Every great undertaking begins as an untested experiment of sorts…such was the case with the SEC and the first conference championship game.
The split-division, championship game format has become the standard for determining the respective champions of college football’s major conferences, but there was a time in the past when such a determination was left somewhat to conjecture. Sure, records played much of the role in deciding the class of a conference, but in the early ‘90s, there came a time that the powers-that-be in the SEC (specifically, then-commissioner Roy Kramer) decided there had to be a better way. Thus, the SEC Championship was born (much to the chagrin of many actors in the process), and in 1992, the first ever conference championship in modern football history was scheduled.
The nascent game was a large leap for one of the nation’s power conferences. After all, while conference championship games these days are considered cash cows rife with accompanying pageantry, in those days, there was great risk involved. Exhibit A: what if a division champion emerged from the regular season undefeated and poised for a title shot…only to lose to a lesser opponent in the SECCG? That doomsday scenario gave many pause when considering the wisdom of such a match-up, but Kramer and his cronies trudged forward.
The SEC’s own coaches were the most vocal opponents of the extra game, with SEC coaching luminaries of the era such as Pat Dye, Johnny Majors, Steve Spurrier, and Ray Goff sounding off publicly against the additional game. Their reasoning ranged from the more difficult path to a national championship game, the additional classroom time sacrificed for the extra game preparation, game’s worth of additional injury risk, and the potential for SEC players who emerged from the game being worn out for bowl games.
The objections were myriad, but from the executive seat, the primary concern was a simple one. Would the presence of an SEC Championship Game usurp an undefeated SEC team’s rightful shot at a national title? After all, anything can happen in a single game, and an upset of an undefeated contender by a water-treading also-ran would be an unsavoury prospect for those pumping SEC dominance.
As the seconds wore down in the third quarter of the first SECCG at Legion Field on December 5, 1992, it appeared that Kramer’s pet project was about to implode upon itself. If Florida had emerged the victor of that game (and it appeared for nearly 10 minutes of the game that it was certainly a possibility), then the first SECCG could have very well been the last. Kramer and the SEC could have ended up with a very different outcome…for its participants, for the conference, and for college football as a whole.
One play changed all of that… Fortunately, the man who made the play wore a crimson jersey.
Inaugural SEC Championship Game drama and Kramer’s gambit aside, the game had plenty of intrigue on its own as a result of the two teams that were squaring off. The game would feature the league’s (and nation’s) best defense against the league’s most potent offense.
In their relatively short tenures as head coaches in the SEC, both Gene Stallings and Steve Spurrier had distinguished themselves from their peers. Both men had elevated their respective teams following what had been tough times, though that is where their similarities abruptly ended.
Stallings was one of Bear’s boys, a man who had been at Junction with Coach Paul Bryant, who had been a leader on a legendary Texas A&M team. He rose through the coaching ranks under Bryant’s wings until striking out on his own. He was as old-school as they came: an “aw, shucks” deferrer of credit upon others, a gravelly-voiced, grandfatherly influence who could convince even the most reluctant parent that he would grow their child from boy to man over four years, and that he’d do it the right way. His style of play suited his character: nothing flashy, fundamentally-sound, hard-nosed, and aggressive.
Spurrier, on the other hand, was the coaching equivalent of a lit rag stuffed in the top of a Molotov cocktail, metaphorically speaking. Where Stallings was humble and unbecoming, Spurrier was brash and outspoken. Stallings was an elder statesman of the game, and Spurrier was a quickly rising young star. Famous for his one-line zingers, the cocky young coach had cemented himself as an offensive genius at Florida in a short period of time. While Stallings used old-school schemes with superior fundamentals, Spurrier was an outside-the-box thinker who ran a fast-paced, innovative, electric offense. He had swagger, and he liked to tell everyone exactly why he thought it was justified, particularly early in his career.
The two teams couldn’t have been any more different, either, as each was a reflection of their respective head man. The Gators were Hollywood where Bama was more Luckenbach, Texas; Spurrier’s Florida was rock-and-roll paced, while Stalling’s Bama was country-and-western. The teams moved at a different measure, and had different paths to dominance. The Tide embraced the “defense wins championships” philosophy, using speed, skill, and brute force to confound and pummel opposing offenses. The Gators, on the other hand, liked to “fun-and-gun” their way to early leads, able to strike for seven from any point on the field with a rifle-armed quarterback and elite backs behind a powerful O line.
