Up-tempo offenses have SEC experimenting with added official

Pat Forde
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn speaks to an official after Auburn running back Tre Mason ran into an official during the second half of the Southeastern Conference NCAA football championship game against Missouri, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

DESTIN, Fla. – Steve Shaw insists the Southeastern Conference is not purposefully surrendering its officiating soul to up-tempo offense.

But the league's supervisor of officials did say here at the league's spring meetings Thursday that the SEC will experiment in 2014 with a single eight-man officiating crew, with the added official (the "center judge") assigned to spot the football in an orderly and accurate fashion. And the sooner the ball is spotted, the sooner a no-huddle team can line up and get it snapped. It may not be an outright facilitation of fast football, but it is at least an acknowledgment of it.

"The intent is not to change our pace," Shaw said.

Spotting the ball is not a pressing issue unless there are teams pressing the pace of play. Thus it has become a more difficult (and important) duty for officials in recent years. And so the SEC is following what the Big 12 experimented with last year, putting an eighth zebra on the field.

It resulted in some additional holding calls in the Big 12, but that was incidental to the reason for the tweak.

The conference of Art Briles, Mike Gundy, Kliff Kingsbury and other up-tempo offensive coaches is America's fastest when it comes to pace of play, leading the national trend away from between-play committee meetings known as huddles. The SEC, on the other hand, continues to be a battleground region between the up-tempo insurgents and the slow-play traditionalists.

"We're split about half and half," said Shaw, who referred to it as "a Democrat-Republican issue. There's some that are never going to change sides."

The SEC divide played out publicly during the winter when Alabama's Nick Saban led a failed campaign to institute an NCAA rule requiring a 10-second runoff between plays before the ball is snapped. Arkansas' Bret Bielema joined Saban in the slow-down cause. Auburn's no-huddle master, Gus Malzahn – who had some public tiffs with Bielema last season – was among those who stood staunchly opposed.

That "healthy debate" (Shaw's description) carried over to the meetings here. There is no conference where the fans obsess more over matters great and small like they do in the SEC, which makes things like pace of play a hot-button issue.

"I do not have a position one way or other," Shaw said. "The question is, what's best for our game?"

In an effort to develop a consistent officiating response to up-tempo offense, a national standard has been set for the refs. You can call it the Crisp Jog Concept.

"You will not walk and you will not run to spot the ball," Shaw said. "We expect a crisp jog."

A consistent crisp jog sounds better than the wide variance you sometimes see from one crew to the next, or even with the same crew changing its pace from the beginning of a game to the end of a game. Officials have been known to juice their own personal tempo to a full sprint when it comes to spotting the ball in the closing seconds, giving offenses every opportunity to squeeze in a final few snaps.

The Crisp Jog Concept should eliminate those inconsistencies. At least in theory.

Of course, even more important than getting the ball spotted quickly is getting the ball spotted accurately. The more snaps there are, the more chance there is for a blown spot that costs a team a first down – or grants a team a first down it shouldn't have gotten. Shaw said getting the spot right is the most important thing – but getting it promptly right is the best of all worlds.

The crew with the eighth official will rotate throughout the league, so that each of the SEC's 14 teams has it at least once during the season. There was considerable curiosity Thursday over what would be that crew's first assignment – something Shaw was unwilling to say. (Leagues never announce officiating crews in advance of games.)

But keep in mind, the opening league game of the season comes Aug. 30, the first Saturday of the season. It's Arkansas at Auburn, slow-ball Bret Bielema vs. go-go Gus Malzahn.

If there are eight refs on the field for that one, how loud will the squealing be from the Razorbacks?

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