Ranking the Best CFB Conference Championship Games of the Last 10 Years
It's conference championship week, and several teams will be looking to make a lasting statement on the College Football Playoff selection committee. The biggest matchup is No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 1 Georgia in the SEC Championship. Both teams have legitimate playoff chances, but if the Tide lose, that would likely cost them their semifinal hopes.
Elsewhere, No. 2 Michigan will meet No. 13 Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, No. 4 Cincinnati will face off against No. 21 Houston for the AAC title and No. 5 Oklahoma State will battle No. 9 Baylor for the Big 12 crown.
Thanks to the committee's value placed on teams playing in and winning conference championship games, these matchups have added importance.
But even before the playoff came along in 2014, conference championship games have made for some great contests. Let's run through the best conference championship games from the last 10 years. The criteria used for this included memorable games that fans will likely remember, overall good quality of games from start to finish, and games with late-game drama. Games that had second-half comebacks and/or went into overtime certainly fit that. National-title ramifications had no bearing on the rankings, but a lot of these games had serious playoff or BCS bowl implications.
Who knows, maybe we could see another great game this weekend.
8. 2012 MAC Championship: No. 21 NIU 44, No. 17 Kent State 37, 2OT
This one looked like it was going to easily go Northern Illinois' way, but Kent State had an incredible fourth-quarter comeback. In the third quarter, Northern Illinois took a 27-13 lead after a 29-yard field goal.
Kent State didn't start its comeback until deep into the fourth quarter. With 4:53 left in the game, Flashes quarterback Spencer Keith had a five-yard rushing touchdown to help cut the deficit in half. Then just 15 seconds later, Kent State's defense forced a fumble while sacking NIU QB Jordan Lynch and returned it for a touchdown. Just like that, it was a 27-all ballgame.
NIU then put together a touchdown drive finished off with a Lynch nine-yard rushing score, but Kent State countered to tie it up again at 34 to force overtime.
Both teams settled for field goals in the first overtime period to force it to a second OT. Northern Illinois struck first in the second overtime, as Lynch scored a rushing touchdown to help put his team up 44-37. On Kent State's ensuing possession, NIU's defense picked off Keith's pass on fourth down, sealing the Huskies victory.
Not only was this a great game, but it was an important win for NIU—the Huskies earned an Orange Bowl bid after finishing the regular season 12-1.
7. 2019 Big 12 Championship: No. 6 Oklahoma 30, No. 7 Baylor 23, OT
The Big 12 Championship Game returned from a six-year hiatus in 2017, so there are only four games from this conference to choose from. But the 2019 game will do. The Sooners entered this game with a spot for the playoff on the line, but Baylor tried to take that away from Oklahoma. This one was close throughout—so close, in fact, that it went into overtime.
Although Oklahoma took a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, the Bears responded in the second. They scored 13 points to take a 13-10 lead by halftime, and they did so with a backup quarterback. Starting QB Charlie Brewer left the game in the second quarter a few plays after taking a sack. His backup, Gerry Bohanon, came in and threw a touchdown pass.
Baylor wasn't able to find the end zone in the third quarter, and Oklahoma capitalized. The Sooners scored 10 points, including an 18-yard touchdown pass from OU quarterback Jalen Hurts—yes, the former Alabama QB ultimately transferred after all—to Nick Basquine to give Oklahoma a 20-13 lead.
A Sooners 23-yard field goal gave OU a 23-13 lead with 10:31 to go, but the Bears scored 10 unanswered points—including a touchdown pass from No. 3 quarterback Jacob Zeno—to force the game into overtime.
On Oklahoma's opening OT possession, Rhamondre Stevenson scored a five-yard rushing touchdown to help put the Sooners up 30-23. The Sooners defense stopped the Bears on their fourth-down conversion attempt to give Oklahoma the win. The Oklahoma victory paid off, too—the Sooners made it into the playoff that year as the No. 4 seed.
6. 2011 Big Ten Championship: No. 10 Wisconsin 42, No. 17 Michigan State 39
2011 marked the conference's first-ever championship game, and this one didn't disappoint. It was a rematch of a regular-season game. Earlier in the season, Michigan State beat Wisconsin in East Lansing 37-31. Both teams were led by two current NFL stars in quarterbacks Russell Wilson and Kirk Cousins.
