ATHENS — “I didn’t think the championship game was officiated very well.”
That quote came from a former SEC head coach, who was among a few asked to assess the job that Big Ten officials did in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game. These coaches asked not to be identified because they still have connections and interests in the business both with fellow coaches and with football officials. That request was granted in the interest of gaining unfettered opinion about what they saw unfold from an officiating standpoint when Alabama and Georgia played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8.
Any coach will tell you, “You’re going to get some bad calls” in football. That goes for any sport really. Officials are human beings like everybody else and they will make mistakes. And instant replay won’t be available to bail them out in every case. “The key is overcoming them,” they say.
But that’s easier said than done when those bad calls seem to come in droves, which seemed to be the case for the Georgia Bulldogs when they faced Alabama in the title game.
There were at least three calls — or non-calls — that were fairly egregious and went against Georgia in the game. All of them came in the second half, and one, in particular, was potentially devastating to the Bulldogs’ cause.
The overturned blocked punt: Georgia led 13-0 when Alabama had to punt from its own 24 after its first possession of the second half. The punt was blocked by Georgia’s Tyler Simmons at the 14-yard line, but the play was quickly whistled dead.
That’s the one that will forever wake up Georgia coach Kirby Smart — and Simmons — in the middle of the night. Simmons, a wide receiver by trade, was playing a defensive back role on the left side of the Bulldogs punt-return formation when the call came in for “punt block.” Simmons’ assignment is to blitz the punter from several yards behind the line of scrimmage, getting a running start before the snap of the ball.
Sensing he may be crossing the line too soon, Simmons hopped in the air about the time of the snap. Replays show he hadn’t entered the neutral zone, but the Bulldogs were flagged for being offsides, Alabama was rewarded with 5 yards and then got off a 54-yard punt from the 29.
“The official saw how far [Simmons] moved, so he probably thought he couldn’t help but be offsides, in his mind,” one former SEC coach said. “But he obviously didn’t realize how far off the line 87 was when he started. It was a reaction to what he thought he saw instead of actually seeing it. If you look back at it, it was just a good, well-timed play.”
Said another SEC coach: “The blocked-punt call was inexcusable. They actually missed two calls on that play.”
Replays show at least three Alabama players moved early on the play. So even if Georgia hadn’t been awarded possession deep in Crimson Tide territory, at the least Alabama should’ve been flagged for false start and forced to rekick from the 19-yard line.
“There’s nothing in football like a blocked kick,” one coach said of the potential effect on the game. “You’re giving up at least 40 yards of field position if nothing else. It’s demoralizing to the other team. So that was huge. It’s the difference in at least 3 points and maybe more. Georgia was up pretty good at that point.”
The unflagged facemask penalty: Georgia lost yardage on its ensuing offensive possession. The Bulldogs faced second-and-13 from the 33 when Jake Fromm threw a screen pass to D’Andre Swift. Swift was tackled for an 8-yard loss by Isaiah Buggs. But everybody in the stadium saw that Buggs had Swift by the facemask. Everybody but referee Dan Capron, that is.
It was an egregious miss and a potentially devastating one for Georgia since it would have had the ball first-and-10 at its own 48 rather than third-and-21 from the 25. But coaches give the officials a pass on this one as it looks like the referee was actually screened during the time Buggs actually had hold of Swift’s facemask.
“Those are going to happen,” one coach said. “Everybody’s moving, and there’s so many bang-bang plays in there everywhere they’re trying to keep their eyes on. He just didn’t see it.”
The Illegal Motion. Calvin Ridley hauled in a game-tying, 7-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-4 with 3:49 to play. But the receiver lined up outside of Ridley appears to have started up field before the snap of the ball. Neither the line judge nor the side judge, field judge or back judge picked it up.
Had that play been called properly, Alabama should have been flagged for false start or illegal motion and backed up 5 yards, where it would’ve faced fourth-and-9 from the 12. Coach Nick Saban may have still elected to go for the touchdown but more than likely would’ve settled for a 29-yard field-goal try. Andy Pappanastos would miss a 36-yard potential game-winner at the end of regulation.
“That’s another one that you just don’t know what they were thinking,” one coach said. “You’re having to make a judgment about whether they’re set or not. I guess he thought he was set.”
There were at least two other major non-calls that worked in Alabama’s favor in the game, when a linebacker shoved Fromm’s head at the end of a tackle and another Alabama player punched a Georgia player.
Nevertheless, these coaches don’t believe there was some sort of conspiracy for Alabama or against Georgia. They seem to think there is just an unintentional bias that naturally occurs toward the perennial championship teams in sports.
“This is my experience: They get the benefit of the doubt,” a now-retired SEC coach said. “People on the Alabama side will disagree with you, but I’ve seen it. Because they’re Bama, because they’re a great team, I’m just saying, if you go back and study every game, especially the big ones, they just lean that way.”