With apologies to The Beatles and the title song from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. . .
It was 20 years ago today,
that Roy Kramer got the SEC to play,
A championship game second to none,
Putting the rest of college football on the run,
So let me introduce to you,
The SECelebration you’ve known for all these years. . .
In the beginning, during the 1992 football season, there was gnashing and wailing from some unhappy Southeastern Conference football coaches who thought playing the league’s first championship game that December would assure the SEC might not win another national championship.
“We’re 11-0 and we haven’t won nothing,” then-Alabama coach Gene Stallings moaned before the inaugural SEC title game against Florida on Dec. 6, 1992.
Turns out that Stallings and the rest of the coaches of that era – one of which is Steve Spurrier, who has coached in more SEC championship games than anyone (seven) – have been wrong nine times over since then with a 10th pending.
If anything, especially since the creation of the BCS in 1998 in which the top two teams in the BCS standings play in the national championship game, the SEC championship game has often been a BCS championship semi-final. It has led to those nine national titles from the SEC family – three by Florida, two each by Alabama and LSU, and one each for Tennessee and Auburn.
All of which makes former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer, the father of league expansion and the championship game, extremely satisfied after all these years.
“I felt from the very start that this championship game would set the league apart from others,” said Kramer, retired and living outside Knoxville. “It’s done that and it’s maintained its excellence."
In honor of the SEC’s current string of five straight national championships with nationally ranked No. 1 LSU meeting No. 14 in Saturday’s 20th annual SEC championship game in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome and since this ‘ol sportswriter who has covered every one of these Kramer Bowls, here’s what my five best SEC title games to date.
Antonio to the House
No. 2 Alabama 28, Florida 21, 1992 – Here’s a little-known fact about the first SEC championship game ever played. To this day, it’s the only league title contest in which the game-winning touchdown – a 27-yard Antonio Langham interception return with 3:16 left to play – has been scored with fewer than four minutes left in the game.
Much of the pregame talk centered around Alabama’s perceived home field advantage since the game was played in Birmingham’s Legion Field (which was still one of Alabama’s two home stadiums at that point). Alabama coach Gene Stallings insisted his team had no such advantage because it was dressing in the visitors’ dressing room.
Florida wasn’t buying it. The Gators were enjoying playing theus-against-the-world role. At that point in history, Florida had the best conference record twice since 1984, but wasn't awarded the official championship because the Gators were on NCAA probation.
''We've never been very welcome in this conference,'' Florida receiver Tre Everett said before the ’92 title game. ''I guess when you're beating people, nobody really loves you much anyway. But I wouldn't want to lose games just to make friends.''
On game day, Florida did everything but win. The Gators rolled for 317 yards against Alabama’s No. 1 ranked defense that had allowed but 183 yards per game.
Alabama's defense was baffled by five shovel passes thrown by Florida quarterback Shane Matthews to running back Errict Rhett. The quick inside flips countered Alabama's intense outside pass rush.
Alabama defensive coordinator Bill Oliver, who has matched wits throughout the years with Spurrier in other locales, including the United States Football League, tipped his hat to Spurrier.
“Steve had a great game plan,'' Oliver said. ''He did a nice job of mixing things up and changing the tempo of the game.' We looked at probably six of their game films and we saw them throw that pass only once. But that's Steve. He does what you least expect.''
In the end, the Tide's game-winning TD was Alabama cornerback Langham's interception return, as he matched wits with Matthews on a first-and-10 situation at the Florida 21-yard line. With starting receiver Jack Jackson sidelined with a slightly pulled hamstring, reserve receiver Monty Duncan ran a short sideline pattern.
“They'd run that pattern the whole game,” Langham said. ''This time instead of backpedaling, I sort of squatted in the gap. I didn't look at the receiver. I just looked at Matthews the whole way. Once I got the ball, all I saw was the goal line.''
And he forever became a part of the Alabama lore.
Alabama advanced to the Sugar Bowl, winning its seventh national championship by pounding favored Miami, 34-13, and finishing 13-0.
On the brink, the Vols don’t blink
No. 1 Tennessee 24 Mississippi State 14, 1998 – All during the ’98 season, the No. 1 unbeaten Vols had gotten some breaks, such as a pass interference penalty that set up a late field goal for a season-opening win at Syracuse, and a stumble and fumble by Arkansas’ quarterback Clint Stoerner.
But Tennessee had some adversity also, such as losing running back Jamal Lewis to a knee injury earlier in the season. Feeling it had to stop Tennessee’s running game to spring an upset in its first and still only trip to the SEC championship game, Mississippi State erected a defensive wall against the Vols.
With Tennessee hanging on to a 10-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, State’s Kevin Prentiss, a mighty mite punt returner, slithered 83 yards to end zone, tight-roping down a narrow lane next to the sideline. Suddenly with 8:43 left in the game, State led 14-10 and Tennessee’s perfect season was on the brink.
