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The Other One-Loss Team

The playoff committee wants to ignore Oklahoma State, but if we listen to the rules, the Cowboys should be top-four candidates

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For the second straight year, Oklahoma vs. Oklahoma State will decide the Big 12 championship. It should be one of the best games of the year — two bitter rivals battling for a title. It’s so close to having playoff implications, but it probably doesn’t. Both teams are 9–2, with Oklahoma ranked ninth and Oklahoma State 10th in the penultimate College Football Playoff rankings, high enough that there’s a possible path to the playoff and low enough that it’s unlikely. For one of them to make the top four, they’d need an impressive win, strange results elsewhere, and a committee willing to change its mind about several higher-ranked teams in the final poll of the year.

Oklahoma scheduled strongly with nonconference games against Ohio State and Houston, but the Sooners lost both of those games somewhat convincingly. And Oklahoma State lost to Central Michigan on this game-winning, lateraled Hail Mary touchdown.

It’s the worst loss of any team close to the playoff. At 6–6, the Chippewas will go to a bowl game, but they finished with the third-best record of directional Michigan schools.

Except, it shouldn’t have been a loss. And I don’t mean this hypothetically. I mean that if the rules of football had been properly applied, Oklahoma State would have beaten Central Michigan. The clock expired with the Cowboys winning 27–24, but the officials incorrectly gave the Chippewas an additional untimed down, and Central Michigan made a miracle happen. Within hours of the finish, both the Big 12 and MAC issued statements that the officiating crews had erred, but declined to change the result of the game.

With a few ticks left, the Cowboys tried to end the game by having QB Mason Rudolph drop back on fourth down, hang around for a few seconds, and then chuck the ball high enough that it would land with the clock at zeroes. He did, and the referees accurately flagged him for intentional grounding.

A game typically can’t end on a foul, so the refs added an untimed down. And since the play was fourth down and the penalty for intentional grounding features a loss of down, they figured the untimed down should go to the Chippewas. But the rule book has a clause to avoid this exact scenario: It specifically states that an untimed down should not be added when game-ending penalties have a loss of down. I don’t know why the rule book has that clause — it allows teams to shave time off the ends of halves by committing intentional grounding, and that goes against the idea that teams shouldn’t intentionally break rules for a competitive advantage — but it does. And the refs plain forgot.

This is a special class of refereeing error. It wasn’t a justifiable-but-incorrect judgment call, like the pass interference in the Miami–Ohio State national championship. It wasn’t a result of a lack of conclusive evidence, like Schrödinger’s Spot from the Michigan–Ohio State game. The most direct corollary is the Fifth Down game in 1990, where officials gave Colorado an additional down, but even that doesn’t quite match up: We can assume Colorado would not have spiked the ball on fourth down if it had known it was actually fourth down, setting off a butterfly effect of how the game might have transpired otherwise.

This was a clear officiating error that flipped one team’s win to a loss. We all know the call was wrong, and we all know a correct call would have resulted in a different outcome. And in this scenario, it’s a pretty meaningful one. If the refs had accurately ruled on the play, the Cowboys would be 10–1 and in the playoff race.

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy has told everybody who will listen that a loss due to egregious refereeing error should be considered a win, saying “nobody will ever convince me we didn’t get the win.” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops realized it would make his team look better if he helped boost his rival’s perception too, so he agreed with Gundy.

We’re taught to honor the results of games over everything. If X is the better team but Y blocks two punts, gets every turnover, and runs back a fumble for a touchdown as the clock expires, we all have to say Y was the better team. So many times, the best team in college football hasn’t become national champion because of a single act of weirdness. It’s probably the best thing about sports.

But how do we respond when we know one of those results is false?

Oklahoma State’s plight seems like a once-in-a-lifetime situation — an amazing confluence of a strange game-ending scenario, an extremely poor refereeing decision, a remarkable final play, and a season that led to the changed result becoming meaningful.

