 as a field judge before moving to referee (the guy in the white hat). He has worked eight bowl games, including the Rose, Sugar and Orange, became the SEC coordinator of football officials and in 2011 ascended to the head of the CFO, an organization formed in '07 to establish officiating uniformity across the college football landscape. Over that time, he has personally experienced all of the factors that built today's pressure cooker: a marked increase in the speed of game play, the advent of widespread TV coverage, the unforgiving images of high-definition TV, the implementation of instant replay as a tool and all of the above held to public instant analysis by networks employing rules experts, and, now, social media. (By the way, he also has degrees from Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt and Harvard, so you can dispense with the typical cries of "that ref is so dumb!")
Redding, like any official or officiating coordinator, would prefer to do his work anonymously. A game that ends with no one remembering that the officials were even on the field means that nothing happened to make them memorable. But when they are, like has happened so many times in 2015, those experiences are funneled into the improvement process. As it is for the other two teams on the field each Saturday, there are evaluations, tests, film study and, as in the case of Miami-Duke, benchings.
And like those teams, at season's end some officials will be promoted, others will demoted, youngsters will be recruited from the high school and small college ranks, and a handful will leave for the pros. There's a system. There has always been the same system, adjusted over the years to fit the times. And there's always going to be that system.
Each weekend, the individual conference coordinators deal with the reports filed by each head coach and an on-site league evaluator, typically a recently retired official. Tough calls -- missed and made correctly -- are sent up the ladder to Redding's office and distributed nationally as part of weekly film study done by every individual official online during the week and by crews together prior to every game.
"The coordinators and I will interact, principally so that I can be aware of the circumstances," Redding says of the highest-profile issues. "Quite often the plays in question provide examples for our training exercises, both at the conference level as well as nationally, so we try to turn these situations into teachable moments." He says that every game, including those not of the highest profile, contribute to officials' education, adding, "Plays that are seen by the fans and media as 'very unusual' are often very similar to plays that we have already talked about, in our attempts to try to anticipate what might happen in any given situation. One can never anticipate everything, of course, but we try to focus on the fundamentals of rules and mechanics, and the officials will much more often than not get things right."
When instant replay arrived during the 2004-05 season, Redding was among the first to take a seat at the monitor, moving from the field to the booth. Replay has never been the magic eraser many predicted or hoped it would be. Some older officials gripe that it has become a crutch for youngsters who've never had to work at the FBS level without it. But it, too, is a work in progress. Each spring, the CFO hosts a clinic solely dedicated to replay-booth officiating. Next May, there will be plenty of clips to talk about, but, as Redding states, not to scream over.
"I don't know of a situation in recent weeks that would cause us to change what we do with regard to instant replay," he says. "Certainly the high-profile plays can be a part of the training that takes place at the clinic, again as teachable events. The instant replay officials also do continuous training just like the on-field officials do, and the recent highlighted plays can be an important piece of that."
There's still a month remaining in the 2015 season and a pile of gigantic games to officiate. Here's hoping those games end with talk about the games themselves and not those who officiated it. The coaches and players want that. The fans want it even more. But no one wants it more than the officials themselves.
For those calling for one national officiating unit instead of individual conferences, sorry, that's not happening. The CFO is what you're getting. For those demanding officials be full-time employees and not moonlighting members of other industries, sorry, not happening, either. This isn't the NFL, where they need 16 crews (and where few do it full-time, either). There were 60 in action over the past weekend in FBS alone.
Instead, everyone needs to accept operating within a process built on weekly and yearly self-investigation and improvement. Along the way, they will make errors in judgment and blow calls in games both big and small. But they will also get plenty of them right.
Now let's put down the whistle, stick the flag in our pocket and get on with Flipping the Field.
The best part of Clemson continuing to win?
That Dabo, he keeps a dancin'.
Quick shoutout ...
One week ago, we were all outraged that the College Football Playoff selection committee had one-loss Alabama ranked too high and undefeated TCU and Michigan State ranked too low. Remember that?
"We're going streaking!" "Frank, get in the car."
Three of the nation's four longest winning streaks went down in a heap Saturday. TCU had won 16 straight before falling to Oklahoma State, Memphis was up to 15 before being sunk by Navy (more on that) and Michigan State's run was at a dozen before falling to Nebraska. What's more, Michigan State blew a fourth-quarter lead for the first time since 2012, breaking the second-longest run of consecutive wins after holding a fourth-quarter lead at 33. Northern Illinois is the leader at 41. Who did the Spartans blow that last lead to back in '12? Nebraska.
The circle is complete:
Nebraska beat Michigan State, who beat Oregon, who beat Washington, who beat USC, who beat Utah, who beat Cal, who beat Texas, who beat Oklahoma, who beat Tennessee, who beat Georgia, who beat South Carolina, who beat North Carolina, who beat Duke, who beat Virginia Tech, who beat Purdue, who beat ... Nebraska.
The Texas Instruments Scientific Calculator WTH Stat of the Week:
TCU ran 110 plays and produced 663 yards ... and lost 49-29.
The Frank Reich Backup QB of the Week Award: Kyle Bolin, Louisville
Lamar Jackson was out with an ankle injury, so the sophomore from Lexington, Kentucky, stepped in and overcame an early interception to manufacture a 24-of-35 day for 362 yards and three TDs. Bolin opened the second half by producing four scores in the first six drives. It's the latest good news for fans of Louisville, as the Cardinals have dug out of an early-season hole to reach 5-4 and the brink of bowl eligibility. It's the latest bad news for Syracuse, whose D has now boosted backup QBs to this honor in back-to-back weeks.
