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LSU's missed-INT call once again puts spotlight on SEC officials

I wish I could have written Saturday about how Alabama receiver Julio Jones, who has struggled to break free all season, caught a 2-yard pass in the fourth quarter and turned it into a 73-yard touchdown. I wish I could have written about the grin on Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy's face when he said "I've never seen anybody run that fast."

I wish I could have written about how LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson fought off cramps for most of the game, or about how he just missed getting back on the field before that Jones touchdown play began. I should have written about how LSU soldiered on in spite of injuries to starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson (ankle) and tailback Charles Scott (broken collarbone).

Instead, I have to write about the SEC officials. Again.

Because when officials went to the video with 5:54 remaining in Alabama's 24-15 win to determine whether Peterson intercepted McElroy along the right sideline, the replay official didn't see what most impartial eyes watching at home saw: Peterson got his left foot down with possession. He may have even gotten his right foot down. Officials on the field ruled Patterson caught the ball out of bounds. After a few minutes, replay official Gerald Hodges upheld that call, even though numerous replays shown on the CBS telecast seemed to show Peterson getting that left foot down with possession. Later, LSU players would say Peterson's left shoe left an obvious gash in the grass. (After interviews, I even took a photo of said gash.)

Let's get one thing straight. The play didn't decide the game. Yes, LSU would have gotten the ball down six instead of down nine 2 minutes and 50 seconds later, but there's no guarantee backup quarterback Jarrett Lee, working with backup running back Stevan Ridley, would have led the Tigers down the field for the winning score against the ferocious Alabama defense.

But we should be comfortable in knowing that correct calls led to a result that will stand forever. A result, mind you, that allowed Alabama to clinch the SEC West title and set up a showdown with Florida in Atlanta on Dec. 5. That's the problem with all the SEC officiating hijinks this season: Now we don't know. Now we can't be sure the best team won, because we know both teams didn't get a fair shot. Saturday's disputed call was as unfair to Alabama as it was to LSU, because a tiny seed of doubt has now planted itself in the minds of all but the most fervent Alabama supporters.

Had the call gone the other way, it would have been just as unfair, but it wouldn't have given the tinfoil-hat crowd the ammunition this one did. The SEC is under even more scrutiny this season because of its 15-year contracts with CBS and ESPN that will pay the league $3 billion. Fans of other conferences are convinced the SEC will do anything to keep teams undefeated so one SEC team will play in the BCS title game. That isn't true. The officials work hard and do their level-best to make the correct calls. Unfortunately for the SEC, every major disputed call this season has gone in favor of an undefeated team.

LSU got the first one on Oct. 3, when Georgia receiver A.J. Green was called for a mystifying excessive celebration penalty that forced the Bulldogs to kick off from their own 15. Buoyed by great field position, the Tigers marched for the winning touchdown and remained undefeated heading into their Oct. 10 matchup with top-ranked Florida.

Two weeks later, Arkansas threatened to knock Florida from the ranks of the unbeaten. The same crew that worked the LSU-Georgia game worked that game, and in the fourth quarter, with Florida down 20-13, referee Marc Curles flagged Arkansas defensive tackle Malcolm Sheppard for a personal foul when all Sheppard did was hit a Florida player who tried to block him during a play. Florida scored the tying touchdown on the next play and went on to win, 23-20.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive suspended Curles and his crew for three weeks after that call -- and several others in that game. Curles told ESPN.com that he was sick over the bad call on Sheppard.

The following week, Tennessee visited undefeated Alabama. Crimson Tide defensive tackle Terrence Cody blocked a Tennessee field-goal attempt to save a 12-10 win, but he ripped his helmet off in celebration with the ball still alive. The play should have drawn a 15-yard penalty. It wouldn't have gotten Tennessee another kick because the penalty would have been enforced as a dead-ball foul, but at least it wouldn't have given the conspiracy theorists another piece of "evidence." A few hours later, in the Florida-Mississippi State game, a replay official ruled Gators linebacker Dustin Doe had scored on a fourth-quarter interception return when ESPN's replays showed a Bulldog had knocked the ball loose before Doe crossed the goal line. The play stood, and a nine-point game became a 16-point game.

Naturally, the aggrieved coaches complained about the bad calls. They complained so much that Slive on Oct. 30 instituted a zero-tolerance policy. The next coach to complain would be fined or suspended. That coach was Florida's Urban Meyer, who groused quite tamely that officials should have flagged Georgia linebacker Nick Williams for a late hit on Gators quarterback Tim Tebow. On Friday, Slive hit Meyer with a $30,000 fine.

LSU coach Les Miles can keep his checkbook in his pocket. Saturday, he managed to express his dismay with the call without actually criticizing it.

"I believe the officials work hard and make as good a quality of a call as they can," Miles said. "The difficult issue that I have is telling my team. That's the issue. The issue is telling Patrick Peterson, who, in his mind, knows it was an interception. If it's the right call, it's easy. But that's the difficult issue."

Peterson certainly believes he intercepted the pass. "When I caught the ball, I tried to get two feet in. I believe I got two feet in," Peterson said. "Definitely, the foot mark was left on the field. Not even on the white. It was on the green."

After interviewing Peterson, I returned to the field, where I snapped a few photos of a small gash in the field between the 31- and 32-yard lines. A video replay confirmed this was the same spot where Peterson caught McElroy's pass. There is no way to confirm that Peterson's foot made the mark; it could have been made at any point during the game. But judging by video replays, Peterson's left foot -- which landed first -- would have made an identical mark on the disputed play.

But the call stood. LSU lost. Alabama won.

The worst part isn't the mistake. "We're all human," LSU linebacker Harry Coleman said. The worst part is the fact that these ridiculous conspiracy theories will continue because the officials in the nation's highest-profile conference keep missing big calls in big games.

I've spent 1,000 words writing about this call. I wish I could have written about the brilliance of Alabama tailback Mark Ingram, who jump-started the Tide offense in the second quarter and finished with 144 yards on 22 carries. I wish I could have written about the equal brilliance of Alabama linebacker Rolando McClain, who stuffed Ridley on a key third down to force the punt that set up Jones' go-ahead touchdown. I wish I could have written about the beauty of watching two sets of elite athletes spill sweat and blood onto a field.

But I couldn't. Because the disputed call is all anyone will want to talk about this week.

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