By Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
The Southeastern Conference will never win another football national championship.
That was the sentiment expressed by many of the league’s head coaches in the early 1990s, following the SEC’s addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, which allowed the conference to enact divisional play, an eight-game schedule and create the first SEC Football Championship Game.
“In the early 90s, when Commissioner [Roy] Kramer came up with that playoff game, I said ‘I didn’t even know you could do that,’” said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, whose Florida team participated in the first SEC Championship Game in 1992.
The SEC was the driving force in the change surrounding college football in the 1990s, but was met with much skepticism. The initial SEC Football Championship Game match-up between Alabama, a storied program on the road to another national title, and Florida, early in the development of its football dominance under Spurrier, not only worked, but it set in motion a transformation of the sport.
“That first year certainly proved that wrong,” said Mark Womack, SEC Executive Associate Commissioner and a member of the league staff since 1978. “The success that we’ve been fortunate enough to have at the national championship level has proven that you could have a championship game. And, more times than not, our championship game has played a significant role in elevating our team to the 1-2 game in the BCS structure.”
Nine times since 1998, the winner of the SEC Championship Game has advanced to the BCS Championship Game. On eight of those occasions, the SEC Champion has won the national championship. The only exception came in 2011, when LSU captured the SEC Championship, but was bested by Alabama for the BCS Championship.
“The coaches thought it was a terrible idea – that it was nothing but one more roadblock in winning the SEC,” said Ron Higgins, an award-winning veteran sportswriter who now serves as a columnist for NOLA.com and The Times-Picayune. “Immediately, it worked the other way. When the BCS started, it really worked to their advantage. It has been proven over and over again. The SEC game has become, the last seven years, like a BCS semifinal game.”
After playing the first two years of the SEC Championship Game at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., the decision was made to move the game to the Georgia Dome in Atlanta where, today, the SEC will be contesting the 20th edition of its championship.
“The first two years that the game was in Birmingham were very successful years with large crowds, but we played outdoors and had weather issues in both games,” Womack said. “We had an opportunity to look at moving the game to Atlanta after the second year. As it turned out, it has been a terrific success with the facilities Atlanta has – not only the Georgia Dome facility, but the Georgia World Congress Center, where we could do FanFare, have corporate entertainment, and people could do other events around that game to make that a unique atmosphere.”
As central as the SEC Championship Game has become to determining college football’s national champion nearly every season, annually playing host to one of the best games of the year, the events surrounding championship weekend in Atlanta the first week of December have been equally important to the game’s success.
“The creation of FanFare has been tremendous and, as much as anything, that has really helped grow the game itself,” Higgins said. “Most of the time all of these tickets are sold out mid-summer with fans not knowing if their team will be there or not. People come anyway because this is like their SEC class reunion every year.
“They do the same things every year – they go to FanFare, they eat at the same restaurants and they have chilidogs at The Varsity – whether their team is in the game or not,” Higgins continued. “You see families and fathers and sons who have attended the games for years because they love SEC football and I don’t think that’s something anybody foresaw.”
In the Bowl Championship Series, which utilizes a formula for selection that was conceptualized by former SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer and his team, including Womack, an emphasis on the importance of every week of college football’s regular season has helped increase interest, television ratings and attendance in the sport.
“That week-to-week intrigue that we love that causes us, in the South, to stay up late on a Saturday night to watch a game on the West coast because it might impact your team, the BCS created that,” Higgins said. “I think you have to give the BCS credit.”
Tennessee’s long and winding path to the 1998 BCS National Championship gave fans across the country an indicator of how critical the regular season would be to determining the national champion under the current format. For SEC fans, however, the regular season became magnified in 1992, when a focus on getting to Atlanta made every regular-season conference game an important one.
The Championship Game has elevated our league to a unique level, not just the promotion and publicity you get out of the game, but everything that leads up to the game,” Womack said. “From the East and the West and all the interest that is shown in getting to Atlanta throughout the regular season, that has probably even strengthened our regular season to much more than what it was before we created the Championship Game.”
Similar to the way in which the events of the early 1990s served as a catalyst for sweeping change in the landscape of the SEC and college football as a whole, so too did the events of fall 2011 begin to spark the beginning of a new era in the sport.
Texas A&M and Missouri, both strong broad-based athletics programs and members of the Association of American Universities, became the conference’s 13th and 14th members, respectively, expanding the SEC’s footprint to Texas and the Midwest.
As the SEC had, over the previous decade, elevated its position from a regional to a national brand under Commissioner Mike Slive, in 2011, the conference expanded its reach to new geographic areas that would allow it to continue its leadership position in the intercollegiate athletics landscape.
Just as the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina in 1991 triggered the creation of the SEC Championship Game, the most recent expansion initiated the opportunity for the league to look at the possibility of beginning its own network.
