This isn't exactly the best time to be bugging the men in black and white for opinions. A normally quiet group has found itself in the midst of some very high-profile feuds. First, Pac-12 officiating consultant (and Fox Sports analyst) Mike Pereira called out ESPN analyst Jon Gruden; then, we had the rarest of all officiating occurrences, when ACC coordinator Doug Rhodes publicly questioned the Pac-12 crew in the Sugar Bowl for overturning a would-be Virginia Tech Hokies TD.
Luckily, here at the Zebra Report, we started asking officials for BCS team scouting reports before all Hades broke loose. All season long we've sought the insight of the only people actually allowed on the field with the teams, and the refs' takes have been pretty spot-on. Last week they gave an inside look at the first four BCS bowls.
Now it's time to go to the whistle well one more time for an on-the-field look at the national title contenders. As always, the refs asked for anonymity. You certainly can't blame them. If we've learned anything over the last week, it's that officials are best when they go unnoticed.
SEC umpire: "From where I line up, right square in the middle of the defense, I have a real appreciation of two aspects of every offense. First is team speed. How fast are they coming at me? Second is the overall push at the line of scrimmage. I've seen LSU in person a couple of times this year and they just overwhelm defenses up front.
"That's how they get away with having what amounts to interchangeable skill people, using all those different running backs and two quarterbacks. That line doesn't give a damn who is lining up behind them. They are coached up and know that if they take care of business, everything else will take care of itself.
"Any of the guys in that first November game will tell you, and it was obvious on film, that the first couple of series the Bama defensive line, even as great as they are, kind of looked at each other like, 'Wow, this is different.' And when you are on the road with LSU for a nonconference game, the reaction is more like, 'Well, hell, this isn't fair.'"
SEC downfield official: "They just swarm, swarm, swarm. It's really interesting because a lot of times when you're in the middle of it it feels like they are just winging it, like there's not a plan. But there certainly is one. When [defensive coordinator] John Chavis was at Tennessee, his defenses were the same way. He lets the athletes be athletes. He would rather they over-pursue and correct than get so preoccupied with details that they can't play. It makes it look chaotic even when it isn't, especially in the red zone where there's so many people crammed into a small space. To me, that's a huge advantage because the Alabama quarterback [AJ McCarron] is the Crimson Tide's weakest link.
"I still think Tyrann Mathieu, as good as he is, can be taken out of the game mentally. His discipline has gotten worse as the season has gone on. We've had to increase our warnings to him to cool off, especially early in the game. He'll be so hyped up in New Orleans that it might not take but just a little smack talk, or even maybe a little too much success, to set him off in the early going."
SEC umpire: "For all the talk about the field goals in the first game or even LSU's return game, their punter [Brad Wing] is the biggest difference-maker on either team. There are times on the field where you can almost literally feel the field tilt, and that 72-yarder he had in the first Bama game was a backbreaker. With the exception of big offense plays, there's no better way to alter the emotional mood on the field than special teams. When that kid takes the field to punt, you can feel everyone already backing up, like they're conceding."
SEC referee: "We all know how good Trent Richardson is. But the key is McCarron. He's a great kid, super-polite during a game, and I think [Nick Saban] and his staff has done the right thing by kind of keeping him out of the spotlight all year. But in a team that has hardly any weaknesses, he's it.
"I wouldn't be surprised at all if he doesn't throw the ball downfield, I mean really downfield, until the second quarter or even the second half. You saw in that Tennessee game they brought him along slowly, let Richardson do all the work, and then opened up the second half with a couple of deep passes. Once he completed those and his confidence showed up, he was a different player.
"On the field you can really feel it when a defense gains confidence and starts moving in closer and closer to the line of scrimmage as the game goes on. If Bama's D can keep it close, then you can think of it as one big 30-minute play-action pass. If they get that defense to inch up the whole game and then find one deep shot for McCarron, it might really open everything up. In other words, they could use Julio Jones to come back.
"Whatever McCarron is going to do, he needs to do it from midfield. Once Alabama crosses the 20-yard line it'll be nearly impossible to get any big gains through the air against LSU."
SEC linesman: "They are every bit as good as LSU on defense, but being on the field with them is a totally different feel. It's so much more conventional. It looks and feels like an NFL defense, as opposed to that Wild West personality that LSU's defense has.
"They are so good at suckering an offense. They give you a look that appears like it has lanes in it and then it just closes up once the play starts. On the field it's a beautiful thing to watch -- for me, at least. For a quarterback it's a nightmare.
"The most surprising part to me is they don't create a ton of turnovers [Editor's note: Alabama ranks 90th nationally in turnovers gained]. They need to find a couple on Monday night. Even one might end up being the difference. It was the first time, wasn't it?"
SEC umpire: "Remember what I said about emotion on special teams? It's as much about confidence as anything else. A lot of times I can tell just by the way a kicking unit walks onto the field whether or not they're going to make a field goal. We all know what happened in the first game, with four Alabama misses. And we've seen the pressure on these kickers in the other bowls. That kid from Alabama was watching those games too. It likely won't take much -- just one early miss -- to wreck his psyche."