The two teams had also followed very different paths to meet in the SEC title game that year. Bama, on one hand, had run the gauntlet with a senior-laden, highly-skilled roster, beating all comers by a touchdown or more. The closest game, at least in terms of the scoreboard, was a seven-point victory over rival Tennessee, but Alabama’s defense shut down a late rally with an interception of Vol QB Heath Shuler to preserve the win and an undefeated regular season. Alabama had the best defense in all the land, as the Tide led the NCAA in scoring defense, rush defense, pass defense, and total defense. After the Tennessee game, backup QB Jerry Colquitt (who came in when Bama knocked Shuler from the game) possibly said it best: “These guys are unbelievable…they beat you to the pocket.” The 1992 Bama defense is still the measuring stick against which modern defenses are measured, as they were heads and shoulders above their counterparts around the league (and most of the units that have followed in their footsteps since ‘92.)
Florida, on the other hand, struggled with its gamut of games. In defense of the Gators, their schedule was a tough one in 1992, and their three losses came against ranked teams (number 3 FSU, 45-24; number 14 Tennessee, 31-14; and number 24 Mississippi State, 30-6). Despite the record, the 1992 Florida squad was as potent an offense as any of its recent predecessors, with the rifle-armed Shane Matthews at quarterback, running back Errict Rhett at running back, and talented receivers like Willie Jackson and Chris Doering. Florida led the league in offense, averaging nearly 400 yards per game (which in that era, was a hefty total), and most of it came through the air, as Spurrier’s game plan involved routinely challenging defensive backs in space on explosive plays and creating general chaos in opposing secondaries.
Regardless, the two teams represented the class of the SEC. One was playing for a chance to meet the Miami Hurricanes on the game’s biggest stage for a national title. The other was playing for pride, with no chance at a title in that year.
With all the pageantry expected of two division champions meeting in a ground-breaking championship game, Alabama and Florida entered the game as ranked teams. The Tide was second behind Miami, while Florida commanded a number 12 ranking despite its three losses.
Florida demonstrated Spurrier’s flair for offense early on, as the Gators received the opening kickoff and marched on the Tide’s vaunted defense. The Gators engineered an 11-play, 77-yard drive that caught Alabama somewhat off-guard, and the drive was capped when Rhett toted the ball in from five yards out for a touchdown. Kicker Judd Davis knocked the PAT through, the Gators seized the lead and the momentum in the all-important game.
Alabama absorbed he initial haymaker from the Gators, and went to work with their own methodical style of offense. Not to be bested, Bama quarterback Jay Barker put together a long drive of his own, the type the Tide had used to great effect to tire opponents throughout the season. Alabama went 72 yards over 10 plays, then finished off the scoring drive with a Derrick Lassic three-yard run for a TD. Michael Proctor’s PAT attempt was good, and the two teams were knotted up at 7-7 with 5:07 left in the first quarter.
The initial storm weathered, Alabama’s defense became rigid, stalling Florida drives and giving its own offense good field position. The Tide offense converted that benefit into a hefty lead, scoring the next two touchdowns in the game. In the second quarter, Alabama benefitted from a short field after a David Palmer punt return for 20 yards was augmented by a 15-yard facemask penalty. Barker then went to the air to round out the drive, hitting receiver Curtis Brown on a spectacular 30-yard reception for a touchdown. Proctor’s PAT gave Bama a 14-7 lead heading into the half.
Things were looking good for the Tide at the half, as Alabama, the supposed defensive juggernaut, had outpaced the vaunted Gator O with 167 yards of offense to Florida’s 147. Though Matthews had been able to make a few plays with his arm, Alabama’s run defense had been impenetrable, as the Tide only allowed the Gators nine yards rushing through the opening two quarters.
In the third, Alabama drew the first blood of the second half with a hearty helping of Lassic as part of a four-play, 66-yard drive that drained a mere minute-and-a-half from the clock. The drive started at Alabama’s 34-yard line, but four plays later, Lassic sprinted into the end zone from 15-yards out to give the Tide a 21-7 lead following Proctor’s PAT with 5:14 left in the third.
