If It's Broke, Fix It: Tennessee Nearly Gets Slive'd Against Vanderbilt

Ben GarrettCorrespondent INovember 22, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH - NOVEMBER 14:  Head coach Kirk Ferentz of the Iowa Hawkeyes talks with the referee during a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on November 14, 2009 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Tennessee leads 24-13 late in the fourth quarter. Vanderbilt has the ball inside the 10-yard line, needing a score to keep its comeback hopes alive. Cornerback Anthony Anderson, making his first career start for the Vols, makes a great play on a Commodore receiver, allowing teammate Dennis Rogan to intercept a Mackenzie Adams pass on third down.

A fourth straight win over an in-state rival, bowl eligibility, and a winning record, all wrapped up with one big play by a defensive back who wasn't even expected to play the game due to injury.

And then the flag.

In this league, always the flag.

An official behind the play flagged Anderson for pass interference, giving Vanderbilt a 1st-and-goal at the two-yard-line.

It was another logic-defying call of the variety that have become the norm in the Southeastern Conference. Vanderbilt wound up kicking a field goal to cut the deficit to 24-16, giving itself an opportunity to tie the game on its next possession.

Tennessee, you just got Slive'd.

By itself, the call on Anderson would have elicited a chorus of boos from the 101,000 inside Neyland Stadium but would've been forgotten by the time Wes Brown was collapsing over the goal line for a game-ending pick-six to seal the deal.

But the pass interference call wasn't the first brow-raising call on this night. It wasn't even the first pass interference call that left fans up in arms.

Minutes earlier, Tennessee was flagged for a blatantly incorrect personal foul on a Vanderbilt punt attempt. In the first half, it was a phantom pass interference committed by linebacker Rico McCoy that kept the Commodores' lone touchdown drive alive.

But in a flurry of bad calls, there were none worse than the pass interference on Anderson to keep Vanderbilt's upset hopes alive.

Vol Network color commentator Tim Priest said it best: "SEC officials aren't supposed to be criticized, but they just blew it."

Tim Priest, Mike Slive would like to have a word with you.

In a season filled with officiating controversies, the SEC commissioner has gone to considerable measures to muzzle coaches who range from confused to infuriated by games that, at times, could probably be better officiated by performing circus dogs.

First, Slive went to the unprecedented public reprimands for any coach who publicly criticizes officials. When that didn't work, he announced fines and suspensions for coaches who dare to question the officiating. It took exactly four days for the first coach—Florida's Urban Meyer—to lash out at officials in a test of Slive's new rule. Meyer's mostly mundane complaint about a late hit on quarterback Tim Tebow earned him a $30,000 fine.

A majority of the league's coaches have had gripes about officiating this season, and no fewer than a third have been cited for violating the SEC's code of ethics with their public comments.

In addition to Meyer, Arkansas's Bobby Petrino, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen, and Tennessee's Lane Kiffin have been reprimanded for their criticism of officials. Other coaches—including Vanderbilt's Bobby Johnson and LSU's Les Miles—have been a little more judicious with their comments, allowing them to stay out of Slive's dog house.

But at what point does it become apparent that the problem in this league isn't the coaches but—gasp —the officials? It's a remarkable concept, I know. But one worthy of being explored.

Most SEC officials do have full-time jobs off the football field, and their job really is a thankless one. But, at roughly $500 per game, they earn more money on a single Saturday than a sizable chunk of the American work force earns in a 40-hour week. So, with all due respect to the majority of officials who are doing their jobs correctly on a weekly basis, the bad apples are spoiling the lot of you.

It isn't just the judgment calls made at full speed that are going wrong. How do you explain an interception by LSU's Patrick Peterson that wasn't corrected on review despite the entire football-watching world noting that Peterson had at least one, if not two, feet in bounds? That debacle enabled Alabama to score a touchdown to put the game out of reach.

How do you explain a Dustin Doe fumble at the goal line in the fourth quarter of Florida's game against Mississippi State? Replay officials decided not to overturn the touchdown despite video evidence that the ball was knocked free short of the goal line.

You don't explain them. You just shrug and pose the rhetorical question: How can college football's best conference have some of its worst officiating?

What makes it worse is that this season's culmination of years of grumbling about conference officiating comes in the first year of ESPN's $2.25 billion contract with the league, which puts more SEC games in more households than ever before.

In other words, the world is watching. And the SEC is failing.

The obvious solution seems to be to take some of the combined $205 million the SEC receives each year from ESPN and CBS and fix the problem. Better training, higher-paid refs. Maybe even move SEC officials from amateur to professional status: make 'em full-time.

But if Slive's public comments about the officiating controversy are any indication, a fix isn't coming.

In a statement that would have made Baghdad Bob envious, Slive said, "It may sound incongruous but we do have as good officiating as there is in the country."

You're right, Mike. It does sound incongruous. And incredulous.

In another "Baghdad is secure; there are no Americans here" remark, SEC coordinator of officials Rogers Redding said earlier this month that there's nothing wrong with SEC officiating: "It doesn't need fixing...I think we've had a really good season so far."

What do you know: another incongruous comment from the SEC front office.

A really good season? In whose world? Perhaps in Tuscaloosa, Oxford, or Lexington. The Tide, Rebels, and Wildcats are just about the only teams not to fall victim to incredibly bad calls this season.

Scratch that. Ole Miss fell victim to the catch all "excessive celebration" penalty Saturday when Cassius Vaughn was flagged 15 yards on an interception return for diving into the end zone in an effort to escape an LSU player who was giving chase.

And in the SEC this year, it's only a matter of time before the bell tolls for each team. The dwindling teams which haven't been impacted by a horrible call so far can't take comfort in that fact; each passing week increases the odds that the bell next tolls for you.

If you're Alabama, you might want to score an extra touchdown against Florida in the SEC Championship Game...just in case you need it. You never know when you're going to be Slive'd.