Monday Down South: The SEC's most iconic moments of the decade
Counting down the SEC’s most unforgettable games, players and moments of the past 10 years.
10. Bama puts the BCS out of its misery (January 2012)
Unless you’re an Alabama fan, the culmination of the 2011 season is memorable for all the wrong reasons, beginning with the fact that it arguably never should have happened in the first place.
Bama and LSU had already settled it on the field once that season, in a hard-fought, 9-6 slugfest that defined the “SEC Defense” era and lived up to the hype surrounding the nation’s best defenses. By contrast, the rematch was widely dreaded by much of the country from the moment it was announced and proceeded to live down to the hype – an unwatchable, 21-0 slog in which one offense (LSU’s) failed to cross midfield and the other (Alabama’s) was content to run up the score one field goal at a time. The Crimson Tide became the first team in decades to claim a national crown without winning its conference, or even its division, by slowly squeezing the life out of the team that won both.
In retrospect, Jan. 9, 2012 was the night the BCS finally rolled over and died: Within a few months the College Football Playoff was a reality, with the implicit mandate to prevent anything like Bama-LSU II from ever happening again on the sport’s biggest stage. As bad as it was – or rather, specifically because it was so bad – one of the least compelling championship games on record turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to the postseason.
9. LSU and Texas A&M can’t stop, won’t stop (2018)
Beyond being the highest-scoring game in FBS history, A&M’s marathon, 74-72 win in 7 overtimes was above all an exercise in sheer endurance, emotionally as much as physically. Between the end of regulation and the seemingly infinite OT sessions, the outcome in College Station was left hanging by a thread for nearly 2 full hours, as the teams played on through a premature victory celebration, multiple controversial calls, and more than a dozen do-or-die plays that could have ended the game but somehow never did.
Just watching from the couch as the clock ticked past midnight was an intense, surreal experience that no one who stayed up for it will ever forget, even if they eventually lose track of minor details like which team won. The players and coaches who endured it left a piece of their souls on the field.
8. Auburn’s Hail Mary miracle (2013)
In certain respects, Auburn’s 2013 season was already a miracle before the Tigers’ mid-November game against Georgia even kicked off: The same team that had limped to a demoralizing, last-place finish in 2012 was off to a 9-1 start under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn and playing with house money down the stretch. But the closer the clock ticked to midnight, the jackpots only kept getting bigger.
Looking back, of course, Nick Marshall’s serendipitous heave to Ricardo Lewis is a mere footnote to what came next, the setup to one of the all-time great punchlines in the Iron Bowl and eventual run to within seconds of the unlikeliest national championship in memory. In the moment, though, none of that was quite visible just yet. All we knew was that with a team this charmed, anything was possible.
7. Johnny Football slays the Bama goliath (2012)
For most of the 2012 season, Johnny Manziel was an obscure redshirt freshman racking up big stats against bad teams. Against Alabama, he became an instant star in the decade’s most indelible upset.
By itself, his final stat line in the Aggies’ 29-24 win (253 yards passing, 92 rushing, 2 TDs) isn’t as eye-opening now as it was at the time, when Bama’s defense was the dominant force in the game. But his freewheeling triumph in Tuscaloosa remains a touchstone – the key reference point for the “Johnny Manziel type,” a cliché in the discourse around any undersized, slightly mobile-ish young quarterback, as well as a harbinger of the spread revolution that has fully taken over the league in the years since. Manziel didn’t pan out in the pros, but his lasting impact on the SEC is unmistakable.
6. Notre Dame gets rolled (January 2013)
Manziel’s brilliance notwithstanding, the 2012 Crimson Tide were arguably the best team of the Saban era. And when the time comes to testify to future generations of Bama’s dominance their start-to-finish championship beatdown of the Fighting Irish will serve as Exhibit A.
The effect was more dramatic than the 42-14 final suggests. It was never in doubt, over almost before it began: Alabama needed just 5 plays to score on the game’s opening possession, and just 15 minutes to put up more points than the vaunted Irish defense had allowed in any other game that season. By the time Notre Dame finally cracked the scoreboard in the 3rd quarter, the Tide were already playing for posterity as the sport’s reigning dynasty.
5. Cam Newton fulfills his athletic potential (2010)
Midway through the 2010 season, Auburn was off to a surprising 7-0 start behind a big, raw quarterback best known as Tim Tebow’s former understudy. By the end of win No. 8, a 24-17 decision over undefeated LSU, any lingering doubts about how far they or their freakishly gifted star could go were put to bed once and for all.