It looked like Wisconsin might run away with this one early. The Badgers took a 21-7 lead after a Montee Ball six-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter. But Sparty's offense had a monster second quarter, scoring 22 unanswered points. MSU went to the locker room at halftime up 29-21.
In the third quarter, both teams traded touchdowns to give MSU a 36-28 lead. Then in the fourth, Wilson found Ball for a five-yard touchdown to pull within two points. MSU was able to counter with a 25-yard field goal to make Wisconsin have to go for a touchdown to regain the lead.
With 3:45 left, Ball rushed for a seven-yard TD to cap off an eight-play, 64-yard touchdown drive. The Badgers' ensuing two-point conversion made it 42-39 Wisconsin. The end of the game wasn't without drama, however.
With 1:37 left, Wisconsin lined up for a punt that would give the ball back to MSU. Instead, Sparty's Isaiah Lewis was penalized for running into the kicker, which gave the Badgers a first down, allowing them to run the clock out.
"I don't know if he hit him," MSU head coach Mark Dantonio said after the game of the call. "You probably have seen all the replays, but he threw the flag. I thought he flopped a little bit."
Flop or not, the call stood, and the win allowed Wisconsin to go to the Rose Bowl that season.
5. 2012 SEC Championship: No. 2 Alabama 32, No. 3 Georgia 28
We may not have known what was coming at the time, but this was the start of some great games between these two programs. In 2012, both teams entered this game with just one loss, and the winner was likely to make the BCS Championship Game.
For a while, it looked as if the Dawgs were going to upset the Tide, too. Alabama went to the locker room with a 10-7 lead, but Georgia opened the third quarter with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. Then on Alabama's ensuing possession, Georgia's Alec Ogletree blocked a 49-yard field-goal attempt by Tide kicker Cade Foster. Ogletree returned it 55 yards for a Bulldogs touchdown to help give the Dawgs a 21-10 advantage.
But Alabama refused to go away. The Tide responded with a seven-play, 74-yard touchdown drive capped off with a T.J. Yeldon 10-yard rushing score. Yeldon also converted on the ensuing two-point conversion to make it a 21-18 game.
Late in the third and into the fourth quarter, Bama started to slowly take this one over. Bama's defense forced a Georgia three-and-out with 3:04 left in the third, and the Tide offense got a one-yard touchdown run from Eddie Lacy to help take a 25-21 lead. Although Georgia countered with a touchdown drive of its own to make it 28-25, Bama's defense stepped up when it needed to. Georgia's offense was held to two straight three-and-outs on its next two possessions. A.J. McCarron threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper to help give the Tide the 32-28 lead that stood until the end.
In the final minute, Aaron Murray drove Georgia down inside Alabama's 10-yard line, but the Dawgs ran out of time.
This wasn't the last time these two met in the SECCG, either.
4. 2015 Big Ten Championship: No. 5 Michigan State 16, No. 4 Iowa 13
This game had pretty big playoff implications—undefeated Iowa already had the fourth seed, so a win for the Hawkeyes would put them in. But MSU was just behind them, meaning a win would surely clinch a playoff spot for the one-loss Spartans.
In true Big Ten fashion, this one was a low-scoring affair—in fact, neither team scored a touchdown until the fourth quarter! Through three quarters, the two teams traded field goals, and MSU had a 9-6 lead at the start of the fourth.
In the first minute of the fourth, Iowa found the big play it was looking for all night. Tevaun Smith caught an 85-yard bomb from quarterback C.J. Beathard to help give the Hawkeyes a 13-9 lead.
But with 9:31 left in the game, Sparty orchestrated a touchdown drive led by their running game that took a whopping nine minutes and four seconds off the game clock. On 3rd-and-goal from Iowa's 1, running back LJ Scott stretched the ball over the goal line to help give MSU a 16-13 lead with 27 seconds left.
MSU then recovered a fumble to seal the victory. The win was impressive enough for Michigan State to be selected into the playoff as the No. 3 seed.
3. 2020 SEC Championship: No. 1 Alabama 52, No. 7 Florida 46
It's a bit ironic to be writing about this game that was just a year ago, and Florida's head coach for it, Dan Mullen, has since been fired. Although the Gators entered this game as double-digit underdogs, they gave Bama one of the toughest tests it had seen all season.
