Best Conference Championship Games of the Past 10 Years

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured Columnist IVNovember 30, 2022

Best Conference Championship Games of the Past 10 Years

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    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01: The pass flies over the heads in the end zone for the final play of the SEC Championship game of the Georgia Bulldogs v Alabama Crimson Tide at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Major ramifications abound this weekend, as conference titles will be determined across the country.

    Following those huge games, we'll be able to we look ahead to the College Football Playoff and bowl season with clearer vision.

    But before we get to all of that, it's always fun to look back at some of the classics. Here, we'll look at conference-title-game thrillers from the past decade, dating back to the 2012 postseason.

    From a pair of Alabama-Georgia tussles to Baylor being on the positive (and negative) end of a couple of Big 12 tilts, we've had some doozies. Even though you may think of the Big Ten East as the dominant side of that conference, we've had some classics there in the past decade, too.

    Here are 11 of the most memorable conference championship games over the past decade, listed chronologically starting in 2012.

2012 SEC: Alabama 32, Georgia 28

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    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 1: Head Coach Mark Richt of the Georgia Bulldogs reacts to a play against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome on December 1, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    This was one that lived up to the massive billing as being called one of the "games of the century" that we have every couple of years.

    The second-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide and third-ranked Georgia Bulldogs battled for the conference championship, and the winner got a spot in the national title game.

    Behind Eddie Lacy's 181 rushing yards, the Tide wound up winning 32-28 and going on to dominate Notre Dame in the national title game.

    In this back-and-forth tilt, A.J. McCarron threw a 45-yard scoring toss to Amari Cooper with 3:15 left to take a four-point lead. But the Dawgs marched right back, surging to the 'Bama 8-yard-line with 15 seconds left.

    As the clock ticked under 10 seconds, quarterback Aaron Murray threw a pass toward the end zone that was deflected and caught by Chris Conley at the 5. However, Conley couldn't get out of bounds, and UGA saw the writing on the wall. The Bulldogs didn't even attempt to scramble to the line for another play as the clock ran out.

    The pass wasn't supposed to go to Conley, who simply reacted to the pass and instinctively caught it.

    "If people blame him, they don’t understand football," Murray told Saturday Down South's Cody McClure.

    With a weak Notre Dame team awaiting in the championship game, this one felt like the default national title, and Georgia was crushed to come so close to beating the powerhouse Tide, only to fall short.

    The Bulldogs would have to wait nine more years for their first national championship since 1980.

2012 MAC: Northern Illinois 44, Kent State 37 (2 OT)

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    DETROIT, MICHIGAN - NOVEMBER 30, 2012: Quarterback Jordan Lynch #6 of the Northern Illinois Huskies spins away from a tackle from defensive back DeVante' Strickland #31 of the Kent State Golden Flashes during a game against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Northern Illinois won 44-37. (Photo by David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images)
    David Dermer/Diamond Images/Getty Images

    The greatest season in MAC history ended with a classic game the conference will never forget.

    Northern Illinois, behind star quarterback Jordan Lynch, capped the first 12-win season in program history with a riveting 44-37 double-overtime victory over Kent State in the MAC championship game at Detroit's Ford Field.

    Entering the contest, the Huskies' only blemish was a season-opening, one-point loss to Iowa. This massive win gave them the conference's only appearance in a BCS bowl—an eventual 31-10 loss to a much more talented Florida State team.

    Still, that season-ending setback does nothing to water down a memorable campaign and that title-clinching win over the Golden Flashes.

    Both teams had just a single loss entering the game, and the win boosted NIU into the top 16, meaning a big-time bowl berth. Lynch accounted for 372 total yards and four touchdowns, including the game-clincher, and an interception in the end zone by Demetrius Stone gave the Huskies the win.

    Though NIU dominated for much of the game and held a two-touchdown fourth-quarter lead, Kent State erupted to tie the game with two scores in 15 seconds. The Huskies went right back up, but the Flashes answered to force overtime.

    Coach Dave Doeren parlayed the big season into a Power 5 job with North Carolina State (where he's still coaching), and Rod Carey took over and led the Huskies in the bowl-game loss.

2014 ACC: Florida State 37, Georgia Tech 35

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    December 06 2014: Florida State Seminoles quarterback Jameis Winston (5) tries to spin out of a tackle during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America in Charlotte,NC. (Photo by Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Dannie Walls/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Even during the final years of Jimbo Fisher's exceptional run at Florida State, the Seminoles had to work to get out of the ACC as champions.

    Those were the halcyon days of Fisher's coaching tenure, but Georgia Tech provided plenty of resistance.

    Way back in 2012, the 'Noles were heavy favorites over the Yellow Jackets, and they needed all four quarters to squeak out a 21-15 win over a 6-6 team. The two programs met again in the '14 title game, and this one was a great clash, too.