Honorable Mention, Part One: J.T. Barrett, Ohio State
Suspended for the Buckeyes' game against Minnesota after being charged with operating a motor vehicle under the influence, Barrett wasn't able to give his usual pregame speech to the OSU locker room. Instead, almost to the hour one week after his arrest, he descended from his press box purgatory to address his teammates at halftime. After a lethargic first quarter, Ohio State led the Gophers 14-0 at the break. Running back Ezekiel Elliott told ESPN.com's Austin Ward, "I was thinking that it was kind of weird [not to hear him before the game], but he gave one before the second half, though ... [starter] Cardale [Jones] did a good job picking up where J.T. left off, getting us motivated before we stepped out on the field." The Buckeyes won 28-14.
Honorable Mention, Part Two: Jeremy Johnson, Auburn
He was on the cover of preseason magazines. He was on preseason Heisman watch lists. He was the single biggest reason that many had picked Auburn to make a College Football Playoff run. But by the end of the season's first month, he was benched. On Saturday, he came off that bench to relieve injured starter Sean White, throwing for just one TD and 132 yards but guiding an offense that ran the ball 52 times en route to upsetting 19th-ranked Texas A&M in College Station. Johnson has handled his benching face-forward and with nothing but class. When he was asked to answer the call eight games later, he delivered a victory that snapped a two-game skid.
The Comeback of the Week Award (also named for Frank Reich): Arkansas ... and Ole Miss?
According to ESPN Stats & Information's sliding in-game FPI Win Probability chart, both teams' chances of victory reached as high as 75 percent, but also dipped as low as 25 percent in the fourth quarter alone. In overtime, Ole Miss spiked to nearly 100 percent and Arkansas fell to nearly 0, but then they completely flip-flopped minutes later as the Hogs won with a "just go for it, dude" two-point conversion. If you like roller coasters, here's the official chart.
The Tommy West Best News Conference of the Week Award: Bret Bielema, Arkansas
After the win that broke Mississippi's heart, Coach Bret had love on his mind, saying to the assembled media, "I'm just looking forward to hopping on the wife." Then he caught himself, explained that he meant to say hopping on the plane home with his wife ... and then turned a shade of Razorback red and ended the news conference.
Final Play Kicking Game Madness, Part 52:
Idaho State was lining up to kick a would-be game-winning field goal against Montana. But as we've learned to expect this season, the unexpected happened. Watch it here ... unless you're an Idaho State fan. Then don't watch it. Like, ever.
The team you should know about but probably don't: Bowling Green
The high-powered Falcons are 7-2. They started the season 2-2, with losses at Tennessee and Memphis (a shootout they lost 44-41) followed by a pair of Big Ten wins at Maryland and Purdue. Since then, they are 5-0 in the MAC and in the driver's seat in the East Division, holding down a two-game lead in the division with three games remaining, including cross-division showdowns with West-leader Western Michigan (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) and against just-dropped-from-top-25 Toledo one week later. QB Matt Johnson has already thrown for 3,686 yards and 33 TDs, both tops in the nation, with a wicked completion rate of 70.5 percent (all while getting sacked a whopping 25 times). The BGSU offense is second in the nation in total yards (5,343), tops in passing (3,872), passing yards per game (430.2) and fifth in points per game (45.9). Dino Babers is a guy who you might not know but is likely to be receiving calls from at least a couple of the ever-increasing number of schools looking for a new head coach. Oh, by the way, their mascot is also a better dancer than your mascot.
The guy you should know about but probably don't: Kenneth Dixon, RB, Louisiana Tech
The senior Bulldog set a Conference USA record with six touchdowns against North Texas, the most for an FBS player this season. He's just the fifth player to rush for at least 70 career TDs. Throw in his four receiving TDs, and his 81 trips to pay dirt trails only former Wisconsin Badger Montee Ball's career record of 83. On Saturday, he moved ahead of Travis Prentice (78 for Miami OH during 1996-99) into second. It'll be a rough month for Prentice as he's likely to drop to fourth soon. Navy QB Keenan Reynolds is still sitting on 77 after failing to score during the Midshipmen's 45-20 win over Memphis. I have a feeling he's OK with that.
The game you should be psyched for but probably aren't: Memphis at Houston (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Speaking of Memphis, don't be fooled by the fact that the then-undefeated Tigers got smoked by Navy. This is still a big game. And it's not just about the Cougars trying to remain undefeated, too. Navy's still unbeaten in the American, and with games against SMU and Tulsa, the Midshipmen will most likely still be when they travel to Houston on Nov. 27. Navy's only loss was to playoff contender Notre Dame way back on Oct. 10. So, instead of Navy at Memphis being a tune-up for Memphis at Houston, Memphis at Houston is the tune-up for Navy at Houston. Weird, right? Even weirder, if Navy was to run the table and win the inaugural AAC Championship Game on Dec. 5, the College Football Playoff committee would have to wait until after the Army-Navy game one week later to announce its final rankings and New Year's Six bowl berths.
Speaking of Navy ...:
On the same evening that Navy earns its first win over a top-25 opponent since 1984, there's also a mysterious flash of light off the coast of California that the Navy takes responsibility for? I'm thinking some Annapolis grad was on a submarine in the Pacific monitoring the situation in Memphis, and when the Middies broke off a 70-yard TD pass, he slammed his fist to the control panel and accidentally launched some crazy missile.
You thought it was a rough weekend for the high-ranked teams of the College Football Playoff? One rung down on the FCS level, it was a bunkhouse stampede. Half of the top 10 -- Illinois State (second), Chattanooga (third), Richmond (seventh), Portland State and Sam Houston State (tied for ninth) -- were on the road and they all lost. Eastern Washington (fourth), Eastern Kentucky (19th) and Montana State (24th) also fell, bringing the total to eight of the FCS top 25 teams going down.