The initial, in-the-moment absurdity of watching a player who was built like a defensive end but moved like a blue-chip kick returner is hard to recapture. But as the defining highlight of one of the sport’s great individual seasons – Newton remains the only quarterback ever to win a Heisman or a national championship in his lone season on campus, or to play his way into the No. 1 overall draft pick – it will live on for a good long while.
4. Clowney unleashes the beast (2013)
For sheer athletic spectacle, Jadeveon Clowney was in a class all by himself: The No. 1 overall recruit coming in, the No. 1 overall draft pick going out, and a unanimous All-American in between. But as a testament to the sheer, violent explosiveness of his presence, one play endures.
Like the other standalone plays on this list, Clowney’s de-helmeting of poor Vincent Smith comes with some context: The hit came immediately following an apparent 4th-down stop by South Carolina on which Michigan was granted a phantom 1st down anyway, and it sparked a subsequent Carolina comeback for its 11th win of the 2012 season. With that, the Gamecocks secured the 2nd in a streak of 3 consecutive top 10 finishes in Clowney’s 3 years on campus, a distinction they’d never managed before and haven’t again since.
But all of that already amounts to trivia for the diehards and the nerdiest of football nerds (me). For everyone else, there’s only The Hit, permanent evidence of the freak at his absolute freakiest.
3. Burrow, LSU break through (2019)
It’s impossible to say right now exactly how LSU’s 2019 campaign is going to go in the books without knowing how it’s going to end. But for the sake of this post, it is safe to say that Joe Burrow’s ascent from run-of-the-mill starter to runaway Heisman winner has already left an indelible mark.
One more time for emphasis: LSU’s quarterback, who broke SEC records for yards and TDs, won the Heisman Trophy, and it wasn’t close. Up until roughly 2 months ago the notion would have been laughable. At their best, Les Miles’ Tigers were always based on the premise of a blue-chip defense and an offense whose main priority was not screwing up, a formula that eventually got him fired in 2016. Of all the possible successors at the end of that season, Ed Orgeron – owner of one of the worst records in SEC history in his 2005-07 stint at Ole Miss – was presumably the least likely to deviate from the same stale old script.
We presumed wrong. In Year 3, the Tigers laid waste to the school record book, vanquished an 8-game losing streak vs. Alabama via shootout, and punched their ticket to a Playoff they’re tentatively favored to win. Wherever they go from here, Burrow’s record-breaking Heisman win Saturday night is proof they’ve already come further, faster than anyone could have expected.
2. 2nd-and-26 (2018)
Legacy-wise, the dismal end of Tua Tagovailoa’s Alabama career earlier this year only put more weight on the moment the legend began.
Even if he’d never attempted another pass at Bama, Tua’s national championship-winning heave to DeVonta Smith would stand as one of the iconic plays in college football history: A true freshman, in the first significant action of his career, in overtime of a game his team trailed by 10 points at the start of the 4th quarter, firing a walk-off touchdown strike to clinch the national title. (With another true freshman on the receiving end, no less.) But if anyone had suggested at the time that it would still be standing as the singular highlight of Tagovailoa’s career 2 years later, it would have been even more shocking than the play itself.
1. The Kick-6 (2013)
Where were you when you saw it?
As the years pass, it’s possible that most of the people who watched the most dramatic play in college football history unfold will eventually forget the year it happened, the name of the player who launched the kick (Adam Griffith), the name of the player who supplied the 6 (Chris Davis), or the exact final score (Auburn 34, Alabama 28).
They might forget the fact that Nick Saban successfully lobbied to have an extra second restored to the clock for a last-ditch field goal attempt rather than settle for overtime, or the many opportunities to put the game away in the 4th quarter that the Crimson Tide had already blown. They might forget the inevitability of Bama’s 15-game winning streak coming in, or the improbability of Auburn’s ascent from worst-to-first in Gus Malzahn’s first season. They might even forget the astronomical stakes at the time, in a game that would decide the SEC West and potentially the chance to play for a national title.
What none of them will ever forget is the feeling of watching the play unfold, of the dawning realization they – we – were witnessing something we’d never seen before and could hardly have imagined. That feeling in that moment, of shock, disbelief, confusion, exhilaration, and (for Bama fans) pain, is a permanent reminder of the reason we bother to watch sports. And the reason we keep coming back.
Honorable mention: LSU beats Tennessee after time expires (2010) … Auburn pulls off The Camback (2010) … Honey Badger steals the show in Atlanta (2011) … Marcus Lattimore goes down (2012) … Mississippi’s moment in the sun (2014) … Fournette hits the truck stick (2014) … