SEC to experiment with 8 football officials, but what's right number?
A shift could be on the horizon in the realm of college football officiating, with several prominent conferences considering adding an official.
The SEC will experiment with one eight-person officiating crew in 2014, becoming the latest major conference to follow the Big 12’s lead by trying eight officials instead of seven.
The Big Ten, ACC and American Athletic Conference may also use an eighth official in some form this season. The Pac-12 opposes the idea.
After its trial run last season, the Big 12 will again use eight officials in 2014. The NCAA Football Rules Committee is now giving every Football Bowl Subdivision conference the option to use eight, and conferences are sorting out how they feel.
The last time major college football added an official was around 1983 when several conferences went from six to seven, according to Big 12 officiating coordinator Walt Anderson. It wasn’t until the late 1990s before most Division I conferences went to seven.
“I think what you’ll find is most conferences, particularly among the power 5, see it’s probably inevitable that to manage the game the eighth official really helps,” Anderson said. “I’m not expecting there’s a need for eight officials at every level.”
One concern for conferences could be the economics of paying more officials. Schools and conferences will have to determine if the eighth official provides enough value to invest money into it as opposed to other officiating areas.
In the SEC, an eighth official will be on one crew that will work a game involving every conference team so coaches can evaluate the concept, SEC officiating coordinator Steve Shaw said. The position will be called center judge -- the new official will wear a “C” on his back --and be located in the offensive backfield opposite the referee.
“People think we’re putting the eighth official in so we can go even faster (given the ongoing debate about up-tempo offenses),” Shaw said. “That absolutely is not the case. The expectation is the pace of the game, whether it’s seven or eight, will be very consistent across the board.”
Shaw said the SEC’s experiment is based on football’s changing complexities due to spread offenses. That’s a point echoed by other conference officiating coordinators. Football has become a numbers game -- more teams throw the ball and more receivers run patterns --and officials are struggling to keep up.
Consider the math on a play if five offensive players go out for a pass. There are three officials positioned deep and two on the sideline. So five receivers (and potentially five to six defensive backs) are occupying five officials.
That leaves two officials -- the referee and umpire -- for the whole area around the pocket and line of scrimmage that involves eight to 11 players. Many officiating coordinators say the numbers don’t add up, especially given the emphasis on player safety, such as watching for personal foul hits on the quarterback.
"That’s a tall order,” Shaw said of two officials watching the balance of the players. “The early views are this eighth official helps us spotting the ball and managing the substitution process, but it’s also an extra pair of eyes to officiate.”
Shaw said the hope is the center judge can free the umpire from handling substitutions and allow him to better make his pre-snap reads. (Yes, officials are taught to read keys, too, just like defensive players.)
Shaw is heading a committee to create national mechanics for the eighth official. He envisions the eighth official will watch the opposite tackle-box area on drop-back passes and frontside and backside runs. The SEC’s sole center judge will be a referee from another conference who could be ready to become an SEC ref within two years, Shaw said.
Other conferences consider eight
The Big Ten will discuss at its spring meetings the possibility of using an eighth official. Big Ten officiating coordinator Bill Carollo said the reaction to eight officials at spring games has been very positive among coaches and officials.
“We’re in a catch-up position,” Carollo said. “The game has changed, going to more types of formations that we haven’t done before. Should we be in zone or man to man as officials? It takes us a year or two to figure it out and catch up. Looking at substitutions and the transformation from the running game to passing game, and the types of routes we didn’t see 10 years ago like back-shoulder catches, how do you defend it as officials?”
Also, the eighth official provides “a little better” balance for a crew to manage tempo before the ball is snapped, Carollo said.
“Some coaches that run 100 plays on offense, they might not like to hear that,” he said. “But we need to control the pace as officials. I’m not saying walking or sprinting, but a consistent pace.”
Carollo said an officiating crew that works 190 to 200 plays a game will inevitably have some breakdowns on mechanics and miss some illegal formations.
“We’re just running to our position and snapping the ball,” Carollo said. “We’ve got to manage with teams. We’re not really trying to slow them down and dictate how they run their offenses. But do we want the right pace to handle subs? Yes, we are concerned about that.”
ACC officiating coordinator Doug Rhoads said if the ACC adopts eight officials in 2014, it would be for a single crew.
