As you can tell from the length of my blogroll, there are lots of terrific college football blogs out there. But there are only a few bloggers whose posts I tend to approach with a sense of awe because of the obvious depth and effort they put into them.
One of those is Ed Gunther, whose The National Championship Issue deserves to be on your must read list. In Ed’s latest offering, he takes a look at a subject that’s been poked and prodded here and elsewhere – questionable officiating – and decides to break it down to see if there’s any substance to the oft-repeated feeling that there’s something purposeful behind the bad calls.
And when I say “break it down”, I mean break it down.
… we’re looking at 2000-2008, which means 6,761 games. Two teams per game gives us 13,522 team-games…
That’s right – he looked at the penalty numbers from that many games. Specifically, he looked for a pattern of irregularity from the perspective of home team calls and higher ranked team calls. And what did he find with all that sifting? Not very much:
Home / Away Penalties & Yards category games avg penalties avg pen yards more penalties more % Home (averages) 6,029 6.3 53.8 2,362 40.1% Away (averages) 6,059 6.6 54.6 2,855 48.5% Home (outliers) 356 9.3 87.9 243 49.2% Away (averages) 326 9.9 85.7 238 48.2%
Hmmm… it doesn’t appear that there’s any significant difference. The home team has a slight edge in the first few columns, but nothing irregular. Something notable is that in the average games, the home team usually takes less penalties, taking more than their visitor just 40.1% of the time. However, when we’re looking at the outliers, the home team takes more penalties a higher percentage of the time, 49.2% to 48.2%. This could be due to the fact that in the average population there’s more visiting team-games and in the outliers there’s more home team-games, but the difference is pretty small. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence here for the home team having a significant edge penalty-wise.
Let’s look at something else. What about any advantage given to the higher-ranked team?
Penalties & AP Rankings category All Games Average Games Outlier Games neither team ranked 5,596 5,286 310 same # of penalties 1,460 1,425 35 higher ranked, more penalties 3,372 3,157 215 higher more % 52.2% 51.9% 56.6% higher ranked, less penalties 3,088 2,923 165 higher less % 47.8% 48.1% 43.4%
Well, if anything it seems that overall, the higher ranked team usually takes more penalties, and that’s especially the case in the outliers. Interesting.
When you measure that along with something Matt Hinton’s shown repeatedly – namely, that penalties are a relatively insignificant factor in a team’s success – there’s not much there there.
Admittedly, we’ve got a second issue in play here, that of perception. Not in the perception-equals-reality sense, but more in the Nick Saban-we-don’t-have-time-for-this-shit sense. Why let this stuff fester, after all? What do people like Mike Slive gain from having to devote repeated attention to damage control over this? Given the resources at college football’s disposal, along with the relatively little effort it would take to address some of the more egregious occurrences (assuming that people like Rogers Redding could be made to care, of course), there are a few obvious steps that could be taken to address the common concerns being raised.
Ed’s got a few good suggestions about those:
Do they get a call wrong every now and then? Sure. But a lot of those can easily be avoided with the use of instant replay. Sure, some calls are subjective, like holding or interference. The referees have training and years of experience calling those plays – as long as they’re consistent, I see no reason not to trust them and defer to their judgment in those cases. For situations like the Georgia-LSU celebration penalties, I think the refs are handcuffed by overbearing rules that are trying to damper down the spirit of competition.
But for the non-subjective determinations, like going out-of-bounds or the ball hitting the ground on an attempted shoe-string catch, use instant replay. Get a donor to give your school money for some LCD high-def TV’s, put them in the booth, and use them. Talk to the networks and make them put cameras in more strategic locations so that you can give the guys in the booth the best angles to see the plays – shoot them down the sidelines and endzones, if nothing else. The college game gets it right by reviewing every play. (The NFL knows that would lengthen their games past the mandated 3 hours, so fairness has to take a back seat.) Do whatever it takes to get the call right. I don’t want to hear any crap about the refs being human or bad calls being a part of the game. For subjective calls, fine – I can accept that. But with so much riding on games nowadays, the NCAA, conferences, and schools need to be doing all they can to make sure that the black & white calls are correct. Fans won’t care if it adds an extra 15 minutes to the games, or if a booth review takes a while. Just Get. The Call. Right. They’ll care a whole lot more if you get the call wrong, trust me. Those are things that people besides the refs can fix, so if anything you should be just as pissed at them for letting these things slide.
I think that’s right. For the most part, it’s not the refs that should have the heat directed at them – it’s the enablers, like the aforementioned Mr. Redding, who are far more concerned about appearance and ass-covering than they are with getting things right for the satisfaction of the fans, players and coaches, who should be getting grief. But when you’ve got conference commissioners who appear more focused on enforcing gag rules rather than making every effort to see that officials can do their jobs with the least amount of trouble, it’s hard to see much headway being made, at least for now.