    Paul Johnson's triple-option attack gave the Seminoles fits throughout the game, but with Jameis Winston playing quarterback, FSU had enough offensive firepower to pull out a 37-35 victory over 11th-ranked Tech.

    Georgia Tech scored on a 25-yard TD with 1:47 left, but an onside kick failed, and FSU ran out the clock. The game was close throughout until the 'Noles received a little breathing room in the fourth quarter before the first ever CFP.

    While Winston was nearly flawless, this was true freshman Dalvin Cook's breakout in his first ever start, accounting for 220 yards from scrimmage.

    The 13-0 'Noles won their third consecutive ACC title, but the dream of a repeat title ended with a thud as Oregon dominated them 59-20 in the College Football Playoff.

    "Last year's team was dominating, this year's team is more amazing," Fisher told the Associated Press. "It is really is. ... They compete together. They have had some struggles together, and I think that's what makes them so tight."

2015 Big Ten: Michigan State 16, Iowa 13

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    INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 05:  LJ Scott #3 of the Michigan State Spartans runs for the game winning touchdown against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 5, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    When you think of Big Ten football, you usually don't conjure up images of Ohio State's high-flying offense or Michigan's explosive team from a season ago.

    Sure, teams from the conference are adapting a bit to college football's scoreboard surges, but those rugged, old-fashioned donnybrooks have characterized tough-guy football in the Big Ten for years.

    The 2015 conference championship game was a thing of beauty for those who love ugly.

    That game featured a battle between the 11-1 Michigan State Spartans and the unbeaten Iowa Hawkeyes with a College Football Playoff spot on the line, and coach Mark Dantonio's Spartans came through with a 16-13 win in a field-goal battle.

    The dream died in the playoffs with a 38-0 annihilation by Alabama, but that didn't take away from the classic nature of the conference title game.

    After a barrage of field goals had MSU ahead 9-6 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Hawkeyes struck with an 85-yard scoring toss from C.J. Beathard to Tevaun Smith to pull ahead 13-9.

    In a game without touchdowns, that felt like a decisive blow. But the Spartans responded with a majestic 22-play drive that covered 82 yards and paid off with an LJ Scott 1-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds left.

    Iowa fumbled its last chance, and Michigan State celebrated its only trip to the College Football Playoffs.

2016 Big Ten: Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31

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    College Football: Big Ten Championship: Penn State QB Trace McSorley (9) victorious after winning game vs Wisconsin at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Indianapolis, IN 12/3/2016
CREDIT: Jeff Haynes (Photo by Jeff Haynes /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: SI646 TK1 )
    Set Number: SI646 TK1

    The early 2010s were dark days for the Penn State football program. The cover-up of child sexual abuse by former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky tarnished the program's reputation. Legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired in 2011 and eventually replaced by Bill O'Brien, who bolted for the NFL after two years with Penn State still under NCAA sanctions.

    The 2016 season offered a glimmer of hope for a program full of new faces to turn the page on the football field, though. Thanks to head coach James Franklin, quarterback Trace McSorley and Co., the Nittany Lions did that with a monumental win in the Big Ten championship game.

    After getting dominated by No. 6-ranked Wisconsin and trailing by 21 points in the first half, McSorley and the seventh-ranked Lions began meticulously coming back with a frenetic passing game and somehow surged all the way back for a 38-31 win.

    The victory gave them nine consecutive wins, including handing second-ranked Ohio State its only loss of the season.

    McSorley completed 22-of-31 passes for 384 yards and four touchdowns, and Franklin lobbied hard for Penn State to get a look from the College Football Playoff committee after outscoring the Badgers 24-3 in the second half to pull out the win.

    "What I do know is that we just won the toughest conference in college football," Franklin told the Associated Press. "We've won nine straight. They say you're allowed to overcome minor setbacks. We've done that. It's up to you, committee."

    The committee said "no," and a 52-49 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl in yet another classic was a heartbreaker, but there certainly were some cardiac moments from the Nittany Lions to end the year.

2017 AAC: Central Florida 62, Memphis 55 (2 OT)

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    ORLANDO, FL - DECEMBER 02: UCF Knights wide receiver Tre'Quan Smith (4) catches a ball during the AAC Championship game between the UCF Knights and the Memphis Tigers on December 2, 2017 at Spectrum stadium in Orlando, FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    When you have a season like Central Florida's spotless campaign in 2017, nothing can take that away from you. Even though it isn't nationally recognized, the Knights claim a national title from that season.

    And why not?

    They vanquished every foe in front of them, were spurned by the College Football Playoff committee and went on to beat Auburn 34-27 in the Peach Bowl to end the year. But none of that would have been possible without a crazy win over Memphis in the AAC title game.