But Tennessee did what champions do. It fired back with a trio of big plays, regaining the lead a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tee Martin to game MVP Peerless Price.
Holding a 17-14 lead, the Vols’ Eric Westmoreland recovered a fumble by State quarterback Wayne Madkin. Immediately, Martin went up top for a 26-yard TD, giving Tennessee 14 points in a 28-second span to clinch the win.
``We knew our offense had to make a play sooner or later,'' said Price, who had six catches for 97 yards. ``It just so happened it came late.''
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said he never lost faith in his team.
``The fourth quarter was typical of what we've done this year,'' Fulmer said. “We made big plays when we had to.''
In the Fiesta Bowl, the first national championship game in the BCS history, Tennessee completed a 14-0 season by beating Florida State, 23-16.
Six times six equals too much Wuerffel
No. 4 Florida 45, Alabama 30, 1996 – Just the week before this game, the then-No. 1 ranked Gators thought their national championship dreams went up in smoke in a 24-21 loss at No. 2 Florida State.
FSU, hyped to play Florida quarterback Danny Wuerffel, the nation’s leading Heisman Trophy candidate, sacked him six times, forced him to throw three interceptions and leveled him almost every time he raised his arm to throw.
Gators’ coach Steve Spurrier, with his 10-1 team’s 23-game regular season victory snapped, immediately tried to rally his troops after the loss, noting they still had a chance to win their fourth straight SEC championship the following Saturday by beating Alabama.
''We've lost to Florida State before and come back and won the conference championship,'' Spurrier said. ''I said before the season that the SEC championship game is our biggest game of the year, and if we can't get ready for that we're a bunch of dummies.''
Fate was doing the Gators’ jaws chomp in the immediate hours prior to the title contest kickoff. No. 3 Nebraska's 37-27 loss to unranked Texas in the Big 12 Conference title game Saturday afternoon, helped position the Gators for a likely rematch against Florida State if could handle their business vs. Alabama.
Wuerffel made sure of that, with what many observers regard as the gold standard of the SEC championship game MVP performances. In a wildly-enteraining game, he completed 20-of-35 passes for 401 yards and six touchdowns against the nation's best pass defense that had allowed but five passing TDs all season. He broke a boatload of records in the process, including the SEC's single season passing mark held by Georgia's Eric Zeier.
“I just thank God that I play with guys like (receiver) Reidel (Anthony) who doesn't drop any balls I throw to him, and I have a line that battled back from criticism,'' said Wuerffel, a senior who the following week became Florida's second Heisman winner next week, joining Spurrier, who won in 1966. ''Alabama stacked up its defense and gave us a chance to throw a lot downfield. We just missed a lot of passes early in the game and we hit them later.''
Neither team played it close to the vest. In the third quarter, Alabama and Florida traded touchdown passes on consecutive possessions that still ranks as the first and second longest TD passes in championship game history.
Tide quarterback Freddie Kitchens threw a 94-yard TD bomb to Michael Vaughn, then Wuerffel counterpunched with an 85-yard TD to Jacquez Green.
''Give Florida credit,” said a gracious Alabama coach Gene Stallings afterwards. “Wuerffel made some fine throws and his receivers made some fine catches. You'd have a hard time today making me believe we would give up 45 points.''
To this day, this game accounts for 12 SEC championship game records, including the most combined points scored (75) by the two teams.
''If we play them (Florida State) again we'll be ready to play them,'' Spurrier said.
Spurrier got his wish. The Sugar Bowl paired FSU and the Gators, and it was no contest, with Florida winning 52-20, to give the school its first national championship.
Hey, this Saban guy can coach!
LSU 31, No. 2 Tennessee 20, 2001 – It was on their on the table for taking for the Vols.
A win would put Tennessee, No. 2 in the BCS standings, in the Jan. 3 Rose Bowl would play No. 1 Miami for the national championship. A loss could likely drop the Vols out of a BCS bowl and into the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl vs. Michigan. A win for 8-3 LSU would get Tigers to the Sugar Bowl vs. Illinois.
"It's all in our hands now," Tennessee sophomore quarterback Casey Clausen said before the game. "If we play well, we go to the Rose Bowl. If guys can't get up for that, then they are playing the wrong sport."
In person and across the nation, the Vols had four sets of fans rooting against them - LSU, which is trying to win its first SEC title since 1988, and Nebraska, Colorado and Oregon, all hoping an LSU win catapults one of them to the Rose Bowl.
In the days prior to the Vols-LSU hooking up in Atlanta, the town of Lincoln, Neb. became honorary LSU fans. University of Nebraska football secretaries wore purple and gold. A Lincoln bake shop did boffo business selling purple and gold cookies.