But believe it or not, the exact same missed call happened in an Illinois high school playoff game last week. Fenwick had a 10–7 lead on Plainfield North with a berth in the Class 7A state championship game on the line. On fourth down with four seconds left, Fenwick’s quarterback lobbed the ball up and the clock expired, but the officials flagged him for intentional grounding, gave Plainfield North the ball and an untimed down, and it used it to hit a game-tying field goal. Plainfield North won in overtime.

How these referees hadn’t heard about the Oklahoma State ending, I have no idea. It was in the news! The Illinois High School Association admitted the referees had made a mistake. Many urged Plainfield North to drop out of the championship game, while lawyers for Fenwick filed a lawsuit against the IHSA, asking the judge to nullify the result of overtime. It was the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary — they argued the rule book was a contract, and that the referees’ failure to apply the rules constituted a breach of contract — and the judge did what Oklahoma State should’ve done, swatting it down. While I feel bad for the Fenwick kids, it’s probably a good thing that the school lost the case, preventing a legal precedent that could convince crazed high school boosters across the country that they could sue their ways of out of losses for their teams.

Referees will fail. This is not a knock on referees; they’re human. It’s hard enough to make split-second decisions about the things that come up every game — pass interference is basically impossible to correctly officiate — and referees are also expected to know the proper ruling in thousands of situations that might never arrive. Do you know how big the NCAA football rule book is? It’s more than 200 freakin’ pages: 136 pages of rules and 73 pages of interpretations. Those referees will probably never again encounter another fourth-down intentional grounding with the clock expiring, but they messed it up once, and that was enough to ruin a season.

But leagues still think it’s of paramount importance that we listen to the referees. The rule that officials missed to screw Oklahoma State is on Page 47, but there’s a rule much higher up that comes into play. After the book describes the shape of a ball (it’s a “prolate spheroid,” FYI) but before it describes the size and shape of the field, it says this: “When the referee declares that the game is ended, the score is final.”

They haven’t even told us what a touchdown is yet. This is your dad telling you that he will turn this car around if you don’t follow his rules. The idea that you listen to the person in charge of the rules is much more important than the rules themselves.

I’m not sure we should give referees so much leeway to fail. Enforcing their mistakes just makes us angrier. Video review hasn’t made us more skeptical of refs; it’s made us more trusting that the right call will eventually be made. There should be a similar process in place for situations such as this, where everybody acknowledges the wrong team won.

Instead, we have a situation that’s awkward for everybody. Well, everybody except Central Michigan, who got an incredibly memorable win and the sixth win that will send the team to a bowl game.

Hypothetically, though, the playoff committee isn’t beholden to incorrect results. The committee’s job is to pick the best teams, not the ones that won the most games. If the committee knows Oklahoma State should have won that game, it can vote that way. The blooping computers of the BCS selection process couldn’t tell the difference between a regular win and an incorrectly ruled win, but the committee consists of humans with brains and eyes. Back in September, it seemed like the committee would look kindly on Oklahoma State, as CFP executive director Bill Hancock said the committee members “will be well aware of what happened on the field.”

That was easy for Hancock to say back in September, when all we knew about the Pokes was that they were 1–1 and roughly as good as a midtier MAC team. But then they spent three months winning, proving themselves as one of the Big 12’s best teams. Now the committee is less interested in the philosophical discussion of whether Oklahoma State won or not. Committee chairman Kirby Hocutt said it’s “not within [the committee’s] purview to decide wins and losses,” and the committee has ranked the Cowboys not only below all the one-loss teams, but below most two-loss teams as well.

The ones who could unskew this weird situation are instead taking the path of least resistance. The committee could anger multiple fan bases by bumping Oklahoma State up the rankings, which would then also draw attention to the biggest refereeing blunder of the season and subvert the work of officials everywhere. Or the committee could tell us it’s impossible to argue with wins and losses, even though arguing wins and losses is the entire point of the committee in the first place.

There are several lessons here, about the foolishness of upholding referee authority at the expense of correct calls, about the strangeness of picking the best teams based on pure wins and losses, and about the committee’s cowardice. But there’s also a bigger lesson to be learned: Knock the damn ball down on Hail Marys. For the love of all that is holy, knock the fucking ball down.