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Brenden Welper | NCAA.com | October 31, 2020

The story behind the SEC championship game and how it changed college football

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The SEC championship game is the oldest of its kind at the FBS level. It was first played on Dec. 5, 1992, when Alabama defeated Florida 28-21 at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama.

As of 2020, all ten FBS conferences play a championship game. But it took a while for the trend to catch on (five were created in last decade) — a trend that was started by the SEC. Here's how it all began.

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The game was the brainchild of Roy Kramer, the league's commissioner from 1990 to 2002. Prior to that, he'd been Vanderbilt's athletic director (1978-1990) and the head football coach at Central Michigan (1967-1977). His Chippewas, competing in Division II at the time, won the national championship in 1974. 

Kramer, 91, is retired and now lives in Vonroe, Tennessee. 

According to SECSports.com, he was aware of an NCAA rule that allowed conferences with 12 or more members to split into two divisions and hold a championship game. Back then, the only conferences that had taken advantage of this rule were at the DII and DIII levels. 

But there was a problem. The SEC only had 10 member institutions when Kramer took over on Jan. 10, 1990, two short of the requirement needed. If he was going to make the SEC championship game a reality, then the conference would have to expand for the first time in its history.

Larry Templeton was Mississippi State's director of athletics from 1987 to 2008. He was also the chairmen of the SEC athletic directors and is currently a consultant for the conference. And Templeton was there when Kramer first revealed his master plan.

"We didn't have a clue that there was expansion on the horizon until Kramer came in the AD room and says, 'What do y'all think about having a championship football game, and going into divisions?,'" Templeton told NCAA.com in a phone interview. "That was the first we knew about it."

"My initial thought was, 'Holy mackerel,'" Templeton said. "I knew this guy was smart, but he's smarter than all of us."

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Templeton added that Kramer had a knack for not only having a plan, but being able to sell it too. 

"You knew when he walked in the room, he had dotted the I's and crossed the T's and it was workable," Templeton said. "I think there was a great deal of excitement."

David Climer of The Tennessean reported on May 31, 1990 that the SEC had, officially, decided to expand beyond its 10 members. Buzz about a potential expansion had been prevalent since the spring of 1989, according to Rick Cleveland of The Clarion-Ledger.

But the conference didn't send any formal invitations. The SEC announced its intention to expand and suggested schools across the country reach out, should they be interested. 

"I think there was a little apprehension...as it related to who it might be," Templeton said. "But I don't remember that much, other than (Kramer) knew he had one in his back pocket already — and that was the University of Arkansas."

Sure enough, the Razorbacks became the SEC's 11th member on Aug. 1, 1990. South Carolina quickly followed suit. Kramer's experiment could now be put to the test.  

SEC Athletics Aerial view of the 1992 SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Florida An aerial view of the 1992 SEC Championship Game between Alabama and Florida

That test was conducted at Legion Field in Birmingham. "The Old Gray Lady" was home to the first two SEC championship games. An outdoor venue built in 1927, it made for quite a different experience than what fans, and players, have since become accustomed to.

"(There) wasn't a lot pageantry and stuff like you have today," said Derrick Lassic, the starting running back of Alabama's 1992 national championship team, in a phone interview with NCAA.com. "You know it was just 'Oh this is the first SEC championship game' and we were like 'Okay, it's just another game.' It didn't have a whole lot of build up, I don't remember."

Build up or not, Lassic wasn't concerned with the novelty or historical implications of the event. How could he? Alabama was 11-0 with championship aspirations, and the senior tailback had waited 448 days for another crack at the Florida Gators.

"We had lost to Florida the year before 35-0," Lassic said. "They had the game well in hand, and (Coach Steve Spurrier) was still throwing the ball around."

The Crimson Tide hadn't lost since, and rode a 21-game winning streak into Birmingham that afternoon. A victory over the Gators would earn Alabama a date in the national championship against Miami (Fla.). 

"When we found out we were playing Florida, me being the competitor that I was, I wanted the opportunity to avenge that loss," Lassic said. "So we were excited to play them."

Despite an 8-3 record and No. 12 overall ranking, all three of Florida's losses had came against Top 25 teams. Alabama, then at No. 2, was the highest-ranked opponent the Gators would face all season. And Legion Field was just an hour's drive from Tuscaloosa. Still, Florida managed to give Alabama all it could handle.

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"It was going back and forth the whole game," Lassic said.

The Gators grabbed a 7-0 lead on the opening drive, thanks to a shovel pass (disguised as a draw play) from quarterback Shane Matthews to running back Errict Rhett at Alabama's 5-yard line.

"They did a couple things offensively that surprised our defense and worked against our defense, because the ends were so aggressive," Lassic said. "So that shovel pass was the kind of a play we had trouble defending." 

