Missouri’s spot in a 2013 conference championship game would have seemed preposterous just two years ago.
First, the Tigers were members of a Big 12 Conference that had been reduced to 10 teams and was determined to advance without expanding and playing a title game.
When Mizzou moved to the Southeastern Conference, even the most hopeful fan would have established a longer timetable for the Tigers to reach the title game.
But here they are, headed to Atlanta to cap a mind-spinning regular season against Auburn, playing in the game that some two decades ago changed college football.
That’s right. The SEC championship game was the first of its kind, and when Alabama beat Florida at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., in the inaugural event in 1992, the Crimson Tide won major college football’s first playoff game.
In hindsight, it probably was important that the Tide, ranked second, won.
“Our coaches were concerned,” said Mark Womack, SEC executive associate commissioner. “They’d go through a tough league schedule and have to play an extra game. It could eliminate us from the national championship.”
Alabama went on to defeat Miami, Fla., in the Sugar Bowl, winning the first national title by a SEC school in more than a decade.
The SEC title game had several catalysts, starting with the 1984 Supreme Court decision that transferred the power of televising games from the NCAA to the schools. This started the original round of realignment and made the SEC the largest major conference at 12 with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina.
SEC commissioner Roy Kramer had found a NCAA provision used in smaller classifications that allowed leagues with at least 12 teams to split into divisions and play a championship game. SEC expansion and the title game went hand in hand.
But there was something else going on, a sense that college football needed a jolt. Hard to imagine today, with the sport’s incredible popularity, but college football felt somewhat stagnant in the early 1990s.
Joe Dean was athletic director at LSU then. A year ago, when he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, he told me the excitement level of the NCAA basketball tournament is what the SEC was seeking in creating its football championship.
He recalled talking in national meetings about how to improve TV ratings.
“We weren’t losing interest, but we looked at basketball and saw the tournament was going great,” Dean said. “March Madness had captured everybody’s attention. We knew we had a good product. We had to do more with it.”
Dean, who died last month, was right. But not everybody in college sports agreed a conference title game was the right path. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany was in a never-say-never mode but said his league wouldn’t expand for a football playoff format. Twenty years later, that’s precisely what happened when Nebraska became the Big Ten’s 12th member and the league instituted a championship game.
Others jumped in sooner. The Big 12 launched its 12-team league and title game in 1996 and now it’s the lone conference among the five major BCS automatic qualifiers without a title game. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has repeatedly said expansion and a title game is not in the Big 12’s immediate future.
In the conference championship game era, only the Big 12 rivaled the SEC in spectacle. As they do annually in Atlanta, Big 12 title games in Texas and Kansas City played to full houses.
A big difference: The SEC’s higher-ranked team never seemed to lose and play its way out of the national championship picture. It has happened once. Tennessee missed a chance to play in the national title game when it was upset by LSU in the 2001 game.
Four times in 15 years the Big 12 championship game produced an upset winner that knocked a team out of the BCS title game. Missouri was the most recent victim, in 2007, when it lost as the top-ranked team to Oklahoma.
For the first time since that 2007 season, an SEC team isn’t first or second in the BCS headed into this weekend. Auburn is third, Mizzou fifth, and there’s a chance the conference could get left out of the national championship game.
But 2007 was also the year LSU, fifth in the BCS rankings headed into the SEC title bout, wound up playing for the BCS title. The league’s run of seven straight national championships started with that year.
Proving once again, things always seem to work out for the SEC.