Published October 21, 2011 - 11:20am
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This year marks the 20th playing of the SEC Championship Game. The inaugural title game between Alabama and Florida on December 5, 1992, was a turning point in college football history. It represented the end of small, regional conferences and the prevalence of independent east coast schools, and began an era of consolidation that continues to this day.
The conference championship game owes its existence to a NCAA rule that had been on the books for years but was apparently not discovered by the major football powers until the early 1990s. This rule, adopted for the benefit of a conference in the NCAA’s lower division, said that if a conference had 12 members, it could subdivide into two divisions, playing a round-robin schedule, with the division winners meeting in a championship game. This championship would not count towards the NCAA’s limit on regular season games (then 11, now 12) nor would it affect bowl eligibility. In effect it was a “free” game that no major conference had ever bothered to stage.
By adding Arkansas and South Carolina for the 1992 season, the SEC became the first Division I-A conference to meet the 12-member requirement. Other conferences had considered the move but pulled back. Then-ACC associate commissioner Tom Mickle told the Washington Post, “We might have been the first to discover the 12-team concept in the NCAA manual.” Mickle said that after Penn State agreed to join the Big 10 in 1990, the ACC, which had just admitted Florida State as its ninth member, considered expanding to 12 teams and staging the first championship game. This plan would have added three other major eastern independents — Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College — to the ACC. All three ended up joining the Big East when it added football in 1991. Pitt and Syracuse recently announced it would leave for the ACC, however, partially fulfilling Mickle’s prophecy.
Yet neither the ACC, Big 10 or Pac-10 moved to create a championship game before the SEC. In part this was because the other conferences wanted to see how the SEC’s “experiment” worked out. The 1992 game featured an undefeated Alabama team, ranked No. 2 in the Associated Press poll, against an 8-3 Florida team (ranked No. 12). The SEC champion had an automatic berth into the Sugar Bowl against No. 1 Miami, the undefeated Big East champion.
Thus, if Florida prevailed in the SEC game, it would have eliminated the SEC from national championship consideration, downgraded the quality of the Sugar Bowl match-up and relegated a highly marketable Alabama team to a second-tier bowl. As then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said at the time, “I’m not sure taking from your left pocket to enhance your right pocket is sound economically,” meaning it might not be worth it for the SEC to screw over the Sugar Bowl just to stage a conference championship.
Fortunately, the SEC got to have its cake and eat it too. Alabama defeated Florida 28-21, routed Miami in the Sugar Bowl and claimed the undisputed national championship.
The SEC originally projected between $6 million and $9 million in additional revenue annually from the championship game. For the 1992 game, Florida and Alabama each received $100,000 (plus $150/mile for expenses) with the remainder divided into 13 equal shares, representing the 12 SEC members and the league office. The SEC had a four-year contract to stage the game at Birmingham’s Legion Field, but after the second year the SEC moved the game to Atlanta’s Georgia Dome (opened in 1992), where it remains to this day.
Today the championship game’s revenues have more than doubled. When Alabama and Florida met again for the title in 2009, the haul was over $14.5 million, just over $1.1 million per SEC member. And while $14.5 million is hardly pocket change, it’s actually just a small part of the SEC’s overall revenues, reported at over $244.4 million in 2009–2010, the majority of which came from the sale of television rights.
The SEC’s experiment proved lucrative enough for the other conferences to follow suit. In 1996, four years after the SEC’s inaugural championship, the newly formed Big 12 Conference — formed by the merger of the Big Eight and Southwest Conferences — staged their first championship game in St. Louis between Texas and Nebraska. The Mid-American Conference inaugurated its championship game in 1997 between Marshall and Toledo. In 2005, the ACC finally expanded to 12 members — raiding the Big East for Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami — and held a championship in Jacksonville between newcomer Virginia Tech and Florida State (the ACC title game is now held in Charlotte). In December the Big 10 and Pac-12 will stage their first-ever title games, the former in Indianapolis, and the latter at the site of the participating school with the better record. And this past week the Mountain West Conference and Conference USA announced a new “football association” that will stage a “conference” championship game.
Still, championship games have their drawbacks, especially when it comes to the postseason. When the SEC played its 1992 championship game, there was no BCS but an informal “Bowl Coalition” that helped setup the Alabama-Miami Sugar Bowl. The Coalition precluded a national title game between most conference champions and excluded the Rose Bowl, Pac-10 and Big 10 altogether. By 1998, the Bowl Coalition (and its short-lived successor, the Bowl Alliance) gave way to the BCS. This provided a clear-cut roadmap for producing a season-ending No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game.
The problem is that when some conferences have a championship game and some don’t, there’s at least a perceived advantage for the latter. Ohio State has played in eight BCS bowls, including two championship games it lost badly to the SEC, and many critics observed that the Buckeyes had an easier route to the title because the Big 10 had no extra championship game. Similarly, the Big 12, which lost its championship game after dropping to 10 members, is reportedly content to remain without a title game because Texas feels that will make it easier to qualify for the BCS.
There’s also the danger, first articulated in 1992, that a weaker team winning the championship game undermines the conference’s bowl fortunes. This happened in the SEC in 2001, when a three-loss LSU team upset one-loss Tennessee. The Volunteers entered the SEC Championship Game ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings. LSU was unranked. A Tennessee victory would have put them in the BCS title game — the Rose Bowl that year — against No. 1 Miami. Instead, LSU won and played in the Sugar Bowl while Tennessee played in the Citrus. Nebraska, the Big 12 champion, assumed the No. 2 ranking and played Miami for the BCS title, which Miami won.
It’s also unknown how championship games will fare in a world of major conferences with more than 12 members. The SEC will have at least 13 members in 2012 while the ACC expands to 14 schools by 2014. (And the less said about the 22-member C-USA/MWC hybrid, the better.) More schools means fewer opportunities for cross-division games, which can lead to greater disparities in the relative strength of divisions. In the SEC’s case, a 13-member schedule could also prevent in-division round robin play, which raises the possibility that a tie for a division title — and a berth in the championship game — is decided by tiebreakers other than head-to-head play.
The other longstanding question is whether all of these conference championship games will congeal into a more traditional playoff tournament. Even in 1992 there was speculation that the SEC Championship Game was just the first step towards a single-elimination playoff. But that remains an outside possibility, at least until every conference participates in some form of championship or elimination game. The Big East and Big 12 remain in flux. The Big East is clearly trying to get to 12 teams — and a championship game — by any means necessary, including recent reports of invitations to Air Force, Navy, Boise State, Houston, Central Florida and Southern Methodist. Texas and its remaining Big 12 satellites appear content to go without a title game for the immediate future.