The Crimson Tide went to the locker room with a 35-17 lead, but Florida refused to go away quietly in the second half. In the third quarter, the Gators managed to keep Alabama off the board, and the offense scored two touchdowns to make it a 35-31 game entering a wild fourth quarter.
The Tide opened the fourth quarter with a 10-play touchdown drive to go up 42-31. On Florida's next possession, quarterback Kyle Trask had a costly fumble while taking a sack that set up a Tide field goal with 9:53 to go. The Gators responded with a touchdown of their own to make it 45-38 with 6:33 left. But Florida's defense couldn't stop the Tide's offense from countering with a touchdown of its own.
Late in the fourth quarter, Trask found tight end Kyle Pitts, who made a leaping 22-yard touchdown catch with 2:07 left. The Gators had a successful two-point conversion to make it 52-46 with just over two minutes remaining. Florida's onside kick attempt was unsuccessful. Although the Gators got the ball back deep in their own territory with 16 seconds to go, Trask was sacked to seal the Bama victory.
The game was the second-highest-scoring SEC Championship in history. Najee Harris' five touchdowns were a new game record, too.
2. 2018 SEC Championship: No. 1 Alabama 35, No. 4 Georgia 28
Like the matchup six years prior, Georgia had momentum a couple different times in this game.
Georgia's defense forced an Alabama three-and-out after a UGA touchdown that put the Dawgs up 14-7 in the second quarter. The Dawgs then added to that lead off a Jake Fromm 11-yard touchdown pass to D'Andre Swift to go up 21-7. On the next possession, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs recovered his own fumble on a rushing touchdown attempt to make it a one-score game entering halftime.
Both teams scored touchdowns to make it 28-21 Georgia at the end of the third quarter, but the real drama came in the fourth quarter.
With just over 11 minutes to go, Bama starting QB Tua Tagovailoa left the game after one of his own lineman inadvertently stepped on his foot. Tagovailoa's backup, Jalen Hurts, who had been benched in the national title game for Tua the year prior, came into the game for his injured teammate. Remarkably, Hurts rose to the occasion and played hero for the Tide.
First, he led the game-tying touchdown drive, capped off with an 11-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy with 5:19 left in the game. Following Georgia's failed fake punt on the next possession, Hurts led the game-winning touchdown drive, finished off with his 15-yard touchdown run.
You couldn't have scripted a storyline any better. Hurts, despite having the option to transfer after the national title game the year prior, decided to stay put in Tuscaloosa to support his team. And he stepped in when his team needed him most. Head coach Nick Saban was visibly emotional when talking about Hurts after the game:
"It's unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won ... start as a freshman, only lose a couple of games the whole time that he was the starter, and then all of a sudden he's not the quarterback," Saban said via ESPN after the game. "How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You've got to have a tremendous amount of class and character to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be."
Tagovailoa was able to return to the field in time for Bama's subsequent playoff semifinal and national title game appearances. But if it wasn't for Hurts coming off the bench, the Tide likely would have been knocked out of the playoff hunt by the Dawgs.
1. 2017 AAC Championship: No. 14 UCF 62, No. 20 Memphis 55, 2OT
Unlike most conference championship games, the AAC lets the team with the best conference record host the game. And the 2017 Memphis-UCF AAC Championship Game was one of the wildest conference title games we've ever seen.
The game was a complete shootout throughout, with both offenses continuing to find ways to score. Although the Tigers trailed 24-14 early in the second quarter, Memphis' defense forced Knights turnovers on three consecutive possessions. Memphis capitalized on all of them, scoring 17 points off the turnovers to go to the locker room with a 31-24 lead.
Early in the fourth quarter, it appeared as if UCF was going to put this one away—a Knights 31-yard field goal with 9:51 gave them a 48-34 lead. But Memphis didn't go away quietly. The Tigers scored touchdowns on back-to-back possessions to tie it up at 48. A Memphis missed 51-yard field goal followed by a UCF interception forced the game into overtime.
In the first OT, both teams scored touchdowns to force it into a second overtime. The Knights scored a touchdown on their possession, and their defense picked off Tigers' QB Riley Ferguson's pass on second down to give them a wild victory at home. The win ultimately earned UCF a Peach Bowl bid vs. Auburn, where the Knights upset the Tigers and proclaimed themselves national champions.
There was some drama after this championship game, too. Less than two hours later, UCF head coach Scott Frost was announced as Nebraska's next head coach.