During and after the game, Huskers fans erupted on Twitter and fan forums to complain about the officiating (I even posted a few referee-related Tweets during the game). The officiating controversy wasn't merely imagined by paranoid fans:
Let’s not try to pretend that the 16 penalties called against Nebraska, compared to just two for A&M, didn’t carry a disproportionate degree of impact in an even-steven and hard-fought defensive battle. Let’s not try to deny that the reality of Nebraska leaving the Big 12 didn’t loom over the proceedings at Kyle Field in College Station, Texas. Does this mean there was a conspiracy? No. Let’s nip that in the bud. However, the words “appearance (or suggestion) of impropriety” will trip from a lot of lips Sunday and Monday morning. That’s not good for Dan Beebe’s image as the commissioner of a league that might not be long for this world.
Most importantly, let’s not ignore the woeful, this-cannot-possibly-be-true nature of the roughing-the-passer penalty called on Nebraska’s Courtney Osborne (what an ironic last name, eh?) late in the fourth quarter. The hit – which was not late, and which did not hit any part of A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s helmet – failed to meet any standard for a personal-foul penalty. It was as standard-issue a hit as anything seen on any gridiron in week 12. Yet, it drew a piece of yellow laundry, and it directly led to the Aggies’ game-winning field goal. It’s impossible to look at this game and not conclude that one call – a judgment call poorly arrived at and then unrevoked – decided the outcome. It’s not as though the Aggies made a good play or did anything.
—Matt Zemek, on Scout.Com
Look, the numbers don't lie. In Big XII play, the Huskers are the most-penalized team, and the Huskers' opponents have far, far fewer penalties than the opponents of any other team in the league, leading to monstrously unbalanced penalty yardage differentials. Throw in the lingering bitterness over the Huskers' decision to leave the Big XII (even if it was precipitated by Missouri throwing itself at the Big 10, and Texas refusing to commit to the conference on a long-term basis), and Husker fans are starting to wonder if Big XII Commissioner Dan Beebe is pulling the strings on a conspiracy of Texas schools, referees, and the Illuminati to deprive the Huskers of a Big XII title.
Such conspiracy theories are bullshit. Beebe has never bothered to disguise that he is the personal lackey of Texas. But what conspiracy theorists overlook is that Beebe's only concern is making as much money for the Big XII as possible, to maximize the income of his Longhorn masters. With Texas in the tank this season, Beebe wants—no, needs—a Nebraska-Oklahoma Big XII championship game, and hopefully some way to get both teams into lucrative BCS bowl games. With the Huskers and Sooners each taking second losses, the double-BCS scenario is most likely shot, but the teams are still on track to meet in the conference title game, which will still maximize ratings far more than would a Missouri-Oklahoma St. game.
Also, what conspiracy nuts forget is that any conspiracy would require far too many people to keep it a secret. Further, even though I think several of the referees in the game last night (conveniently the same crew as for the Texas game earlier this season) are either too incompetent or too easily swayed to officiate at the college level, I completely refuse to accept that any referee who worked hard to get to the major college level would ever jeopardize their position by agreeing to throw games for any reason, let alone for something as petty as a conference's fit of spite over a team leaving for greener pastures.
Finally, Husker fans would do well to keep in mind a few additional points, which to my mind completely eliminate the entire conspiracy theory nonsense:
- In both the Texas and Texas A&M games, despite the questionable calls/non-calls, the Huskers still had plenty of chances to win. Against Texas, there were at least three TD passes dropped by Husker receivers, and several Texas drives involved third-and-long plays converted because of Husker defensive breakdowns. Against Texas A&M, the Aggies only put up nine points. If your offense can't generate 10 points in a game, stop whining about the officials; your team's problems go way deeper.
- If the conference really were out to spike the Huskers, then how do you explain the Huskers' rather dominating wins against division powers Kansas St. and Missouri? Did someone forget to tell those reffing crews the fix was in?
- Husker fans love fiery coach Bo Pelini. But when a coach is constantly screaming at officials, is it all that surprising that those officials start to get a little defensive, maybe look a little harder for calls to make against that coach's team, even anticipating calls? Let's be honest, Husker fans, Pelini acted like a spoiled brat yesterday, and it wasn't the first time. Maybe Big XII officials are fed up with his act, and since the Huskers are leaving the conference, they feel little need to worry about keeping Pelini and the Huskers happy by taking his abuse. Pelini should spend the off-season working on his sideline demeanor, and get off on the right foot with the Big 10 referees.
- Husker fans should also recognize that, maybe, just maybe, the Huskers have caught their fair share of officiating breaks over the years. I suspect if you talk to fans from the traditional "also-rans" of the former Big 8 and Big XII, there would be plenty of examples of games where conference powers like the Huskers, Longhorns, or Sooners got the benefit of some sketchy officiating, which coincidentally seemed to keep those teams in the rankings and the national title picture. Sometimes, karma can boomerang.
In any event, the Huskers still control their own destiny. If they beat Colorado on Friday, they go to the conference title game against the winner of the Oklahoma-Oklahoma St. game. Win that game, and a BCS bowl is a lock. So, Husker fans, it's time to let go of the conspiracy theories and give up the "woe is us" whining about officiating. It's time to focus on enjoying the fun of college football again!