College Football: 10 Best Conference Championship Games of All Time
Conference championship games have had a huge impact on college football since the first SEC Championship in 1992.
The results of several games had immediate impacts as teams have played themselves in or out of the national championship picture on the final weekend of the regular season. Conference championship games have also changed the landscape of college football with conference realignment, the creation of the BCS and constant tweaks to the BCS since it began in 1998.
The Big-12 had its inaugural championship game in 1996 and had one each of the following years until 2010. The ACC had its inaugural title game in 2005 and has had one every year since. The newly formed Pac-12 will have its inaugural championship game on Dec.1 and the newly realigned Big Ten, which now has 12 members, will host its inaugural championship game on Dec. 2.
This year's slate of conference championship games probably won't have any major impacts on this college football season or the overall landscape of the sport.
But this year is the exception.
There have been several electrifying, nail biting and jaw-dropping games on the last weekend of the regular season over the past 20 years that have caused celebration, agony and controversy among players, coaches and fans and I have tried to narrow them down to the "10 Best of All Time."
The criteria for the this list was based on various factors. Some made the list because of the sheer excitement of the game while others made the list because of historical value, shock value or due to the controversy or change that followed as a result of the specific game.
Following the countdown, I chose four great games that decided conference champions during the conference championship era but were played in conferences that didn't have conference championships at the time and I listed those games as "Honorable Mention."
10. Virginia Tech vs. Florida State, 2005
This game marked the first year of the ACC Championship and is the only ACC game to make this countdown. And it barely made it at that.
Florida State entered the game as the No. 22 ranked team in the country and was an underdog against the Virginia Tech Hokies in this rematch of the 1999 National Championship Game when Virginia Tech was a member of the Big East.
The first half of the game was filled with penalties and sloppy offense and was a 3-3 tie at halftime. The Seminoles came out in the second half and rallied off 24 straight points to take a 27-3 lead. Virginia Tech's offense would finally come to life in the fourth quarter and the Hokies would score 19 straight points to cut the lead to 27-22. They would never see the ball again and the Seminoles would hold on to win 27-22.
That win set up a historic matchup in the Orange Bowl versus Penn State in a game that featured college football's two winningest coaches of all time. The Nittany Lions would win a 26-23 thriller.
Florida State has not won an ACC Championship since 2005 while the Hokies have since won three.
9. Alabama vs. Florida, 1992
Bama won the inaugural SEC championship game 28-21
This one made the list mainly because it is the grandfather of conference championship games and caused a paradigm shift in college football. It was the first of the seven times that the Florida Gators have faced the Alabama Crimson Tide for the SEC Championship in Atlanta.
This was a hard-fought game and close until the very end, but Gene Stalling's Crimson Tide would hold on to beat Steve Spurrier's Gators and become the inaugural SEC Champions of the newly realigned 12-team league.
The Crimson Tide then went on to shock Miami 34-13 in the Sugar Bowl and be named the unanimous National Champions.
Florida leads the overall series 4-3 versus Alabama in SEC Championship Games.
8. Tennessee vs. Auburn, 1997
This game marked the final SEC game of Peyton Manning's historical career. Tennessee came into the game as a heavy favorite versus the SEC West Champion Auburn Tigers.
Auburn came out looking to spoil Peyton Manning's hopes to win the SEC Championship in his final year. The Tigers, led by senior quarterback Dameyune Craig, scored 20 unanswered points in the first half to take a 20-7 lead. Peyton Manning would eventually throw for 373 yards and the Vols would take a 30-29 lead late in the game and hold on to win a thriller by one point.
The Volunteers would eventually lose to co-national champion Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.
7. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, 2010
2010 wasn't the game of the century, but it marked the end of a long and storied rivalry
This game had no influence on the BCS National Championship Game but marked the end of two eras in college football. It was the last Big-12 Championship Game and the final time that Nebraska and Oklahoma would meet as conference foes.
Nebraska had agreed to join the Big Ten in 2011 and Colorado had agreed to join the Pac-10 along with Utah to form the Pac-12. Like the previous year, Nebraska seemed to be on its way to a possible Big 12 title only to be denied in the end. The Cornhuskers led 10-0 at the end of the first quarter and 20-17 at halftime, but would never score again.
Oklahoma would add two field goals in the second half and win the final Big 12 Championship Game 23-20. The Sooners would defeat the Connecticut Huskies in the Fiesta Bowl 48-20.