But the Gators had too much firepower to go quietly, and they refired their offensive engines before the third quarter came to a close. Matthews went back to the air, and with 1:21 left in the third, the Gators chipped into the Bama lead on a four-yard touchdown pass to Willie Jackson to complete a nine-play, 68-yard drive. Davis’ PAT was true, and the score was at 21-14 going into the final quarter of the championship game.
The teams traded punts, but Florida snatched the momentum on their next drive. The Tide defense was growing weary, and Florida seemed to be gaining strength as they shoved their way down the field. Despite their struggles running the ball against the Tide front, Rhett plunged into the end zone from one yard out to end a nine-play, 51-yard drive with eight minutes left to play. The game was knotted at 21-21, and the visions of an SEC apocalypse appeared justified.
The Play That Changed College Football
The tune that so many opponents of the championship game had hummed during the deliberations about the contest’s creation rose to a roaring din as the Gators tied the Tide with minutes left to play in the game. The last thing Kramer and his cohorts wanted to see was an overtime game that could send their undefeated potential national champion reeling out of the title race. If Alabama lost this game, on this stage, there would be no shot at an SEC national champion in that year. And given the kind of deflation that would follow such a loss, it was doubtful whether there would be another conference championship game in subsequent years, as the risk to the perennial contenders for national titles would likely be deemed to great (and unlike previous arguments, where such an outcome was hypothetical, a Bama loss would make such a proposition a concrete example of the things that can happen when extra games are played.) As announcer Keith Jackson so eloquently enunciated, “If Florida wins, it just cracks the world…”
But in the moment, fans of neither program cared much about the state of the college game outside of Legion Field, nor the ultimate fate of Kramer and his fellow supporters of the SECCG. At that moment, all eyes were on the turf as Florida prepared to make a drive that would have results that lived on in infamy.
The score was tied with a little over three minutes remaining after the two teams traded possessions. Though the Bama D had stopped the Gators on the previous drive, they looked tired. For the first time all season, they looked vulnerable. And the Gators were hitting their second stride. Momentum seemed to favor blue and orange, while the crimson and white appeared to be falling into the backwash of the Florida thrusters.
The Gators took over at their own 21-yard line, and Spurrier went for the edge, hoping to catch the Tide defensive backs overplaying coverage and leaving the door open for an explosive play. Even if the Bama defense properly diagnosed the play, the receiver could easily make the catch and step out of bounds to preserve the clock.
Matthews took the first snap of the possession and fell into his drop, scanning the field. He saw an open man, Monty Duncan, with a cushion in front of Tide corner Antonio Langham. In retrospect, it appeared that Langham baited Matthews into the throw with full intentions of making a play on the ball. The corner waited for Matthews’ release, a tight spiral on a rope to Duncan. Langham immediately stopped and changed course on an angle to put himself between the receiver and the ball. Matthews eyes widened, Langham got his hands around the ball in full stride and turned it the opposite direction, with everyone else on the field at least a half-step behind the shifty defensive back. He slashed inside, took advantage of a stationary block from a teammate, and scampered into the end zone for a pick-6 touchdown.
The Tide took a 28-21 lead as a result, with mere moments left in the game. Florida would get one more crack at it, but the maw of the Tide defense roared once again, as Matthews threw another errant pass between the hashes on second down that was tipped and caught by the Tide’s Michael Rogers at the Florida 48. Bama ran out the clock, and took the first SEC title of the conference championship era.
While fans of the Tide were jubilant, no one was happier than Kramer and his collaborators. In the time since that fateful December day, the conference championship and split conferences have become more than an option, they’ve become a necessity in determining championships. In fact, the presence of a game itself continues to play a role in deciding which teams will (or will not) get into the still-newly-minted College Football Playoffs. The extra game has evolved into a benefit for a conference rather than a pitfall.
Had the result gone the other way, the course of college football history would have undoubtedly shifted in favor of the coaches who thought the game was a bad idea to begin with. But the stage the game provided, and the springboard to national prominence it created, has helped shape the nature of the college beast in the decades since the inaugural game.
It all came down to one play, a moment in time that has resonated through the current structure of college football.
(To see a quick one-minute recap of the game, including the big play, click here. To watch an extended collection of game highlights, give this link a try. If you want to relive the glory of the Tide’s victory en route to the 1992 National Championship, click this one. And finally, to see a trailer for the ESPN production “The Play That Changed the World,” click here.)