At the 2017 SEC Media Days, the foremost football conference in the country celebrates the 25th anniversary of an innovation which has wielded enormous influence over the course of college football history.
When Greg Sankey steps to the podium for the most publicized conference media gathering in Division I athletics, he might discuss the need for various new goals and policies. However, it was a predecessor — Roy Kramer — who devised the change which has dramatically altered the trajectory not just of the SEC, but college football itself.
The creation, in 1992, of the SEC Championship Game steered college football in a new and different direction. In some cases — think of 2001 — this event in Atlanta knocked a conference member (Tennessee) out of the college football national championship hunt, but in most cases, the game has propelled a team with championship aspirations into a main-stage game, now known as the College Football Playoff instead of the old Bowl Championship Series or, before that, the Bowl Alliance and Bowl Coalition.
Think of what has transpired these 25 years since Kramer’s forward-thinking creation sprang to life in Birmingham (the site o the first two SEC title games, before giving way to Atlanta in 1994). Today’s reality of divisional imbalance might want some people to advocate the elimination of the conference championship game. (That’s worth discussing on its own terms in a separate column, but the short answer is simply this: Getting rid of divisions is a far more productive move than getting rid of this game.) However, any dissatisfaction with a conference title game must be balanced against the past.
What was life in the SEC like before this championship game existed? East-West imbalance was never a talking point, but before 1992, the SEC had only 10 teams, played only seven (or in earlier years, six) league games, and existed in a college football landscape which staged just 11 regular season games, not 12. West versus East has often been imperfect these past 25 years. In the 1990s, the best SEC Championship Game in some seasons would have been an all-East matchup between Florida and Tennessee, though Alabama and the Gators staged memorable battles when they did meet. (1995 and 1998 were the years when Vols-Gators would have been the best possible SEC Championship Game clash.) For most of the past 10 years, an all-West SEC Championship Game would have provided the most compelling confrontation. It’s true that the divisional system has been noticeably imperfect over the past quarter-century.
Yet, what about the previous 25 years? How were SEC seasons resolved from 1967 through 1991?
Appreciating 25 years of SEC title games made possible by appreciating the previous quarter of a century, for better or worse.
A brief overview of some highlights (and lowlights):
1989: Alabama, Tennessee and Auburn all tied at 6-1. With teams playing only seven of nine SEC opponents, an imbalanced schedule left teams tied without the ability to play in Atlanta, in what is a true tiebreaker. Had an East-West divisional format existed, Auburn would have played Tennessee for the title by virtue of a win over Alabama. Under the three-team tie as it existed in 1989, Alabama (to the surprise of no one) got the nod.
1988: LSU beat Auburn head to head, but when the two teams tied for the conference lead, Auburn — with the better overall record — was steered to the Sugar Bowl.
1981: Georgia and Alabama both went unbeaten and untied in the league… which means they didn’t play each other. Keep in mind that Georgia and Alabama aren’t going to meet for several years — even now, the infrequency with which they meet remains one of the foremost points of curiosity in SEC football.
1978: Alabama finished 6-0-0, while Georgia went 5-0-1. On merit, Alabama did deserve the title, but in a conference championship game era, these teams would have met… which can only be viewed as a good thing, had it happened.
1977: Kentucky was on NCAA probation, making the Wildcats ineligible for the postseason… but imagine if they had not run afoul of the NCAA — they and Alabama both went unbeaten in the SEC. Not meeting that year deprived college football fans of a major showdown.
1972: Auburn beat Alabama and both teams finished with the same number of losses (1) and ties (0), but Auburn did not go to the Sugar Bowl — no SEC team did that season. Penn State played Oklahoma in New Orleans. Auburn (7) and Alabama (8) did not play the same number of conference games. Chaos.
1969: Ole Miss, with the fifth-best conference record in the SEC (4-2), got the Sugar Bowl invitation instead of any of the four teams which finished above the Rebels.
1967: LSU won only three conference games (3-2-1) but went to the Sugar Bowl.
The SEC title game, for all its flaws, doesn’t seem so bad. The past 25 years were better than the previous 25, on balance.