Referees are going to make mistakes, but they usually boil down to pass interference calls that were erroneously flagged or not called at all. Just last weekend, officials erred in allowing Memphis to return a downed punt for a touchdown against Mississippi State and lost count of downs, forcing Penn State to punt on third down against Auburn.
Sometimes, it can directly affect a conference or national championship. In an era of instant replay, these types of mistakes are inexcusable, but they still happen. With that in mind, here are the five worst calls in college football history.
5. Referees Mistakenly Extend Game
Central Michigan 30, Oklahoma State 27
Sept. 10, 2016 – Stillwater, Okla.
Facing fourth-and-13 with four seconds left and a 27-24 lead, Oklahoma State opted to throw the ball away in an attempt to kill the clock. The Cowboys were flagged with intentional grounding and a loss of down. The visiting MAC officials went with the rule that a game cannot end on a live-ball penalty, forgetting that the said regulation does not apply to penalties that involve a loss of down. Central Michigan responded with what may be the best play of the 2016 season. The sad part is that it never should have happened.
4. The Flea Kicker
Nebraska 45, Missouri 38
Nov. 8, 1997 – Columbia, Mo.
The Cornhuskers were 8-0, but trailed the Tigers 38-31 with seven seconds left and the ball on Missouri’s 12-yard line. Nebraska quarterback Scott Frost threw a pass across the middle to Shevin Wiggins that was tipped, but Wiggins managed to kick it over his head as he fell backwards and his teammate Matt Davidson made a diving catch. If officials determined that the kick was intentional, Nebraska would have been penalized 15 yards. Instead, they determined it was not and awarded the Cornhuskers the score, sending the game into overtime. Nebraska scored a touchdown in its first possession of overtime and then stopped Mizzou to steal the win. Nebraska finished the season undefeated and shared the national title with Michigan. Wiggins later admitted to kicking the ball on purpose.
3. A Comedy of Laterals and Errors
Miami 30, Duke 27
Oct. 31, 2015 – Durham, N.C.
The Blue Devils scored with six seconds left to take a 27-24 lead over the Hurricanes, but Miami responded with an eight-lateral kickoff return for a touchdown as time expired. It was amazing to see. The only problem was that officials missed four calls, including a player being down before he released the ball. The officiating crew that blew what should have been a Duke win was suspended for two games.
2. Miami’s Back-to-Back National Championships are Flagged
Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2003 Fiesta Bowl/BCS National Championship Game)
Jan. 3, 2003 – Tempe, Ariz.
Given Miami’s dominance during the 2001 and ‘02 seasons, the college football world was amazed that this game even went into overtime. Nevertheless, it did and the Hurricanes took a 24-17 on its possession in the first overtime. Ohio State then faced fourth-and-three on the Miami five-yard line and Buckeye quarterback Craig Kenzel threw a pass to Chris Gamble, which bounced off his hands. The Hurricanes rushed on the field to celebrate its second straight national championship, but a flag was thrown as they did. Miami’s Glenn Sharpe was charged with a very, very questionable pass interference call and Ohio State was given a fresh set of downs. The Buckeyes tied the game and then won in the second overtime. The pass interference call remains one of the most controversial calls in college football history.
1. Colorado Wins it on Fifth Down
Colorado 33, Missouri 31
Oct. 6, 1990 – Columbia, Mo.
Pass interference can be subject to interpretation, but there is no excuse for miscounting downs. Down 31-27 on Mizzou’s three-yard line with 31 seconds left, Colorado quarterback Charles Johnson spiked the ball on first down. The chain crew did not flip the down card and the Buffaloes followed its lead. Running back Eric Bieniemy was stopped short of the goal twice and Johnson spiked the ball again on what should have been fourth down. Because of the chain crew’s mistake, Colorado was mistakenly granted a fifth down and Johnson ran into the end zone on the game’s final play. The Buffaloes went on to share the national championship with Georgia Tech.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.