First-year coach Reggie Herring will also make his first appearance as Arkansas' defensive coordinator. Right guard Jonathan Luigs will make his first career start in his first career game and others, like true freshman tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, will make collegiate debuts.
But there will be another intriguing first when Arkansas kicks off the season in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday: Instant replay.
The Southeastern Conference like every major Division I conference is introducing instant replay on an experimental basis this season. The Big Ten first tested instant replay last season and the rest of the country has followed suit.
The SEC system will be in place for every conference home game and will make its debut tonight when South Carolina opens the season against Central Florida in Columbia, S.C. Vanderbilt also opens the season tonight at Wake Forest, but the road game will fall under the ACC's instant replay guidelines.
"I like what we're doing in college," said South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, who gained experience with instant replay coaching the Washington Redskins in the NFL. "If the head ref has a call that, well, we're not sure of, let's check it out. We got technology now to get it right. I think it's a smart move. ...
"You hate to lose a game because a referee missed a call. So if we get it right I think that's what we should do."
Go To The Booth
In the NFL, coaches can throw a red flag to challenge a call. If the play isn't overturned, the team loses a timeout. But the SEC's instant replay system won't require coaches or officials to make any of those decisions on the field.
Instead, it'll come from a replay official in a booth and must have a direct impact like ball possession, first down or a score in question to warrant a review. The official is the decision-maker of a three-man team in charge of inputing television feeds, monitoring plays, determining what should be reviewed and informing officials.
"The coaches challenging is fun because you get to make sure things get checked that you want to get checked," said Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom. "But I don't think it's feasible in college football. The thing that quite often goes overlooked is the technology and the cost of the technology. You have to think about all the games that are not televised, every state, every stadium.
"You would have to have enough camera angles in that box that (whatever coaching) staff member is up there making that call can see it in about 8 to 10 seconds and then have the head coach throw the towel."
Every SEC stadium will be outfitted with replay equipment and Arkansas sports information director Kevin Trainor said the installation process was being finalized in Razorback Stadium on Wednesday. A former television booth on the fourth level of the press box will now house television monitors and replay equipment.
The SEC will use a digital replay system developed by DVSport of Pittsburgh, Pa. A live television feed will come directly into the replay booth on an input monitor, can be captured, digitalized, and sent to a touch screen. One touch will send the clip to the replay official, who will play it back on an output monitor.
Most television feeds will come from regular broadcasts by CBS, ESPN or Jefferson-Pilot Sports. But, in Saturday's case of a non-televised game, the replay booth will depend on the university's in-house broadcast to examine plays
Bobby Gaston, who is SEC head of officials, said the conference first tested the system during Kentucky's spring game last April. The SEC discovered it can review far more plays than originally thought.
"I visualize that we will probably review at least 90 of the approximately 170 plays that are played during a game," Gaston said.
What's Reviewable, What's Not
Every play, whether it's known or not on the field, can be reviewed.
That doesn't mean every questionable call can be reversed.
In fact, the holding call on former Arkansas receiver George Wilson that wiped away a 78-yard Matt Jones touchdown run against Auburn in 2003 wouldn't have been reviewable under the SEC's plan. The play came in the fourth quarter and eliminated Arkansas' hopes of tying the game at 10.
Neither would the inadvertent whistle that blew during the first quarter of Arkansas' 35-32 loss at South Carolina last season. The Hogs led 7-0 and, on the ensuing kickoff, a fumble recovered by cornerback Michael Grant was nullified when an official blew his whistle, ending the play.
"I don't have a red flag to throw out or anything," said Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, who is a proponent of the SEC's instant replay system. "But there's times where you wish you did. Like, you wish you can overturn an inadvertent whistle."
Gaston said the SEC submitted a list of plays it hoped to approve, but the NCAA gave it a list of reviewable and non-reviewable plays. Gaston said it was "similar" to the NFL and "identical" to the Big Ten.
Other non-reviewable plays include pass interference, personal fouls like late hits, face mask penalties, roughing the passes, false starts and excessive celebration.
"We're primarily going to review plays where, whether it's a catch or not a catch on passing plays, and whether or not on the scoring play the runner broke the plain of the goal line or was out of bounds, short of it," Gaston said. "Whether a receiver was in bounds, out of bounds at the end line, things of that nature."
The SEC's replay guidelines will include plays "governed by the sideline, goal line, end zone and end line."
In addition, judging whether a quarterback fumbled the ball or threw an incomplete pass; illegal forward passes; tipped passes by defensive players; and touching of passes by ineligible receivers can be reviewed. So can other situations like forward progress with respect to a first down, number of players on the field, clock adjustments, runners not ruled down and touching of a kick.
"This is going to give us a better chance and other teams a better chance to get a play back," said Arkansas defensive end Anthony Brown. "So I think it's a good idea."
Keep It Quick
Brown said it also might give players a chance to take a quick break while a play is being reviewed. But the SEC doesn't intend to slow the flow of a game.
Gaston said the replay official will only stop play if it is determined that the previous down should be reviewed. Five officials on the field will wear pagers and will be buzzed when a play needs to be examined. Gaston said the head official will grab a head set on the sideline, communicate with the review official and will overturn a play only if "there is indisputable video evidence."
Gaston estimated that instant replay will increase the length of a game by, at the most, a minute and a half. Any play that is being reviewed will be timed in the booth and SEC guidelines suggest that, when a play is stopped, a "minimum of 45 seconds will be used" and replays "should not exceed two minutes."
Instant replay was available for 55 games in the Big Ten last season and there were 43 reviews. That was less than one a game. Of those 43 reviews, 21 of the plays in question were overturned.
"At first, I thought it might disrupt the game," Nutt said. "But what I'm told, there was only 43 calls in the Big Ten. (Twenty-one) were overturned and that's a pretty good number. So that's OK. Just get it right."
That's exactly what the SEC is hoping for although, Gaston hopes officials will make the proper call on the field. If that happens, Gaston said he wouldn't mind watching the SEC spend money on instant replay for nothing. But Gaston's not naive.
In the end, he and the SEC coaches believe the implementation of instant replay will have a positive impact this season.
"I think it's going to be good for the game," said Alabama coach Mike Shula, who has experienced the benefits of instant replay coaching in the NFL. "I know it was for the NFL. I remember when it first started in the NFL, there was doubt if it was going to be productive or help the game.
"It ended up being a very positive thing."
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