    After beating the Tigers 40-13 in an early season rout, nobody was expecting much resistance from then-Memphis coach Mike Norvell's Tigers. Instead, we got an unforgettable pinball wizard game of offensive firepower.

    Scott Frost's team needed every bit of flare from Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback McKenzie Milton to win 62-55 in two overtimes. The win came eight days after a 49-42 win over South Florida to end the year.

    The nation's top two scoring teams combined for 117 points, 1,479 yards and a 48-48 tie at the end of regulation. Memphis had roared back with two touchdowns in the final 10 minutes—the Tigers also missed a 51-yard field goal as time expired—to force overtime.

    Milton was far from spotless with three interceptions, but he was still the game's MVP with 494 passing yards and five touchdowns. Memphis scored first in overtime, but UCF's Adrian Killins Jr. answered back with a two-yard touchdown run.

    In the second extra frame, Milton quickly led the Knights to the 1-yard line before Otis Anderson punch it in. Tre Neal then picked off Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson, and UCF continued its magical season.

    Two hours after the game, Frost was announced as Nebraska's head football coach, beginning a disappointing tenure at his alma mater that lasted until earlier this season.

2017 Pac-12: USC 31, Stanford 28

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    SANTA CLARA, CA - DECEMBER 01:  Tyler Vaughns #21 of the USC Trojans dives into the endzone for a touchdown against the Stanford Cardinal during the Pac-12 Football Championship Game at Levi's Stadium on December 1, 2017 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Back in the heyday of David Shaw's early tenure at Stanford, the Cardinal were known for their rugged, hard-nosed style of play. There was defense, running and a whole lot of winning.

    Toward the end of that positive cycle in Palo Alto, though, it was the USC Trojans who flexed in a pivotal moment that led to a 2017 Pac-12 championship with a 31-28 win. Those were better days for coach Clay Helton, too, who has since been fired and is now at Georgia Southern.

    The Trojans, behind a terrific performance from quarterback Sam Darnold (325 passing yards and two touchdowns), built a lead that the Cardinal whittled away to three points to start the fourth quarter.

    That's when a huge defensive stand by the Trojans kept the momentum on their side. USC mounted a goal-line stand, including two 4th-and-1 shutdowns of the Cardinal's vaunted jumbo package to keep things tight and in their favor in the final frame.

    Darnold then orchestrated a 99-yard touchdown drive to perfection with the big strike going to Michael Pittman Jr. for a 52 yards. Ronald Jones II's 8-yard touchdown run extended the lead to 10 points.

    Stanford marched back behind K.J. Costello, scored and after the onside kick went out of bounds, the Trojans converted a 4th-and-2 to run out the clock and earn their first Pac-12 championship game victory.

    Despite a 24-7 loss to Ohio State in the Cotton Bowl, it was still a big step forward for the Trojans in Helton's early tenure.

2018 Mountain West: Fresno State 19, Boise State 16 (OT)

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    BOISE, ID - DECEMBER 1: Quarterback Brett Rypien #4 of the Boise State Broncos throws a pass through the defensive end Mykal Walker #3 of the Fresno State Bulldogs during first half action in the Mountain West Championship on December 1, 2018 at Albertsons Stadium in Boise, Idaho. Fresno State won the game 19-16 in overtime. (Photo by Loren Orr/Getty Images)
    Loren Orr/Getty Images

    Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

    It isn't every year you get a conference championship game in a driving winter storm, but that's what happened in the 2018 Mountain West Conference championship game played in Boise, Idaho. That novelty (along with it being a great game) lands the game on the list.

    Running back Ronnie Rivers scooted into the end zone in Fresno State's portion of overtime following a Broncos field goal to give the No. 24-ranked Bulldogs a 19-16 win over No. 19 Boise State. It was the Bulldogs' first conference title since 2013.

    It marked a return to glory for a once-proud program under coach Jeff Tedford. It was the first time in 10 attempts Fresno won at Boise, and it completed a turnaround from a 1-11 record two years prior.

    "The blue turf thing again?" Tedford said to the Associated Press after the game. "I don't know how many times I have to say it —and the field wasn't even blue tonight, it was white— it doesn't matter what color it is, you're playing a good football team and a well-coached team."

    Boise State missed a would-be, game-winning extra point that wound up sending the game into overtime, and a Bulldogs team that was really an afterthought moved to 11-2 on the season.

    This game doesn't get as much love as Power 5 title games, but this was a great game between two good teams in a memorable environment.

2018 SEC: Alabama 35, Georgia 28

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    ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 01: Alabama Crimson Tide Running Back Josh Jacobs (8) eludes Georgia Bulldogs Defensive Back Deandre Baker (18) during the SEC Championship between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs on December 01, 2018, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    This was perhaps the best conference championship of the past decade and provided a redemption story for Jalen Hurts, who stuck with Alabama despite losing the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa.