6. Kansas St vs. Oklahoma, 2000
This game was a rematch of an earlier game that season in which Oklahoma won 41-31 in Norman. The Sooners hadn't won a national championship since the 1970s and Bob Stoops was trying to bring the glory days back to Norman in his second season as head coach.
The two teams appeared to be evenly matched early in the contest and the score was 10-10 at the half. The second half was closely fought as well with Oklahoma eventually holding on to win 27-24. It was Oklahoma's first conference championship in the newly formed Big 12.
The Sooners would go on to shock Florida State 13-2 in the BCS National Championship.
5. Colorado vs. Texas, 2001
Texas thought they had caught a break the week before the Big 12 Championship Game in 2001 when Colorado shocked No. 2 Nebraska 62-36 in Boulder. The No. 3 Longhorns were now going to face a Colorado team that they had already defeated 41-7 earlier in the season and they now had a good chance to finish No. 2 in the final BCS rankings with a win.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, they would quickly realize that this was not the same Colorado offense that they had seen earlier that season in Austin. The Buffaloes jumped out to a 29-17 halftime lead and held off the Longhorns 39-37 in the end to win the Buffs' only Big 12 Championship. The victory propelled the two-loss Buffaloes up to No. 3 in the BCS rankings. This caused huge controversy and debate because they were still behind No. 2 Nebraska, a team that didn't even play in its conference championship and had just been throttled by the Buffaloes in their last game.
The Oregon Ducks were No. 2 in the human polls but No. 4 in the computers, and they felt that they were robbed of a chance to play for the BCS National Championship as well. It turned out that the Ducks probably had the bigger beef with the BCS computers after they defeated the Buffaloes 38-16 in the Fiesta Bowl.
4. Alabama vs. Florida, 2008
Tebow would tangle with the Tide two straight years
This was the first of two straight SEC championship games that would serve as de facto national semifinal. The Crimson Tide entered the game with a record of 12-0 and as the No. 1 team in the Associated Press and BCS rankings. Florida entered the game as No. 2 in the Associated Press and No. 3 in the BCS rankings.
The game was back and forth throughout the first three quarters and Alabama took a 20-17 lead heading into the fourth quarter. Tim Tebow and the Gators eventually took control in the fourth quarter, scoring two touchdowns to go up 31-20, and then put the game away with under three minutes left. Florida would go on to defeat Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship.
Alabama would get its revenge the following season. The 2009 SEC Championship featured No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama with identical 12-0 records. This game would be less dramatic as Nick Saban's club would take control early in the second half and win by a final score of 32-13.
3. Texas vs. Nebraska, 2009
This one had it all. A trip to the BCS National Championship Game on the line for Texas, big hits and sacks that featured Ndamukong Suh throwing around Colt McCoy like a rag doll and controversy at the end.
Texas came into this game as a heavy favorite and Colt McCoy and the Longhorns offense had been putting up big numbers throughout the course of the season. They hadn't faced Suh yet either.
The Longhorns offense could never get going in this game and it appeared that we were headed for BCS chaos when Nebraska took a 12-10 lead with a little over one minute left. The Longhorns wouldn't quit, though, and they drove down to field goal range with help of a horse-collar penalty and a pass interference call.
Colt McCoy, who had been sacked nine times that game, appeared to have completely mismanaged the clock down to nothing when he sailed a pass out of bounds to the right. The clock had all zeros and the Cornhuskers cheered in celebration. After further review, though, there was one second left on the clock, which was all Hunter Lawrence needed to nail the game-winning field goal.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said after the game that the Big 12 officials put one second on the clock for three reasons: "B-C-S."
The BCS National Championship Game would prove to be even more brutal for Colt McCoy as he would get injured in the first quarter of the Longhorns' loss to Alabama.
2. Texas A&M vs. Kansas State, 1998
The final Saturday in the 1998 college football season began with Tennessee on top of the BCS rankings, followed by UCLA, Kansas State and Florida State. UCLA was upset earlier in the day by Miami, leaving the door wide open for Kansas State to jump to the No. 2 spot and play for the National Championship.
Kansas State entered the game with a record of 11-0 while Texas A&M was 10-2. Kansas State was leading 27-12 and appeared to be headed to the National Championship.