“Different elements came out of each expansion that are very significant to the conference,” Womack said. “If you looked at the biggest things to come out of each one, you’d probably say, from the early one was the creation of the SEC Football Championship Game. You look at the most recent expansion, expanding the footprint and creating an opportunity to really look at creating your own network because your footprint was significantly bigger.”
Slive announced this past May that the SEC and ESPN have signed a 20-year agreement through 2034 to create and operate the multiplatform SEC Network, which will launch in August 2014. The network, which expects vast distribution nationally, and its digital platform will generate more than 1,000 live events in its first year, including 45 SEC football games.
“The SEC Network will be the one destination to go to watch three games a week on the same network,” Womack said. “We’ll have an early afternoon, an afternoon and an evening game on every Saturday. It will generate the opportunity for a lot more discussion with shoulder programming around all of the events, especially the football events. There will be a lot of original programming scheduled around the football element of the network.”
At the same time the new members were announced, the current 12 teams of the SEC were having an unprecedented year on the gridiron. At one point during that 2011 campaign, the conference’s Western Division boasted the nation’s top-three teams in Alabama, LSU and Arkansas.
When the Crimson Tide and Tigers met during the course of the regular season, it earned a moniker from fans as the “Game of the Century.” After LSU defeated Alabama, 9-6, in overtime, both teams continued their seasons undefeated from that point. The Tigers posted a dominating win in the SEC Championship Game and, for the first time in BCS history, two teams from the same conference would meet in the national title tilt.
While the talk of a playoff for the national title in college football had been swirling for years, the match-up for the 2012 BCS Championship may have proven to be the tipping point for the development of the College Football Playoff, which will begin with the 2014-15 season. Arkansas Vice Chancellor and Director of Athletics Jeff Long will serve as chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee.
“There was a lot of backlash from that LSU-Alabama game a few years ago,” Higgins said. “That probably pushed it over the top, which wasn’t a bad thing. At the end of the day, those were the two best teams in the nation. The system worked and the system is there for everybody to have an equal chance, but I think people are ready for the four-team playoff now.”
In the first year of a 14-team SEC, Alabama and Georgia both entered the SEC Championship Game with 11-1 records and ranked second and third, respectively, in the nation. The Crimson Tide pulled out a 32-28 victory against the Bulldogs in a game that served as a de-facto national semifinal contest.
“There’s always going to be two really good teams in the SEC Championship Game and that has always had a tremendous bearing on who ends up being the top two teams,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I think it will have a tremendous bearing now on who will be in the top four teams.”
With no restriction on how many teams from one conference can comprise the nation’s top four under the new College Football Playoff, it is conceivable that the SEC could again have more than one team vie for the national title in a given year.
“The scenario that you do wonder about sometimes is like last year – whoever won our game with Georgia and whoever lost our game with Georgia – would you make a case that they’re still in the top four teams?” Saban pondered. “In my opinion, Georgia was probably one of the top four teams. Most of the time, when you lose a game, you drop significantly, but when the No. 1 and No. 2 or No. 2 and No. 3 teams are playing, what’s to say that team is still not one of the best four teams?”
Regardless of the match-up in future SEC Championship Games, there is little doubt that the contest will continue to bring with it major national title implications.
“I almost think, without a doubt, it’s like the SEC Champion will be an automatic bid to the national semifinal,” Higgins said. “You’re going to have at most one loss and have to beat a pretty good team in the SEC Championship Game. Next year, the SEC Championship Game will be like a quarterfinal for the BCS.”
Just as contesting an annual SEC Football Championship Game in Atlanta has helped raise the conference’s profile, so too has that contest aided in increasing the visibility of Atlanta in the college football world. Existing bowls will be used in the structure of the College Football Playoff, and the city has already been awarded one of the 2017 semifinal sites, with bids out to host the College Football Playoff Championship in future years.
There is a feeling that the city of Atlanta, which is now home to the College Football Hall of Fame, has developed into a destination for college football. Renderings are currently being reviewed for the possibility of a new state-of-the-art stadium to replace the Georgia Dome, possibly as early as 2017.
“The town itself is a wonderful place; there’s a lot going on there,” LSU head coach Les Miles said. “I can’t imagine people wouldn’t want to go to the city of Atlanta and vacation in front of a bowl game. Certainly, with the experience of that group, they know how to host a football team and put on a great event. For me, it’s a very logical choice. It’s a great hub to travel to and people will look forward to not only watching the game, but arriving in Atlanta as a destination.”
While the current era may be one of transition in the sport of college football, one constant remains. As far as SEC teams are concerned, there will be no bigger game each year than the SEC Championship Game, a contest that will likely propel them to an opportunity to play for the national title.
“I always used to say this was my favorite game of the year,” Spurrier said. “When I was coaching at Florida, we got to it a lot, and it is a big, huge game for the fans. The Georgia Dome is a wonderful place to play. It’s the biggest game of the year if you can get there and, if you can win it, it really is the biggest game of the year.”
This story is available in the championship game program for sale Saturday at the Georgia Dome or online next week at www.imgproducts.net