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The Great SEC Officiating Conspiracy

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SPOILER ALERT: There isn't one

Yelling won't help, Les
Yelling won't help, Les
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Nearly every fan of every team thinks the officials are out to get his or her team. It's part of the fun of being a sports fan, blaming the refs. So let's make one thing clear: there is no conspiracy against your team. There's no cabal of fat cats sitting behind the scenes trying to rig football games against your team.

However, that isn't to say refs do not have bias. Everyone has bias. We tend to think of bias as this evil and malicious thing, but really, our biases are just our preferences. I'm biased in favor of chocolate over vanilla. This doesn't make vanilla bad, it just means I'm predisposed to like a chocolate milkshake. On top of that, refs are human. They make mistakes. They make bad calls. They sometimes display poor judgment. That doesn't make them monsters, it just makes them human.

Making it even more difficult to parse out bias in the numbers is the fact that even if the officials disproportionately flag your team, it doesn't necessarily mean they are wrong. Sometimes, your team really does commit more penalties than the other team, and an attempt to even things up is the display of bias. Any honest discussion of penalties has to admit this.

What a team has no control over is not its own penalties, but those of its opponents. LSU's opponent penalty totals have declined every year since 2011. There's really not a whole lot of room for it to move any further, as LSU's opponents rank in the top 20 nationally in fewest penalty yards per game for the fourth consecutive year:

Ranks

LSU Pen

LSU Yards

Opp Pen

Opp Yards

2015

117

121

12

11

2014

48

39

8

12

2013

103

96

51

14

2012

103

87

47

16

2011

65

62

99

70

In 2011, LSU ranked 65th in the nation in penalties and 62nd in yardage, right about the national average. LSU's opponents, however, ranked 99th in penalties and 70th in yardage, giving LSU a per game edge of -0.64 penalties for -5.71 yards. Every game, LSU found an extra 5 hidden yards.

But not really, because that's not the way the world actually works. LSU won the total penalty battle 8 games to 6, and had the same 8-6 edge in penalty yards. If we define a significant edge as either a margin of 3 penalties or 30 yards, then LSU had 2 games with a significant edge in penalties and 3 games in yardage. LSU's opponents had a large edge twice in each category.

Honestly, these are the splits we'd expect to see. The penalties really did even out, and though LSU had a season-long advantage, LSU found itself with a big deficit in penalties just as often as it found itself with a huge advantage.

Since then, the numbers have gone haywire. Since 2012, LSU has been flagged more times in a game than its opponent by a margin of 24-12 (6 times, the flags were even). By penalty yards, the margin in 26-14 (2 times, yards were even).

Even more stark is the number of times there has been a significant penalty advantage. LSU has been flagged at least three more times than its opponent 18 times while it has been flagged at least three less times only 5 times. An 18-5 margin is clearly massive. Looking at yardage, the margin of 30+ penalty yard games is 15-3. LSU is more likely to be flagged for 30+ more yards than its opponent than it is to have any penalty yardage at all (15-14).

Again, this could be that LSU commits a bunch of legitimate penalties. That is a possibility, but let's put the last four seasons in the SEC in context, sorted not penalty yardage committed, but by the penalty yardage margin.

2012-2015

G

Pen./G

Yards/G

OP/G

OYd/G

Pen Margin

Yds Margin

Vanderbilt

42

5.64

44.88

6.76

54.74

-1.12

-9.86

Tennessee

41

5.17

41.20

5.95

49.44

-0.78

-8.24

Missouri

44

5.95

46.95

6.66

53.66

-0.70

-6.70

Mississippi St

43

4.86

40.02

5.02

43.63

-0.16

-3.60

Mississippi

43

5.35

42.65

5.63

45.81

-0.28

-3.16

Alabama

45

4.73

40.38

5.11

42.33

-0.38

-1.96

South Carolina

43

5.14

42.91

5.33

44.70

-0.19

-1.79

Texas A&M

43

5.88

53.58

6.40

51.74

-0.51

1.84

Arkansas

41

5.37

45.34

5.34

43.00

0.02

2.34

Kentucky

40

5.35

48.73

5.45

44.78

-0.10

3.95

Georgia

44

6.07

47.70

5.48

43.27

0.59

4.43

Florida

41

7.34

61.39

6.02

49.07

1.32

12.32

Auburn

43

6.00

52.37

4.81

37.70

1.19

14.67

LSU

42

6.74

55.67

5.02

39.79

1.71

15.88

LSU is right there with the league leaders in penalties committed, but only LSU and Auburn of all teams see their opponents get flagged for under 40 yards per game. Texas A&M, for example, gets flagged for just two yards less per game than LSU, but their per game penalty yardage margin is 14 yards better due to opponent flags.

Of all the teams in the SEC, only LSU has been flagged more often than its opponent for more yards in every season since SEC expansion. Auburn got the penalty advantage in 2012 and Florida in 2013. LSU has ranked 13th, 14th, 11th, and currently 14th in penalty yard margin each season, respectively. No other SEC team can make that claim.

This doesn't mean the SEC officials get together in their clubhouse or wherever it is they hang out and try to invent ways to screw LSU. The penalty margin could be legitimate, though being this consistent over four years over a highly variable stat like penalties seems unlikely, though certainly possible. More likely, it is reputational. LSU has a rep for being undisciplined, and referees are more likely to flag the Tigers and less likely to flag its opponents. Not by design, but by unconscious bias.

Because it always comes back to Alabama, it should be pointed out that Bama is not one of the league leaders in penalty margin, so you can put that conspiracy theory away. As you can see, Alabama doesn't get flagged very often, but neither do its opponents. Last year, Bama even ranked 10th in penalty yard margin, at 0.57 penalties and 3.29 yards per game. The real beneficiary of any officiating conspiracy is those untrustworthy bastards at Vanderbilt.

