Wilner Hotline: Pac-12 Football Officiating Making Big Strides

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

By Jon Wilner 

There have been a bevy of upsets involving the Pac-12 through the first month of the 2021 season, but none bigger than this:

The officiating does not stink.

Quite the opposite, in fact. It has been quite good.

Say it with me: Pac-12 officiating has … been … quite … good.

Sure, some calls have raised eyebrows and enraged coaches. Anyone see Jimmy Lake’s reaction to a clock issue the other night? Whoa.

But across the sweep of September, the calls on the field and decisions in the replay booth have been mere background noise — allowing us to focus, for better or worse, on the football itself.

That hasn’t always been the case in the Pac-12, or hadn’t you heard.

The Hotline has been extremely critical of officiating in the past, particularly when egregious mistakes are made.

Or when an on-field blunder led to Washington State losing 57 yards in field position against Cal in 2019.

Or when the conference admitted an error on a decisive field goal attempt in the Arizona State-Michigan State game (also in 2019).

Or when back-to-back gaffes affected a crucial sequence in the Oregon-Oregon State game last year and prompted our two-partdeep dive into the state of officiating.

Or when … Eh, never mind.

But we’re also in the business of calling ‘em like we see ‘em.

And so far in 2021, the officials on the field, in the booth and in the replay command center in San Francisco have done quality work.

From here, that’s crystal clear.

There have been some tricky calls and several notable mistakes. A roughing the passer call on Washington State, which led to a USC touchdown, comes immediately to mind.

But a few notable mistakes are inevitable over the course of dozens of games.

On whole, the process, execution and communication have been been smooth:

— The replay review process seems faster.

— There are fewer bad holding penalties and fewer pass interference calls (Oregon State’s game last week is the exception).

— Targeting controversies have been rare.

— And above all, there have been no mistakes that generate headlines, require public admissions of guilt and undermine the credibility of the product.

Unlike, ahem, the SEC.

Two weeks ago, SEC officials skipped a down in the Auburn-Penn State game, forcing the following mea culpa from the conference office:

“At 11:45 in the 2nd quarter, Penn State throws an incomplete pass that was judged to be Intentional Grounding. The crew’s enforcement of the penalty erroneously set the down to 3rd; the correct down should have been 2nd. The replay booth was consulted to confirm the down prior to the punt. The replay booth had the down as 4th down as well. The error was discovered during the media timeout that followed the punt and by rule it could not be corrected at that time.”

The Pac-12 scoffs in the SEC’s general direction.

In the interest of transparency, please know that the Hotline watches a lot of Pac-12 football, but we don’t see every play in every game.

To test our theory on officiating, we reached out to beat reporters across the conference, to TV analysts who have been critical of the Pac-12 in the past and even to a coach.

We asked for honest assessments in exchange for confidentiality, and the overwhelming majority of responses were some version of: “To be honest, I haven’t really noticed the officiating.”

And that’s how it should be.

“We’re in a good place right now,” Merton Hanks, the Pac-12’s chief of football operations, told the Hotline recently. “We’re not the same unit from the days when we had bad mishaps. There’s more accountability.”

Hanks declined to discuss specific changes, preferring to wait for a larger sample size before offering a public assessment. But Hanks, in his second year overseeing Pac-12 football, acknowledged that he has upgraded both staffing and technology in the replay command center in San Francisco.

“It was time to do that,” he said. “We’ve done the job quietly and prepared for success. We’re in a better place than we were last year.”

Pac-12 officials passed their most significant test of the season, with a clean performance in Oregon’s victory at Ohio State — a Week Two showdown on FOX that attracted the fourth-largest audience of the season (7.7 million viewers).

“The feedback we received was that the crew did a great job,” Hanks said. “They made some calls that they needed to make. But the game was decided by the teams.”

That hasn’t always been the case in the Pac-12.

But this season, through four weeks and 30-something games, it’s undeniably true.

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