TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Patrick Peterson broke on the pass, felt the ball land in his arms, then looked down as he tried to tap his feet in bounds for the interception.
"When I caught the ball I believe I got two feet in," Peterson, LSU's star cornerback, said Saturday. "I looked down and both my feet were on the green. I had possession of the ball."
The referees disagreed. The replay official, Gerald Hodges, concurred despite what looked to most, including the CBS broadcast crew, that Peterson had made the pick.
Regardless of dissent, Alabama kept possession of the ball and went in for a game-clinching field goal. With the 24-15 victory, the Tide improved to 9-0 and kept their SEC and BCS title hopes alive.
And so, the latest episode of "This Week in SEC Officiating Controversies" began.
Welcome to the SEC 2009, where the season has been overrun with controversies, conspiracies, suspensions and fines.
There's hardly been a key game that hasn't come under fire for bad calls. Coaches have been reprimanded for speaking out, causing commissioner Mike Slive to rewrite the penalties for ripping the refs just last week. Within days, he had to fine Florida coach Urban Meyer $30,000 for fairly innocuous comments about a missed spearing call on his quarterback, Tim Tebow.
On and on it's gone. The mentality of questioning the refs was, ironically, legitimized by the league office's repeated apologies and suspensions of crews for blown calls early in the season.
It doesn't help that it seems like the beneficiaries from mistakes are the league's two BCS title contenders – Alabama and Florida.
There is no full-blown conspiracy, although fans don't want to hear it. It'd be impossible for the SEC to get all these refs who earn around $500 a week and maintain full-time jobs to risk federal imprisonment and fix games. Even suggested favoritism is unlikely.
These are human referees who keep making human errors while trying to call games under extreme circumstances – big, fast players in wild, noisy stadiums. It isn't easy being a ref anywhere, let alone the SEC.
Still, even for the most understanding, the weekly parade of major mistakes is ruining the fun.
Alabama, in this case, won a hard-fought game over one of its chief rivals. The Tide's physical defense knocked key LSU players out of the game. Running back Mark Ingram took over the second half and rushed for 144 yards. An electric crowd pushed ‘Bama to an SEC West clinching victory, its 21st consecutive in the regular season.
No one in crimson should have to explain anything.
After all, even if Peterson had been given the pick, LSU still needed to go 69 yards, down six with 5:54 remaining in the game behind its backup quarterback and tailback.
"We'd have to navigate the field," LSU coach Les Miles said. "[But] you'd like to be in that position."
Well, yes, you would. And that's why this won't die down quickly; circumstances and conjecture are the first casualties of a bad call.
Peterson said he was 100 percent certain he got both feet in bounds. That claim was bolstered when LSU coaches and players pointed to scuff marks that they claim Peterson made and were in the field of play.
"Definitely the foot marks that [were] left on the field were not even on the white, it was all on the green," Peterson said.
He was so confident the replay judge would rule in his favor, he went and sat on the bench. Instead it went the other way.
"I don't know what it could be," he said.
Miles was cautious to avoid comments that would earn him a fine or suspension. Still, he was eager to get a better look at the replay.
"I was told speculation is rampant to what [the call] was," he said.
He said he'd support the referees to his team. Although …
"The difficult issue I have is telling my team [he was going to support the refs]. That's the issue. Telling Patrick Peterson, who in his mind knows it's an interception.
"If it's the right call, it's easy."
It probably wasn't.
While Miles wasn't aware immediately, on the same fourth-quarter drive, Alabama appeared to benefit from a generous marking off of a 5-yard penalty for running into the kicker. It looked like the ref walked off 5½ yards. 'Bama then converted on fourth-and-a few-feet to extend the drive.
We'll let LSU fans trot out the GPS to figure it out.
Some of the weekly referee bloodletting is the SEC's own unintended doing. The league has brilliantly marketed itself in recent years, turning what was once a regional obsession into a national passion.
Nearly every league game is on national television now and exposure, storylines and rivalries have drawn fans in from outside the league's traditional nine-state footprint.
It's become a mini-NFL.
Almost weekly the league sets new records for attendance and television ratings. Media exposure is at an all-time high. Coaches and players have become huge stars. It doesn't appear this folksy conference was ready for the over-the-top intensity. Meanwhile, traditional fans have gone even crazier, driven by the 24-hour hum of internet message boards. Nothing gets those going like the refs.
So down here, they can't forget what in other leagues is easily forgotten.
That's the SEC. Call after call is scrutinized. Comment after comment dissected. Refs are suspended. Coaches fined. Everything is national news.
Conspiracies bloom with the tap of a cornerback's toes.
- Patrick Peterson