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Instant replay back in spotlight

Tennessee's Pig Howard had his touchdown reversed in the Vols' game versus Georgia. Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Has anyone in college football been busier than instant replay officials over the past few weeks?

Well, maybe USC athletics director Pat Haden, who is looking for a new coach after he fired Lane Kiffin last month.

Heading into another weekend slate of games, here's hoping the officials have done as much film study as the players. In four of last week's most high-profile endings, instant replays played big roles in determining the outcomes.

And depending on which team you were rooting for, TV replays might have looked much different from what replay officials saw in the booth:

• In Texas' 31-30 victory at Iowa State on Thursday night, which might have prevented UT coach Mack Brown's seat from turning into an inferno for at least another week, the Cyclones appeared to strip the ball from Longhorns tailback Johnathan Gray near the goal line with about one minute to play. The call on the field was that Gray was down by contact and the replay official upheld the ruling. The Longhorns scored the winning touchdown two plays later.

• In No. 4 Ohio State's 40-30 win at Northwestern on Saturday night, two replay rulings played a big role in keeping the Buckeyes' 18-game winning streak intact. With the Wildcats holding a 23-20 lead early in the fourth quarter, OSU tailback Carlos Hyde dove toward the goal line on third-and-goal. On-the-field officials ruled Hyde was stopped short of the end zone, so Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer sent his field goal unit onto the field to try to tie the score.

But then Meyer changed his mind and called timeout. At the last moment, the replay official decided to review the play and eventually ruled that Hyde scored a touchdown, which appeared to be the correct call.

Later in the fourth quarter, after the teams traded touchdowns, Ohio State had a 34-30 lead with less than three minutes to play. The Wildcats faced fourth-and-inches at the OSU 34. The Wildcats elected to go for it, but quarterback Kain Colter bobbled the snap. He picked up his fumble and lunged for the first down. Officials marked him short of the first down, and the replay official ruled the play stood because there was no indisputable evidence to overturn the call.

• On Tennessee's first possession of overtime versus No. 7 Georgia, Pig Howard took a handoff and raced for the end zone down the right sideline. Howard dove for the pylon before he was tackled, and officials ruled the ball crossed the goal line for a touchdown. But instant replay revealed Howard actually fumbled the ball before it crossed the goal line. Because the ball rolled out of bounds in the end zone, the play was ruled a touchback and the Bulldogs were given possession. UGA's Marshall Morgan kicked a 42-yard field goal to win the game 34-31.

• Washington cut No. 5 Stanford's lead to 31-28 with about 2½ minutes to go in Saturday night's game in Palo Alto, Calif. With the Cardinal seemingly on the ropes, the Huskies faced fourth-and-10 at the Stanford 49. UW quarterback Keith Price rolled to his right, stiff-armed a would-be tackler and then hurled a pass down the sideline to Kevin Smith, who dove to make a 16-yard catch with 1:16 remaining. But after reviewing TV replays, the replay official said the ball hit the ground, and the Cardinal was given the ball and won the game.

Why were some plays overturned, while others were upheld? Because while instant replay is designed to use technology to ensure that correct calls are made on the field, it's still an imperfect system. Even though replay officials use a plethora of TV replays and angles to make the most educated decision possible, there's still an element of human judgement and thus error.

"It's not perfect," said Rogers Redding, national coordinator for college football officials. "You've got humans overseeing the replay system just like you've got human officials on the field. It's never going to be perfect. That's why the default is for the call on the field to stand if the replay doesn't show absolutely otherwise."

So what qualifies as "indisputable evidence," the standard for overturning a ruling on the field? Despite the protests of Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads, who was reprimanded by the Big 12 for being critical of officials after his team lost to the Longhorns, the league ruled that the replay official acted properly in upholding the on-field ruling that Gray hadn't fumbled.

Big 12 supervisor of officials Walt Anderson said the replay official viewed replays of the play from five angles: line feed, goal-line cart, press box angle, sky cam and opposite end zone camera. The replay official ruled there wasn't indisputable video evidence to confirm that the on-field ruling was correct or that Gray had fumbled prior to being down.

"By rule when there is not indisputable video evidence to confirm or change the call on the field, the ruling stands," Anderson said. "On this play, the covering official ruled the runner was down and still had control of the ball. There is no question the runner ends up on the ground, and there is no question that eventually an Iowa State player ends up with the ball. However, after reviewing the video evidence it is impossible to tell with certainty when the runner loses control of the ball and at that point was he down or not."

Redding said viewers might not always see every replay that the replay official sees in the booth.

"It's not always what the viewer sees at home," Redding said. "I think the replay booth may sometimes see what the viewer sees at home. But a lot of times, TV will take a commercial break while the play is being reviewed."

If a game is not being televised, there's no way to review plays.

"If it's not on TV, there's nothing to look at," Redding said.

Rhoads wasn't the only FBS coach perplexed by instant replay this past week. Washington coach Steve Sarkisian watched a replay of Smith's fourth-down catch on the video screen at Stanford Stadium. Sarkisian wasn't sure if Smith caught the pass, but he didn't think there was indisputable video evidence to overturn the on-field ruling of a reception.

"I think it was a very difficult call to make at the moment of the call," Sarkisian said. "It was ruled a catch and I accepted the fact it was ruled a catch. If they ruled it incomplete I would have accepted it was ruled incomplete. But it was ruled a catch so we went with the call. The explanation from the Pac-12 using the same video replay we saw on the JumboTron, the back angle of that ESPN shot, was that it was conclusive that it was not a catch. I disagree, but that is just my opinion. I don't think that was conclusive."

What's conclusive? It depends on whom you ask or, more important, who is looking at the replay.

"Somebody said if 50 guys in a bar agree that it has to be overturned then it's probably indisputable," Redding said. "That's not the best description. There's always going to be judgment involved. The role of the replay official is to make sure there is no doubt before they overturn or confirm a call. The idea is that if someone who understands the game is looking at the video, there has to be no doubt."

But the last several days in college football have revealed there's always going to be plenty of uncertainty.