But I know what you're thinking... it's not really the SEC that's out to get us, it's Tom Ritter. Is there any truth to accusation that Ritter is a flag-happy jerk who is out to get LSU? Well, I can speak to his personality or his motives, but we can look at his performance. And, boy, does he like to flag LSU. Let's look at all of the SEC referees together, and see who stands out.

Referee

Games

LSU Pen

LSU Yards

Opp Pen

Opp Yards

Pen Delta

Yd Delta

Ritter

7

10.14

81.86

4.86

43.86

5.29

38.00

Curles

4

6.25

49.75

4.00

27.75

2.25

22.00

Loeffler

3

6.33

49.33

4.00

28.67

2.33

20.67

Owens

6

7.00

53.67

4.67

38.50

2.33

15.17

Austin

4

6.00

59.00

5.25

46.50

0.75

12.50

Wagers

3

5.67

48.33

4.67

36.67

1.00

11.67

Moore

3

6.33

56.67

6.33

55.33

0.00

1.33

Smith

3

4.33

39.67

6.00

42.33

-1.67

-2.67

Williamson

2

5.00

35.00

8.00

57.50

-3.00

-22.50

SEC

35

6.86

56.63

5.09

41.11

1.77

15.51

Non-SEC

7

6.14

48.00

4.71

33.14

1.43

14.86

Average

42

6.74

55.19

5.02

39.79

1.71

15.40

The average SEC ref flags LSU 6.86 times for 56.63 yards, and has a penalty margin of 1.77-15.51. That's, as we've established above, the worst in the SEC. Ritter seemed to take that as a challenge and he flags LSU an average of 10.14 times for 81.86 yards at a ridiculous margin of 5.29-38.00.

If you remove Ritter from LSU's averages, LSU gets flagged 6.06 times per game for 49.86 yards at a margin of 1.00 times for 10.89. Still a bad ratio, but it lops off nearly five yards of penalty yard margin from LSU's average. Nearly a third of LSU's penalty margin comes from the games Ritter officiates.

Also, look at the number of LSU games Ritter has worked. He is far and away the least friendly ref to LSU, yet he has worked more LSU games than anyone. Only Owens' crew is in the same ballpark. If LSU fans really want to talk conspiracy, note that the only referee that seems to call a game in LSU's favor has only worked 2 LSU games, and none since September of 2013.

However, the performance of non-SEC refs to SEC refs working LSU games points to the fact that there is no conspiracy. If there was a league-wide mandate to screw over LSU, there is no earthly way that refs from other conferences are in on it. Unless you want to argue that this is all coming from Mark Emmert's office. If there is bias against LSU, it is clearly unconscious and unintentional.

Well, except maybe for Ritter. His numbers really are out there. So, let's look at his game-by-game performance to catch him in the dastardly act. Because, as we know, he's in Bama's back pocket.

Year

Team

Location

W/L

LSU Pen

LSU Yards

Opp Pen

Opp Yards

Referee

Pen Delta

Yd Delta

2015

Cuse

AWAY

W

14

120

4

36

Ritter

10

84

2012

TAMU

AWAY

W

13

102

6

65

Ritter

7

37

2012

Auburn

AWAY

W

9

80

5

37

Ritter

4

43

2014

Bama

HOME

L

2

20

3

29

Ritter

-1

-9

2013

TAMU

HOME

W

13

111

6

50

Ritter

7

61

2013

Auburn

HOME

W

10

85

5

44

Ritter

5

41

2012

N Texas

HOME

W

10

55

5

46

Ritter

5

9

Hmm. Now that is unexpected. Ritter hammers LSU in every game EXCEPT the Alabama game. Even more interesting, the penalty margin isn't helping all that much. LSU is 6-1 in games Ritter officiated since 2012, and the one game the Tigers lost, they held the edge in penalties. So maybe his Bama bias shows up in the games he works with the Tide:

Year

Team

Location

W/L

Bama Pen

Bama Yards

Opp Pen

Opp Yards

Referee

Pen Delta

Yd Delta

2012

Georgia

NEUTRAL

W

2

15

7

64

Ritter

-5.00

-49.00

2012

TAMU

HOME

L

6

56

4

26

Ritter

2.00

30.00

2012

Mizzou

AWAY

W

7

62

2

9

Ritter

5.00

53.00

2013

TAMU

AWAY

W

12

104

6

55

Ritter

6.00

49.00

2014

Florida

HOME

W

11

80

5

36

Ritter

6.00

44.00

Wow, he doesn't like the Tide either. In fact, looking at the LSU and Bama game logs with Ritter, it seems we can identify the true villain behind the potential SEC officiating conspiracy... Texas A&M. The Aggies have only been in the league three years, and they've drawn Ritter four times against LSU or Bama, and every time they have gotten an extremely friendly whistle.

Perhaps we've all been concerned with the wrong team. Fortunately, the conspiracy hasn't really been working all that well, as Bama is just as successful as LSU is at overcoming a massive penalty margin in games officiated by Ritter.

Unfortunately, this means we can't drum Tom Ritter out of the SEC for being a dirty cheater who is helping out Alabama. However, LSU fans are correct when they complain that the refs throw more flags against LSU than their opponents, and its worse for LSU than any team in the SEC. Now, it is up to you to decide whether that margin is legitimate or the product of unconscious bias. It is not, however, the product of a league wide conspiracy.

Really, the only thing LSU can do to stem the penalty tide is to somehow eliminate all unconscious bias against the Tigers as an undisciplined team who commits too many penalties. Good luck fighting that narrative.