Rules And Replays

A staple of the Southeastern Conference Media Days, going on in Birmingham this week, is an appearance by Bobby Gaston, the longtime supervisor of SEC football officials. Almost everyone associated with SEC football considers Gaston to be one of the good guys, pleasant to deal with, intelligent, and very concerned that officiating be as good as it can be.

And Bobby Gaston knows that his crews sometimes make mistakes. He is not afraid to be public about those mistakes, a number of which have had huge implications. Alabama has been on the wrong side of a disproportionate number of those blown calls in recent years.

In his presentation to the media Thursday, Gaston first noted some changes in rules for the upcoming season. Although most have considered the "grounding pocket"–the area from which a quarterback will be penalized for intentional grounding–as between the tackles, the original rule was that the quarterback had to get at least five yards horizontally from the spot of the ball for the snap before releasing a pass. The new rule basically puts the pocket as where media and fans considered it–between the tackles.

Gaston noted that the new parameters are actually easier for officials to monitor.

He also said that the spearing rule is tougher. In the past, a player had to be judged to be "intentionally" using his helmet against an opponent. Now there is no need to judge intent. Spearing is a personal foul.

Another safety measure is a change in the so-called "legal clipping zone." The zone still exists–five yards horizontally and three yards vertically on each side of the spot of the ball–and an offensive player can still make a block in the back in that area, but the block can no longer be at the knee or lower.

Also in the "safety" area, last year's controversial rule on leaping has been expaned. The rule, a point of emphasis last year, may have preserved Auburn's perfect season when LSU was penalized for a leap onto an Auburn player on a missed exta point kick, giving Auburn another opportunity to kick and a 10-9 win. The old rule penalized a team if the player took more than one step, leaped, and came down on an opposing player. Now the penalty will be assessed even if he comes down on his teammate.

In the "sportsmanship" area, Gaston said, "We have also instituted in the book a listing of unsportsman-like acts. As you know, SEC has always been relatively strict on unsportsman-like conduct. And some of the conferences said, well, they didn't think that was demeaning to the game and let it go. I wrote down a list and submitted to the rules committee 21 acts, and 13 of them have been adopted, such as slashing the throat..."

But most of the interest was on the new replay program that will go into effect in the SEC this year. The program was done experimentally in the Big Ten last season.

More than once, Gaston emphasized "there must be indisputable video evidence" before the replay team will overrule an official's call. He said, "The objective of instant replay is to allow the specific types of officiating mistakes to be immediately reviewed and corrected. And the standard is that there must be indisputable evidence, video evidence, to overturn a call that's on the field."

And, he said, "We want to keep the replay team out of officiating. They are charged only with correcting."

One interesting note from Georgia Tech grad Gaston: On September 3, when Auburn hosts Georgia Tech, the officiating crew will be from the ACC, but the replay team will be SEC.

Gaston noted that every non-conference opponent of SEC teams has agreed to allow the replay system in SEC stadiums.

Gaston pointed out that the NCAA has decided what can be considered in the replay booth, and that it is essentially what the Big Ten used in its experiment last year.

He said, "We are not going to review any fouls. We're primarily going to review plays where, whether it's a catch or not a catch on passing plays, and whether or not on the scoring play the runner broke the plain of the goal line or was out of bounds, short of it, whether a receiver was in bounds, out of bounds at the end line, things of that nature.

"We're going to rule about touching of the pass. We can do that. We can review a play on fourth down and tries as to whether or not a fumbling player is the player that recovered the fumble, that's a requirement on fourth down and tries, that's a reviewable thing.

"Obviously, the big deal is coming from pass completions or incompletions or fumbles or non-fumbles, whether the runner was down before the fumble or whether or not it was a fumble before he actually hit the ground with some part of his body other than his hand or foot."

Each SEC school will have a replay booth in which a three-man team–including a former official who is the official–watch the television feed. (If there is no network or cable or pay-per-view coverage, the SEC will hire an independent contractor to provide video.) There is also a special nine-screen monitor operated by a communicator, who can immediately give the official various views of a play.

If the official deems a play needs to be corrected, that information is relayed to the officials and the referee makes the call based on his conversation with the replay official.

There is no "challenge" system by a coach as in the NFL.

Gaston said he expects the replay to add no more than "one to two minutes" to a game, depending on how many plays are overturned. While he said he obviously hopes there are no overturns and that this turns out to be a big waste of SEC money, he added that he is not naive and knows that mistakes are made and that some–not all–can be corrected with this system.

He also pointed out that stadiums with Jumbotron screens (and that is all of them) are permitted by SEC rule to replay a play only one time. Although he didn't say so, this is certainly an attempt to avoid embarrassing SEC officials and/or inciting a crowd.

Gaston said he expects officials to not rule in some instances unless they are 100 per cent sure. He pointed out that if a player fumbles and the official is not 100 per cent sure whether he was down or not, he will allow the fumble knowing that it can be corrected by the replay official. On the other hand, if he rules the man down before the fumble, that is not a reviewable play.

Gaston said that although it is not in the review field, that if an officiating crew is about to allow a fifth down, "I am going to figure out some way get word down there that you are about to have a fifth down."

He noted one interesting scenario that could be controversial: A player is close to the goalline and ruled in for a touchdown. The play is reviewed to see if he crossed the plane. The replay officials sees that the player was actually down just short of the goalline, so it is not a touchdown. The replay official also sees that the player was tackled by the facemask, which would be a first down penalty, but the replay official is not allowed to make that call.

"We are charting new waters," Gaston said.

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