“I’m in no way opposed to it,” Rhoads said. “It’s a good, healthy, right thing to do. I don’t know if the model we’re looking at right now is the best utilization for the eighth official. I’m not saying it isn’t. I’m not sure it’s the very best value we can get out of the position.”
For instance, the ACC experimented at Miami’s spring game with the eighth official in different positions. The eighth official was usually situated near a sideline to key on plays behind linebackers -- such as holding a tight end -- and looked for holding by the near-side tackle.
American Athletic Conference officiating coordinator Terry McAulay said there’s a “good possibility” his league will use eight officials at least one game a week in 2014. Unlike the SEC, the AAC may rotate the eighth official among two or three crews.
“I’ve been a big fan of this since it came up in an NFL meeting many years ago when talking about an eighth guy who’s in the defensive backfield,” McAulay said. “We weren’t in favor of that. But in the offensive backfield, for coverage purposes it gives you that triangle (between the referee, umpire and eighth official) working eight to nine players.”
McAulay predicts that within five years the eighth official will be everywhere throughout college football.
“We have to show we do get better coverage to justify that extra cost of an official,” McAulay said. “Will you maybe get more fouls? Yeah, if they foul that’s what’s going to happen. I know fans don’t like fouls. But if they commit a foul, they commit a foul and it needs to be called. You shouldn’t have anybody not seeing anything in this coverage.”
The number of penalties called by Big 12 officiating crews increased by about one per game with eight officials in 2013 compared to seven officials in 2012. The eighth official on those crews called a combined 52 penalties in 54 games.
Anderson said the increase of one penalty per game returned the Big 12 to its normal average after an abnormally low year in 2012. “I hesitate to create trends after one year,” he said.
In terms of penalties per game by team, the Big 12 had the most last season among the five current power conferences. However, the AAC was higher with one fewer official on the field.
|Average penalties by team (2013)|
Pac-12 opposes eight officials
Not every conference is sold on even experimenting with eight officials in 2014. The Pac-12 worked with eight during the past two springs and isn’t enamored with the idea.
“To be perfectly honest, we don’t see a great deal of value for it,” Pac-12 officiating coordinator Tony Corrente said. “I’m not convinced that our game needs it. We have found that our ability to officiate today’s fast-paced game is well under our control. We don’t feel the eighth official would help or support us.”
Corrente said that Pac-12 games averaged 192 plays -- the most in any major conference --while the Pac-12’s length of games were the second shortest. He points to those statistics as evidence that the Pac-12 is efficiently officiating games with seven officials.
“The only thing that does intrigue me at this point is the issue of player safety and with more eyes on the field, the more you have covered,” Corrente said. “But this is why I don’t see a lot of value in this: We spent the last three years working with coaches and players to understand the concept of player safety and player safety fouls were measurably down.”
Corrente’s biggest concern is the eighth official will slow down up-tempo offenses by spotting the ball and then having to return to the offensive backfield. “What’s that delay going to be for the eighth official?” he asked.
Replied the Big 12's Anderson: “The Pac-12 coordinator acknowledged the issue they had --and one reason for doing eight -- is with uptempo teams either the referee or umpire gets taken out of the beginning of the next play. They acknowledged because they have the ump spotting the ball all the time there are a number of calls, like false starts, you want to try to pick up. … It’s a numbers game. You’ve just got to think about it and quit being emotional [about] this stuff.”
Corrente said one conference officiating coordinator complained that his umpires are getting “gassed and beat up” due to tempo.
“My attitude is go get your guys in shape,” Corrente said. “Our umpires are in great shape. I dare anyone to find an overweight Pac-12 official these days. It’s not happening.”
Officiating coordinators agree that major college football -- however that’s defined -- will eventually have to play again with the same number of officials. The officiating community is trying to create more consistency across the board, so varying the number of officials by conference -- or even within a conference -- bucks that trend.
If eight are deemed necessary for the sake of safety, Corrente said he wouldn’t argue.
“I’m standing on one side of the fence post and the Big 12 is completely on the other side,” Corrente said. “I maintain that if I have seven really good officials who do their job, I don’t need that eighth official. Their contention is they do.”
With increasing frequency, more conferences are checking out the Big 12’s position.
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