    Of course, Hurts would transfer to Oklahoma after the season and take the Sooners to the College Football Playoff, but this was one of the biggest storybook moments of the '18 season.

    No. 4-ranked Georgia held a commanding two-touchdown lead behind Jake Fromm in the third quarter. But Tagovailoa hit Jaylen Waddle for a 51-yard touchdown to close the gap to a single score.

    After Bama's star quarterback had to leave the game with an ankle injury, giving way to Hurts, the magic moments followed. In a classic comeback story, Hurts—who had been a picture of integrity, perseverance and grace throughout the year—got his chance to shine. He made the most of it.

    First, Hurts found Jerry Jeudy for a 10-yard touchdown, then after a baffling fake punt call by UGA coach Kirby Smart on 4th-and-11 gave the ball back to Alabama, Hurts needed just a couple of minutes to run the ball in from 16 yards out to give the Tide the decisive final lead.

    Things didn't go well for either team afterward. The loss took the wind from UGA's sails, and the Dawgs were thumped in their bowl game. Alabama rumbled undefeated into the championship game but was drubbed by Clemson.

    Still, this was a game for the ages.

2019 Big 12: Oklahoma 30, Baylor 23 (OT)

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    ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 07: Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) looks for a receiver during the Big 12 Championship Game between the Baylor Bears and the Oklahoma Sooners on December 07, 2019, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Speaking of Jalen Hurts, the very next year in his only season in Norman, Oklahoma, he was part of another magnificent conference title game.

    Though Matt Rhule is currently in the headlines for accepting the Nebraska head coaching vacancy, back in 2019 he was in the final stages of rebuilding the woebegone Baylor Bears football program.

    Rhule went on to an unsuccessful head coaching stint with the NFL's Carolina Panthers after the season, but he was on the cusp of leading the Bears to a Big 12 title before running into the sixth-ranked Sooners.

    The two teams perhaps couldn't have been more evenly matched. Late in the season, OU beat Baylor 34-31 to end the Bears' hopes for a spotless campaign. Then, in the Big 12 title game, the Sooners needed overtime to escape with a 30-23 win.

    After Bears starter Charlie Brewer was hurt, they inserted Gerry Bohannon who was ineffective. So, Rhule put in big-armed freshman Jacob Zeno, who completed just 2-of-6 passes but for 159 yards and a touchdown.

    Trestan Ebner caught an 81-yard touchdown from Zeno, who then added a 78-yard strike to Chris Platt to set up the field goal that tied the game and sent it into overtime. OU needed just five plays to score in its part of the extra session, capping it off with a Rhamondre Stevenson scoring run.

    The Sooners constantly pressured Zeno once Baylor got the ball, making it impossible for him to get the ball to receivers. With the defensive stand, the Sooners clinched their fifth consecutive conference title.

2021 Big 12: Baylor 21, Oklahoma State 16

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    ARLINGTON, TX - DECEMBER 04: Baylor Head Coach Dave Aranda celebrates winning the Big 12 Championship Game between the Baylor Bears and the Oklahoma State Cowboys on December 4th, 2021 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
    John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Championship games giveth, and they taketh away.

    Two years after the Baylor Bears had to endure heartache under former coach Matt Rhule in the loss to Oklahoma, they got another shot after Rhule's replacement, Dave Aranda, brought the program back in just a couple of years.

    They wouldn't squander the opportunity.

    Following a 10-point loss to Oklahoma State during the regular season, the two defensive-minded teams met for the title, and Aranda's senior-laden squad got it done 21-16, thanks largely to a last-second goal-line stand that turned away the Cowboys.

    A late pass interference call in the end zone against Baylor gave Oklahoma State 1st-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Dezmon Jackson gained a yard on first down, was stuffed for no gain and then Spencer Sanders threw an incomplete pass to set up fourth down.

    With the game in the balance, Jackson ran a sweep to the left, with only Bears safety Jairon McVea there to stop him. McVea got his hands on Jackson, pulling him back as the running back dove for the pylon with 24 seconds left. Jackson went out of bounds inches short of the goal line, clinching Baylor's victory and knocking Oklahoma State out of the College Football Playoff.

    Though he had an up-and-down campaign for Baylor, quarterback Blake Shapen enjoyed his coming-out party in the game, completing his first 17 passes for three scores to help the Bears build a 21-3 lead. While Oklahoma State roared back, it couldn't complete its comeback.

    Both teams went on to win their bowl games (Oklahoma State over Notre Dame in the Fiesta and Baylor over Ole Miss in the Sugar), further underscoring that this was a great game featuring two strong teams.

    All stats courtesy of cfbstats and Sports Reference. Player rankings courtesy of 247Sports unless otherwise noted.

    Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.