- Ryan McGee, ESPN The Magazine, NASCAR
Because my father was an FBS college football official most of my life, I grew up in a house where referees were celebrated as people who understand the game on a level that few ever achieve.
To any reader who has ever called a ref an idiot -- which is to say, all of you -- that may read like a bit too much hyperbole. It's not. It's the truth. Officials, the good ones anyway, watch film, study team tendencies and spend their weeks leading into big games exchanging information about upcoming teams. Who do they talk to? They talk to each other.
No one, save the players and coaches, has an on-field view of what teams and players are capable of like the officials do. Sometimes their vision is even clearer than the competitors, thanks to emotion-free eyes.
Every Friday my Pops would leave for a game, turning to me and my little brother and dropping such predictions as, "Be sure to keep an eye on Raghib Ismail. I'd be shocked if he doesn't return at least one punt for a touchdown down the left side." And then, every Saturday, whatever he said would happen, happened.
With that in mind, I went searching for intel on the BCS title contenders from officials who have been on the field with them this year. Understandably, none wanted their names attached to their comments. Said one line judge: "We're all likely going to see these teams at least once more in conference play and hopefully I'll get see at least two of them in New Orleans on January 9th."
Here are referees' scouting reports on the top five teams in the BCS standings:
1. LSU Tigers
SEC official: "What jumps out at you is their speed on defense. On the field with them, there are times when it feels like they are totally lost. You know they know what the play call is, but it never looks like it. It looks chaotic. And I do think they have a tendency to just kind of wing it sometimes, but certainly not to the level that it looks. Then, after the ball is snapped it's like -- bang! -- swarming. Wherever the ball goes, they go. That's that speed. As an official, you have to back it up, play it loose and be ready to react to anything.
"When the defensive coordinator [John Chavis] was at Tennessee, they were the same way -- so fast that it allows them to lure an offense into a zone and then punish them for going there. The difference with this LSU defense versus what he had in Knoxville is that it does a much better job when it comes to that punishment. They subscribe to that old Florida State school of 'don't hit them after the whistle, but hit them as close to the whistle as you possibly can.' My former colleagues who are in the NFL now say they see the same thing with teams like the Ravens or the Steelers.
"As an official, you have to be ready to monitor those hits. You warn them early and often if they start getting too close. You have to set the tone early with those guys."
SEC official: "They are just as fast and as strong on defense as LSU, maybe better. But the difference is that it is all much more conventional. It's more structured. As an official, that's great. It makes it all much easier to keep under control than what LSU does.
"But I think as an offensive coordinator it's the complete opposite. You look at the film and think, 'Well, I know this set and I have all the plays that should beat it.' But then you run your plays and the holes close so fast and the wall shores up so much, especially deep, you can't do anything.
"For an official, especially our guys who are deep -- the back judge, field judge and side judge -- in an Alabama game, you can feel those guys inching up as the game goes on. Like the Alabama defensive backs, eventually you realize nothing is coming deep, so you might as well shorten up the field.
"On offense, it's the same way. You know it's going to be [Trent Richardson] all day and night, so you kind of cheat up the field a little. You can sense when they are finally going to play deep. At least I think I can. I probably sound like some poor defensive backs coach who has gotten torched."
Big 12 official: "People will see me running in the summertime, just sweating my [expletive] off, and they ask me why I am doing this to myself. My answer is always pretty simple -- I have to work Oklahoma State games!
"Everyone knows that receiver [Justin Blackmon] is great, but when you watch Oklahoma State on film you have a tendency to focus on him and miss all those other athletes on the field. I feel like that's what other teams do. But they use him to set other players up and spread it around to the point that you have no idea where it's going to go.
"We always go into games with a couple of different key guys in mind on offense and defense, guys we need to watch because they will be in on so many plays. With Oklahoma State I don't even pay attention to who anyone is because so many are in on so many offensive plays. I wouldn't be surprised if they've had seven different guys catch touchdown passes. (Author's note: it's actually eight.)
"On defense, I feel like they can be exploited up the middle. The defensive line is good and they are so QB-obsessed that they tend to push everything forward a little too much on each play. A QB with a quick release that can take a hit can wait a beat, wait for that middle to empty out, and then dump it in to someone. A guy like Landry Jones."
Pac-12 official: "I worked one of their games early in the year and I had them again in October. It's amazing how far that offensive line has come. When I saw them early, live and on tape, I really thought the line was going to be a problem. They replaced three guys and it showed. [Andrew Luck] spent a lot of time backpedaling and got knocked down a lot by some bad football teams. But now they are nearly back to where they were last year.
"Luck's the best quarterback I've ever been on the field with. But I think everyone focuses too much on him. Their running game is so good and I think that it is because everyone spends all their time watching Luck or waiting on him to kill you in the passing game. I know in our pregame talks we really focused on the passing game, but then you get to halftime and realize they've run it more than they've thrown it. You want to shift your focus to the running game but you can't, you still have to be set up to cover the pass. If that's a discussion we're having, then you can figure it's ten-fold for a defense.
"That Oregon game will be their season. I've seen Oregon State and Cal, and Stanford will hammer them. I don't think Notre Dame will be a problem, either. We had guys in the USC game, and they weren't all that impressed with Notre Dame, so you figure if the Cardinal get by Oregon they'll be undefeated in the Pac-12 championship game."
Big 12 official: "The Mountain West pools together officials with other conferences under the CFO West banner. Because of that, officials don't see those schools more than twice a year and usually not that much, as opposed to the conference structure where you might see one team three or four times a year. As part of that arrangement we send officials to work Mountain West games, so I guess I've seen Boise as much as anyone.
"First things first, they can compete with the big schools. I hear people say they couldn't last over the course of a full schedule in a BCS conference and I just laugh. No, they're not as deep as a Big 12 or SEC school, but if they were in the Big 12 or SEC they'd be able to build that depth. And besides, their key skill players are so good that doesn't matter.
"What strikes you being on the field with them is that their offensive guys are every bit as good as what we see in the Big 12. And they are big. The quarterback isn't, but I think you expect them all to be a lot smaller, and they're not. If they had on different uniforms you wouldn't even think about it.
"But for all the attention their offense gets, it's their defense that impresses me. All those guys are upperclassmen and they act like it. They are super fast and they shorten the field. They don't give up big plays. I think their secondary is vulnerable at the corners, but the defensive line and their linebackers are so good they help take the pressure off that backfield.
"If a team can really run it, like an Alabama kind of power game, and keep that defensive front occupied, there's somewhere to go in the outside passing lanes."
Ryan McGee chats with college refs, who dish anonymous scouting reports on the top 5 teams in the BCS standings. How are LSU's and Alabama's defenses different? Can Boise State hang with the big boys? The zebras have the answers.