Texas A&M would rally to score two touchdowns and convert a two-point conversion in the final nine minutes to send the game into overtime. In the second overtime, with Kansas State leading 33-30, Texas A&M completed a 32-yard touchdown pass to crush Kansas State's championship dreams and win 36-33.
Kansas State would go on to lose to Purdue in the Alamo Bowl by a similar score of 37-34 while Texas A&M would lose 24-14 to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
1. Oklahoma vs. Kansas State, 2003
Kansas State changed the BCS as we know it when they blitzed the Sooners in 2003
This game came in at No. 1 on the countdown because of the game's shocking outcome and the impact it had on the BCS system.
The Sooners entered the game at 12-0 and were considered by many to possibly be the greatest team in college football history. They had wrecked everyone on their schedule and were expected to cruise by the 10-3 Kansas State Wildcats, a team who had lost to Marshall earlier that season.
Many experts believed that because Oklahoma had such a commanding lead in the BCS computers and human polls over No. 2 USC and No. 3 LSU, that they didn't even have to win the Big 12 championship to play for the BCS National Championship. Boy, did they ever put that theory to the test.
Everything seemed to be going as planned early in the game when the Sooners jumped out to a 7-0 lead. Nothing after that went to the Sooners' plans. Bill Snyder's offense, led by All-American Darren Sproles, would put up over 517 yards and score five touchdowns. Two of those touchdowns were strikes of over 60 yards that came late in the second quarter. The stunned Sooners would never score again, and ended up losing 35-7 to the Wildcats.
The game was over, but the college football controversy was not. USC started the day No. 2 in the BCS and routed Oregon State 52-28 that afternoon. Logic would have it that if you started No. 2 in the BCS rankings and No. 1 lost, then you would probably go up in the rankings. Not so much.
The BCS rankings up to 2003 were composed of several components that carried equal weight to the two human polls, which were the Associated Press and Coaches' Polls. Some of those other categories were several different computer rankings rather than one average ranking, strength of schedule, number of losses and number of wins over Top 10 teams.
Due to the makeup of the 2003 BCS rankings, Oklahoma would stay at No. 1 and LSU would jump USC into the No. 2 spot.
USC would move to No. 1 in the Associated Press rankings and eventually be named the Associated Press National Champions, while LSU beat Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship.
The BCS would be completely restructured after that season into the three components that make up the BCS rankings today. Those are the Harris Poll, Coaches' Poll and the average computer ranking. The Associated Press disassociated itself from the BCS because of the 2003 season as well.
It all started after Kansas State shocked Oklahoma.
For the honorable mention candidates, I chose four great games that decided conference champions at the end of the season during the "Conference Championship Era" but were in conferences that did not have a specific conference championship game.
UCLA vs USC, 1993: This game marked the 22nd time USC played UCLA with the conference championship and a trip to the Rose Bowl on the line.
USC had won the previous 11 matchups between the cross-town rivals with the conference championship on the line and appeared to be on their way to making it 12 in a row when the Trojans had a first-and-goal at the UCLA three-yard line with a little over one minute to go and the Trojans trailing 27-21.
But UCLA's Marvin Goodwin had other plans and intercepted Rob Johnson's pass in the end zone and UCLA held on to win the game and the conference championship.
Ohio State vs. Michigan, 2003: This was 100th game in the storied Michigan-Ohio State rivalry. The game featured the defending champion and No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes versus the No. 5 Michigan Wolverines. The Wolverines offense overwhelmed the defending champions as Michigan won 35-21.
Michigan vs Ohio State, 2006: This was the first game labelled the "Game of the Century" this century.
The No. 1 Buckeyes and No. 2 Wolverines were both undefeated and the winner was guaranteed a trip to the National Championship Game. The game was a high-scoring affair that Ohio State eventually held on to win by a score of 42-39. Due to the slim margin of victory for the Buckeyes, many people were calling for a rematch in the National Championship Game (sound familiar?)
The rematch would never take place and both teams would go on to lose their respective bowl games.
Oregon vs. Oregon State, 2009: This was the first time in the 115-year old history of the game known as "The Civil War" between the Ducks and the Beavers that would decide the conference champion and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
Oregon State wanted payback as the Ducks played spoiler the year before when the Beavers needed only to beat the Ducks to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl. This game went back and forth with the Ducks eventually winning a 37-33 shootout to win the conference championship.