The Vols, which had already beat LSU 26-18 in Knoxville just three months before in Knoxville, appeared to be on a roll. They were just coming off a 34-32 victory at Florida where they were an 18-point underdog in a game that had been moved to December because of the World Trade Center 9/11 attacks.
Even Vols’ coach Phillip Fulmer was confident about his team’s chances as they lined up for kickoff as a 6-½ point favorite.
"Our team has been good all season about taking the task at hand to heart," Fulmer said. "Folks like Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma didn't pay attention to the task and they aren't where they want to be. Based on our practices this week, I believe we're focused to get done what we need to get done."
Well, every rose has its thorn, and in Tennessee’s case, it was LSU.
A week after being on the highest of highs winning at The Swamp, the Vols felt like they’d been tossed off the roof of the Georgia Dome. They lost to LSU, 31-20, with the Tigers playing the entire second half without injured primary offensive weapons quarterback Rohan Davey (bruised ribs) and running back LaBrandon Toefield (undisclosed knee injury).
It didn’t matter that Tennessee had some impressive offensive numbers against the Tigers - quarterback Casey Clausen threw for 332 yards and two touchdowns, and wide receiver Kelley Washington had nine catches for 140 yards. The Vols simply made too many mistakes, some crucial pass interference penalties, and two fumbles in the last 16:29 that LSU cashed in for touchdowns.
The stunner was Tennessee’s defense was totally unprepared to face LSU backup quarterback Matt Mauck, a shifty runner, who was the game's Most Valuable Player. He ran for two touchdowns, the second a weaving 13-yard keeper that put the Tigers ahead for good with 14:20 left in the fourth quarter.
Mauck wasn't spectacular subbing for Davey - 5-for-15 for 67 yards - but he ran for 43 yards on 12 carries and didn't throw an interception. Backup tailback Davis replaced Toefield, the SEC's leading scorer and second leading rusher, by running for 78 yards on 16 carries and the game-clinching TD.
"When Rohan went down (with bruised ribs in the first half), Coach Saban didn't have time to tell me much of anything," said Mauck, a 22-year-old redshirt freshman who joined LSU in 2000 after spending three years as a minor league catcher in the Chicago Cubs organization. "I was pretty nervous when I got in there at first, but I settled down.”
LSU coach Nick Saban, winning his first SEC championship, praised Mauck for his unexpected performance in replacing Davey, who didn't play at all in the second half. Mauck hurt the Vols with quarterback draws, slowing down the Tennessee rush.
"You never want to say an injury is a blessing, but we were able to play to Matt's strengths and it was something that Tennessee wasn't prepared for," Saban said. “Our whole team showed heart.”
LSU finished 9-3 after beating Illinois 47-34 in the Sugar Bowl. Tennessee played one of its best offensive games ever in a bowl game, hammering Michigan 45-17, to finish 11-2.
Timmy T. Time for the Gators
No. 2 Florida 31, No. 1 Alabama 20, 2008 – The Gators, trailing the Crimson Tide 20-17 entering the fourth quarter, put the game on the broad shoulders of quarterback Tim Tebow.
And like Secretariat sprinting to the finish, Tebow had a magnificent fourth quarter. In the final 15 minutes, Tebow, voted the game's Most Valuable Player, guided Florida on scoring drives of 62 yards and 65 yards. He completed 3-of-3 passes for 53 yards on the latter drive that ended with Tebow's 5-yard touchdown pass to Riley Cooper with 2:50 to play.
"I don't think it was just my will," said Tebow, who completed 14-of-22 passes for 216 yards and three TDs, and who ran for 57 yards on a team-high 17 carries. "It was the will of our offensive line, of our defense. When our back is against the wall, we just focus."
The Gators had to, because they played without star receiver/running back Percy Harvin. Team doctors made the pregame decision that Harvin's high ankle sprain he sustained the week before against Florida State wasn't well enough for him to play.
Without Harvin, the Gators reached down deep in the biggest megamatchup in SEC title game history.
"That's one of the best college football games I've ever been a part of," said grateful Florida coach Urban Meyer, who won his second SEC title in his four years as the head Gator as a prelude to a second national title. and hopes he has a chance to win his second national title in the same time frame. "That fourth quarter will go down as one of the greatest in Florida history. That was vintage Tim Tebow."
The Gators, who had only trailed once all season and who hadn't had a close game since losing 31-30 to Ole Miss in late September, fell behind Alabama twice. But Tebow wouldn’t let his team lose, handing the Tide its first loss after 12 straight wins.
"He's a great competitor who no doubt puts his team on his shoulders," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "We had those two (fourth quarter) touchdown passes covered as well as we can cover them, and he put those balls in a small space. When the score is 20-17, we didn't finish like we needed to, and they did. That's the difference in the game, and he (Tebow) made a lot of those plays."
The Gators topped off their 13-1 run to their second national title in three years with a 24-14 BCS championship game victory over Oklahoma in Miami.