College Football’s newest challenge? The flag

By Carolyn Braff
This summer, along with planning mini-camps and two-a-days, college football coaches will be practicing their flag-throwing skills.

Last week, the NCAA approved a proposal to allow each Division I-A football coach one challenge per game, effective for the 2006 season. Previously, all replay requests were initiated by the official in the replay booth, and coaches complained of having to burn time-outs to hint to officials that a play should be reviewed. Beginning this fall, a coach may, once per game, challenge a ruling on the field if his team has at least one time-out remaining. The team will keep the time-out if the challenge is successful, or lose it if the challenge fails.

An obvious corollary to creating a coach’s challenge is requiring an instant replay device for all Division I-A football programs. The NCAA has made no ruling on what type of replay device is required, simply that each conference have one, thereby allowing discrepancies in the number of camera angles, picture quality, and level of detail in which a play can be reviewed.

Done with experimenting
The NCAA has been experimenting with instant replay software for the past two years. The 2004 season marked the first phase, when the Big 10 Conference brought in a commercial TiVo system to use in its replay booth. Last season, 9 of the 11 conferences used some type of instant replay device, ranging from traditional VHS recording with manual playback to digital replay technology from companies like DVSport Software and XOS Technologies.

Without an NCAA standard for the 2006 season, each conference was free to choose its own brand of instant replay software: the ACC, Big East, and SEC Conferences will use DVSport; the Big 12, MAC, Pacific-10, and Sun Belt Conferences will use XOS; the Mountain West and Big 10 Conferences will use TiVo systems; the WAC will use the Nalu Capture system; and Conference USA is currently using TiVo, but is discussing a move to a more comprehensive system.

The greatest advantage of using a replay system like DVSport or XOS is its efficiency, as the technology allows users to jump between camera feeds without having to fast forward or rewind a single recording to find a desired angle.

Quick thinking
Tim Prukop, Vice President of Sales for XOS, explained that a replay official has only about 42 seconds between plays to decide whether or not to stop the game to further review a play, so time efficiency is invaluable with any replay device. Another digital advantage is frame accuracy at slow speeds, which is essential in instant replay.

Implementing the coach’s challenge at the college level gives coaches more of a voice in the review process, but there are some important differences from the NFL model. College coaches’ boxes do not have the monitors that NFL coaches have, which allow them to watch a television angle of the play and recommend to the head coach whether or not to throw his flag.

Additionally, whereas there is a standard number of camera angles used in network broadcasts (which includes all NFL games), college games, even games within the same conference, can have anywhere from four to 20 cameras recording the action, depending on whether the broadcast is network or non-network. Given that officials in the replay booth need indisputable video evidence to overturn a call, network games with more cameras in the stadium clearly provide more opportunities for officials to find the evidence necessary to make the correct call.

The replay advantage
The true advantage in the replay race, however, is not the number of camera angles available, but the ability to view all of the angles in a comprehensive and efficient manner, which is what differentiates systems like XOS and DVSport from TiVo.

According to Brian Lowe, president of DVSport Software, implementing the coach’s challenge is an attempt to address some of the issues that have arisen over the past two experimental years of replay, most notably the times when a coach wants to ensure that a play was reviewed.

Originally, if a play was close, but the replay official could determine conclusively and efficiently that the call on the field was correct, he did not stop game play. This, however, left coaches unsure as to whether or not the play had been reviewed. In an attempt to solve some of this confusion, the SEC implemented what Lowe refers to as a ‘PR Stoppage.’

“If it’s a big play, if that’s the deciding drive, they will go ahead and make a quick stop and let everybody know that yes, it’s a big play, and yes, we reviewed it,” Lowe explained, even if the time required for the review does not warrant a stoppage of play.

Allowing a coach’s challenge does not require any technological changes to existing replay software, but it does raise questions as to the quality of replay available.

“They’ve standardized the process,” Lowe said. “The question down the road is do they standardize the technology.”

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