Alabama leaned on Lassic to even the score. His 3-yard touchdown run at the 5:07 mark of the first capped a 10-play, 72-yard drive that included just one passing attempt. 

The Tide found the end zone once more before halftime for a 14-7 advantage. And it was Lassic who extended the lead on a 15-yard touchdown run with 5:14 left in the third quarter. Offensive tackle Roosevelt Patterson landed a key block on the edge, which gave the halfback an open window to cut up the right side field. He went in untouched for the score.

"The offensive line was doing a tremendous job," Lassic said. 

Down 21-7, the Gators refused to go away. Florida responded immediately with a nine-play, 68-yard drive that ended with a touchdown. Alabama's next two possessions resulted in punts, and the Gators' offense rewarded the defense with a nine-play, 51-yard scoring drive that tied the game at 21-21. 

The Tide's next two drives ended with punts as well, and the latter gave Florida the ball on its own 21-yard line.

What happened next has been dubbed "The Play That Changed Football."

On first-and-10, Matthews dropped back and fired the ball toward wide receiver Monty Duncan. As Duncan finished his curl route, Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham jumped in front of him and intercepted the pass. Langham returned it 27 yards for what would be the game-winning touchdown.

It was the only turnover of the night. Alabama held on for a 28-21 victory, and Langham was named Most Valuable Player for his late-game heroics.

"I was robbed though," Lassic said with a laugh. "(Langham) was getting beat the whole game. But he makes the interception at the end and they give him the Most Valuable Player. I thought I was the Most Valuable Player."

To his credit, Lassic was the game's leading rusher. He finished with 117 yards on 21 carries (5.6 yards per rush) and two touchdowns.

"But I joke with him all the time, I said 'Jeez man, I don't know where you get burnt the whole day, make one play...and then they give you the Most Valuable Player.'"

Lassic wouldn't have to wait long for some hardware of his own. He was named MVP of the Sugar Bowl a month later when Alabama handled Miami 34-13 in the national championship.

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The potential impact that the SEC's trial run could have on the sport was seen almost immediately.

In a column published the next day, Furman Bisher of The Atlanta Constitution wrote, "This may turn out to be a pace setter. The SEC Championship was closely watched by conferences around the country. Hoist the flag and see how it fluttered. Maybe years down the road people could say they were at the first SEC Championship game 25 years ago."

Templeton, like Lassic, was at the very first one. He's attended all 28 since the game's inception.

"(Kramer's) vision, I would say, was way ahead of the time," Templeton said. "Every year you keep thinking it can't get any bigger. But then you go to that game, and it's humongous."

"I didn't realize until years later the significance of that game," Lassic said. "It speaks volumes to (Kramer's) fortuity to kind of see that this would be the future of college football. It was risky. But no risk, no reward."

Nearly 28 years later, conference championship games are the norm in the FBS football. All ten conferences have one. Below is a table showing the history of each game.

Conference Years played Most victories Current location
SEC 1992—present Alabama (8) Mercedes-Benz Stadium — Atlanta, GA
Big 12 1996—present* Oklahoma (10) AT&T Stadium — Arlington, TX
MAC 1997—present Marshall** (5) Ford Field — Detroit, MI
ACC 2005—present Clemson (6) Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Conference USA 2005—present Florida Atlantic, Western Kentucky (2) Team with best conference winning percentage
Big Ten 2011—present Ohio State (4) Lucas Oil Stadium — Indianapolis, IN
Pac-12 2011—present Oregon, Stanford (3) Levi's Stadium — Santa Clara, CA
Mountain West 2013—present Boise State (3) Selected division winner
AAC 2015—present UCF (2) Division winner with better conference record
Sun Belt 2018—present Appalachian State (2) Division winner with better conference record
*The Big 12 Championship Game was not held from 2011-2016.
**Marshall is no longer a member of the MAC, having left to join Conference USA prior to the 2005 season. 

"Now it's almost impossible not to have a conference championship and expect to be in the running of the playoffs and the national championship game," Lassic said.

He's correct. Of the 24 teams (from just 11 different schools) that have participated in the College Football Playoff, only three have made it without winning a conference championship game: Ohio State in 2016, Alabama in 2017 and Notre Dame in 2018 (the Irish were independent that season).

"We were definitely the trend setters," Lassic said, referring to the SEC.

While he didn't think much of the inaugural game's meaning back then, Lassic came to appreciate it, and the role he played, as time went on.

"There's only one first. And we were part of it, and we won," Lassic said. "I did have a pretty good game and I did have an influence on the outcome with my performance. So that means a lot to me. I have a 5-year-old son. One day I can show him the SEC championship and say, 'Hey man, this was the first of its kind. Now you see it all today, and your dad was, you know, I was pretty good.'"

"It's an honor when you're part of something and it's successful. It changed the format of college football as we knew it."

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