The Game Changer
The Game Changer
by Brandon Priddy
A couple of weeks ago I caught ESPN's latest installment of the "SEC Storied" series: "The Play That Changed College Football," an in-depth look at the first SEC championship game between Florida and Alabama. It was an examination of the game and more importantly the fervor, much of it negative, that surrounded the contest. In hindsight the evolutionary development of the conference title game seems almost preordained, but this fantastic documentary demonstrates that was far from the case. In fact the prevailing attitude at the time was that the game would serve as a roadblock to the national title for SEC teams, creating one final hump on what was already a rough road. Coaches were outspoken in their frustration with the new format and, to a man, Crimson Tide players interviewed for the documentary openly stated they wanted no part of the game.
It was an incredibly tight affair decided only in the final minutes when Antonio Langham jumped a short route (acting on a coin-flip guess we learn) and brought back the Shane Matthews throw for six. In one fell swoop he saved Alabama's title hopes, not to mention the job of SEC commissioner and title game creator Roy Kramer. But more than all those things, he preserved the idea of a conference title game itself in its nascent stage. You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and in 1992 the conference championship was instilled in the national consciousness as a positive, not a negative; a springboard, not a roadblock. A tested Bama squad went on to run ruff-shod over Miami in the national title game and the rest is history.
But there is a tantalizing coda to the story that we get in the documentary: in an inspired piece of nostalgia, ESPN got several of the old players from both teams to gather on the Legion Field for turf for an older, slower re-enactment of the famous play. Matthews drops back, once again makes the ill-fated decision to go underneath instead of over the top, Langham breaks........and DROPS THE BALL. We are left with a pair of indelible images. First, the tortured face of Shane Matthews, a decent guy by all accounts who couldn't have done anything to deserve such a cosmically cruel tease. But also the thought a college football universe where the pick never happened, Florida won and the conference title game looked a lot different.
Fortunately for us we don't need another universe in a parallel dimension: one has been provided right here in this one. You need look no farther than the now defunct Big 12 Title game to see what happens when a prospective conference champ with national title game aspirations stumbles on the last week of the season. Much like the SEC, the inaugural game featured a shoo-in for the national title game (Nebraska) that found itself in a dogfight (with Texas). In the the final minutes a team opted to go on 4th and short from their own 28. The quarterback eschewed the called run, opting instead to air it out - a decision that netted 61 yards and effectively ended the game. Unfortunately for the Huskers and the Big 12, this seminal moment benefitted the underdog Longhorns and the Husker title hopes were dashed. It would prove prophetic for the future of the game.
Including that 1996 upset, 15 Big 12 Title games were played (the game was discontinued in 2011 after conference membership shrank to 10 - NCAA rules prohibit a title game in conferences with less than 12 teams). In 6 of those 15, the winner was propelled into the national title game. Five times however, a team on the cusp of playing for a national crown lost that conference title game. If Texas isn't the beneficiary of a kind clock operator in 2009, that number jumps to 6. In all those cases but one (Oklahoma 2003) the loser was denied a title game berth.
It's a mirror image of the SEC title game, where in fully half of the 20 games the winner has been sent on to play for a national title (note that does not include the 2004 Auburn team, which finished the regular season undefeated, won the SEC title game but was shut out of the BCS Championship). This includes the last 6 SEC Title game winners - 5 of whom won their next game and the crystal football that came with it; LSU has yet to play this season. The lone victim of a final week shocker was the 2001 Tennessee squad which entered the game ranked #2 but was upset by LSU. In recent years the SEC title game has further enhanced it's stature, becoming an effective device for lower ranked teams to catapult themselves overtop the chaos and into the BCS Championship Game. Witness past national champions in the Florida Gators, who entered the 2006 game ranked #4 or the LSU Tigers, who were #5 heading into the final week of the season. The SEC title game has become the final runner's kick that propels teams to the tape.
So now, 800 words in, let me come to my main point. It is against the historical backdrop described above that the Big 12 leadership will be making decisions to frame the future of the conference. One point of debate is membership numbers: should the league stay at the current 10 members or add a pair of teams, thus matching their moniker and re-instituting the conference championship. The prevailing wisdom is that the two primary conference powers, Texas and Oklahoma, are against the idea. The difficult history of the conference's title game has seemed to give hold to the idea that it lessens a team's chances of qualifying for one of the top two BCS spots, scaring them away from the idea altogether.
But is this wise? At a time when 4 of the 6 major conferences have developed their own year-end title game contributions to what has become known as "championship week" (the Big East is the lone exception, and even they've floated the idea as a part of expansion), can the Big 12 afford to be the odd man out? They were fortunate this season with a showcase game equal in stature to the other conferences with #2 Oklahoma State vs. #11 Oklahoma, but can such fortune be counted upon annually? Doesn't failing to guarantee the opportunity to leave voters with a positive impression before they cast their final ballot seem irresponsible?
Given the angst-ridden history of the Big 12 Championship, it was the ultimate irony that some suggested the LACK of a championship cost the Cowboys the #2 spot in the BCS this year. While this seems unlikely given that they routed what had been the conference's highest ranked team (other than themselves), the razor thin margin between them and #2 Alabama leaves room for question. And even if it wasn't a liability this season, it almost certainly will be eventually. It's not difficult to imagine a #2 Big 12 team forced to play a weak conference opponent on championship week and being leapfrogged by another major conference team on the strength of an impressive title game win. Far from "if" it would seem to only be a question of "when."
I began this article with the story of the inagural SEC championship game to illustrate the power random quirks of fate can have on public perception. If Shane Matthews guesses right and hits for a long gain over the top en route to a winning field goal or Antonio Langham's muscles twitch a split-second too slow and he drops his interception, does it make the idea of a championship game any more or less valid? Yes it was a single play that may have saved the game in the short term, but it is its true value to a conference's brand, both from a box office and on the field standpoint that have given it staying power. The conference championship game is here to stay not because Langham made the biggest play of his career, but because it's a good idea.
As the fan of a West Virginia team that is leaving one conference for another in the interest of giving themselves the best chance at an elusive national title, it is my hope that the current incarnation of the Big 12 at 10 members is but a temporary condition and the long term plans are aimed at an increase in membership as well as re-institution of the title game. Yes the game may have caused short term problems for teams in the past, but in a larger context it is difficult to see how a conference strengthens itself by deprivation of a year-end showcase. Furthermore it's impossible to know what price individual teams could pay in the future by not playing the same high-level competition at the end of the year as their top ranked peers. To put it bluntly it's an over-simplification to think a conference title game in and of itself will make the quest for a national title more or less difficult. It is quality of play (with a little luck sprinkled in) that ultimately determines who makes it. If you want to compete for titles, play better football.
Twenty years after the first conference championship was played the jury is in - the idea was a winner. The SEC realized this through luck as much as foresight. Let's hope the Big 12 has enough of the latter to offset a lack of the former.
If you liked this article, read more from Brandon at www.blustreaks.com. He's also known to prowl Twitter: @abpriddy. Feedback is always welcome and valued: please aim your musket at email@example.com