4 SEC championship games that gave us real drama
Alabama will head to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta this weekend as a 17.5-point favorite over Florida, whom they’re set to play at 4 p.m. Saturday in the SEC championship game. And the lopsided matchup many foresee is really just par for the course when it comes to the game.
Indeed, in the 23-year history of the conference championship game, only five underdogs have come away winners and only five games have been decided by a single-digit margin.
The teams playing Saturday, of course, competed against one another in the inaugural 1992 SEC Championship Game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Florida and Alabama also lead the conference in championship game appearances, with 11 and 10, respectively, facing one another in four of the first five matchups.
SEC fans hoping to witness an entertaining game Saturday face tall odds, not to mention a historic trend.
And in the event that doesn’t happen, a peek at the past may be a fix. Here’s a look back at the four championship games that actually delivered dramatic spectacle for viewers:
1992 – Alabama 28, Florida 21
The very first championship game featured Gene Stallings’ No. 2-ranked Tide team and Steve Spurrier’s 12th-ranked Gators.
The game was ultimately decided by a play memorable enough for ESPN to create a 50-minute feature on it in an SEC Storied segment nearly two decades later. But before that transpired, Florida went up early in the first quarter on an Errict Rhett touchdown run. Alabama managed to tally the next three scores — all touchdowns — to go up 21-7 by midway through the third quarter.
Florida got a touchdown on a Willie Jackson goal-line slant late in the third quarter, and Rhett got into the end zone again with just more than eight minutes left in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Alabama had some trouble moving the ball in the fourth quarter, leaving the door open for a Gators’ comeback.
Florida fielded an Alabama punt deep in its own territory with just more than three minutes to play, getting an opportunity to drive the field, but that’s when the aforementioned ESPN-featured play took place. Florida quarterback Shane Matthews’ first-down pass was intercepted by Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham at the Gators’ 21 and returned for a go-ahead touchdown with 3:16 left on the clock.
With Alabama up 28-21, Florida’s final drive ended like its previous one. A Matthews pass was tipped high in the air and caught near midfield by Alabama linebacker Michael Rogers to really put the game on ice. Langham was named MVP.
Stallings’ 1992 Alabama team would go on to beat Miami in the Sugar Bowl, capturing the national title behind a dominant 34-13 performance.
1994 – Florida 24, Alabama 23
Meeting for the third consecutive year in the conference championship game, Spurrier’s sixth-ranked Gators were set to face an undefeated Alabama team that held the nation’s No. 3 ranking.
Florida was out to defend its conference championship, having beat Alabama 28-13 in 1993. Danny Wuerffel, then a sophomore, was under center for the Gators while Alabama was led by senior and third-year starter Jay Barker.
Spurrier’s team took a 17-10 lead to the locker room at halftime and held the advantage going into the fourth quarter, when they were up 17-16. But the Tide showed shades of 1992 when linebacker Dwayne Rudd took a Wuerffel pass to the house, putting his team up 23-17.
The 1994 game would not be most remembered for another key Alabama pick-six, though, but by what happened next. With the Gators at the Alabama 22 with just less than six minutes to play, Spurrier drew up a screen pass to wide receiver Chris Doering, who himself completed a 20-yard pass, getting Florida to the 2-yard line. Doering then caught the game-tying touchdown pass and his team went ahead 24-23 with the extra point.
Led by game MVP Ellis Johnson, a defensive tackle, the Florida defense stood stout for the final 5:29 of the game after regaining the lead. Johnson had five tackles — including three for a loss and two sacks — and a pass breakup.
Florida would go on to lose to Florida State, 23-17, in the Sugar Bowl.
1997 – Tennessee 30, Auburn 29
Tennessee was red-hot when it arrived at the Georgia Dome in 1997. The No. 3 team in the country had Peyton Manning under center, Jamal Lewis in the backfield and Peerless Price out wide.
Auburn arrived with a No. 11 ranking and Terry Bowden at the helm. Dameyune Craig was putting together a 3,200-yard passing season and the team was on the heels of an 18-17 win over hated foe Alabama.
That momentum carried Auburn to an early 20-7 lead. But Manning looked inspired in the second half, finding Price for a 46-yard touchdown late in the third quarter and Marcus Nash for a 73-yarder with 11:16 left in the game. Tennessee went ahead 30-29 when it converted the extra point on the Nash touchdown — something it failed to do the previous time it found the end zone, when Auburn blocked the kick and returned it for a two-point score, extending its lead to six.
Phillip Fulmer’s Volunteers were able to overcome that mistake, four fumbles and a pair of Manning picks to get the 30-29 win. They would, of course, go on to lose to Nebraska, 42-17, in the Orange Bowl. Manning, a senior, finished second in Heisman balloting to Charles Woodson.
2012 – Alabama 32, Georgia 28
Fifteen years after Tennessee and Auburn duked it out in a closely contested SEC championship, Alabama and Georgia were able to revive the drama in 2012.
Alabama entered the game ranked second in the country and as 7.5-point favorites over third-ranked Georgia.
A.J. McCarron, Amari Cooper, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Dee Milliner were some of the big names for the Crimson Tide. Georgia, meanwhile, featured Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Alec Ogletree and Tavarres King, among others.
Nick Saban’s Alabama side took a 10-7 lead to the locker room at halftime, but Georgia managed the first two scores of the second half, going up 21-10 on a Gurley touchdown run and a blocked-kick-turned-touchdown returned by Ogletree.
But Yeldon and Lacy put the Tide back up 25-21 by the beginning of the fourth quarter. That duo would finish the day with a combined 334 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Gurley managed 122 yards and a pair of touchdowns himself, however, including a go-ahead score with just less than 13 minutes to play.
With Georgia up 28-25 and 3:25 to play, McCarron found Cooper on a 45-yard bomb, which put Alabama ahead 32-28.
It would prove the final score of the game, though Murray and the Bulldogs managed to get all the way to the Alabama 5-yard line, where time would expire, crowning the Crimson Tide as SEC champions for the second time in four years. For Mark Richt and Georgia, it was the second SEC Championship game loss in as many years.
Alabama would go on to throttle Notre Dame, 42-14, in the BCS National Championship game.