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SportsPulse: What did the committee get right and wrong in the latest playoff ranking? One thing is for sure, LSU’s ranking is head scratching.
USA TODAY

Sorry to disappoint you, ladies and gentlemen (and particularly James Carville), but there is no deep state within the Southeastern Conference office boosting Alabama through questionable officiating.

If there were one, though, it wouldn’t look much different from what’s happened during the 2018 season. 

It’s apparently not enough for Alabama to be the best team in college football this year; it’s also the recipient of some significant help it probably did not need in the last two games against LSU and Mississippi State. 

Though it’s a decades-old SEC tradition for fans of opposing schools to cry about conference office favoritism every time a controversial call goes in Alabama’s favor, that tinder box has been lit the last couple weeks thanks to slow-motion video revealing referee incompetence and a social media environment turning coincidence into conspiracy.

But it also highlights something very real in the SEC: the deep frustration of what increasingly seems like a hopeless quest to make Alabama appear mortal.

“I think ultimately what we preach to our players, and hopefully it’s a thought process we subscribe to as a staff, is we have to control the controllables,” Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead said. “And the calls that are made are out of our hands. Obviously in a game of that magnitude, you’re looking for a glimmer of hope. You don’t need to play a perfect game, but you need to play a near-perfect game for us to beat them.”

But Mississippi State fans left Saturday feeling like a lack of perfection — or even competence — from the officiating crew was an even a bigger story than how their team played.

The first bad call occurred on Alabama’s opening drive when running back Damien Harris’ knee was ruled down before fumbling the ball when replay clearly showed that possession should have gone to Mississippi State. Though Moorhead had an opportunity to challenge the play and didn’t, the replay booth also made an error by failing to call down to the field and saying it wanted to review the fumble. 

Then right before halftime, Mississippi State scored an apparent touchdown that would have brought the score within 21-7, only to see it wiped off the board because of a truly phantom block in the back call. The Bulldogs ended up losing 24-0. Alabama was flagged for exactly zero penalties, and Twitter was awash with accusations that something fishy was going on. 

Though Alabama seems poised to roll through the rest of the season and into the College Football Playoff, this is undoubtedly a sensitive spot for the SEC. 

Just one week earlier, LSU fans cried foul over a highly questionable targeting call against linebacker Devin White, its best defensive player, who was forced to miss the first half of the Alabama game. 

In the buildup to that game, LSU athletics director Joe Alleva publicly argued that the SEC should overturn the penalty, which is not only impossible (targeting is an NCAA rule, thus there’s no conference office appeal process) but would have set a terrible precedent. But the narrative that the SEC had wronged LSU was already set by then, and it took on a life of its own when Carville, the well-known political commentator, accused both the SEC and commissioner Greg Sankey personally of helping Alabama. 

Though Carville’s criticsm was way over the top and his appearance on ESPN’s College GameDay caused the network to apologize to the SEC, he hit a sore spot.

Conspiracy theories in sports are almost always ridiculous, but how do you push back when real life events feed into them? 

That’s particularly true for the have-nots in any sport trying to take down a dynasty. Whether you’re the Atlanta Hawks trying to beat LeBron James or the Jacksonville Jaguars trying to take out Tom Brady, any questionable call that goes against you can feel like something more sinister than a split-second judgment. 

“When you’re really battling and fighting and you know a certain particular call can swing a game one way or the other, it’s human nature to feel that way,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “When you’re elite you can overcome (bad) calls because you’re better and the margin for error is larger so it’s natural to feel that way. I certainly try to fight that and just overcome whatever the situation is in games.”

The reality is, there’s no Alabama conspiracy. The SEC has some officials who are better than others, but on balance, the consensus in the sport is that the SEC has the cream of the crop.  While high-profile mistakes may feed into the myth that there are people sitting around league headquarters in Birmingham yelling “Roll Tide,” some kind of plot to advantage Alabama would be far too complex to pull off and yield so little return on the risk that it doesn’t even rise to the level of possibility. 

And even if you want to believe the Crimson Tide consistently gets the benefit of the doubt, it’s really no different than what ACC fans have said for years about Duke basketball or what NBA fans are now saying about the Golden State Warriors. 

It would certainly be better for SEC officials if these old conspiracies hadn’t been inflamed during a season in which Alabama appears poised to rip through the league unbeaten. Unfortunately for them, getting rid of human error might be the only way to make it stop. 

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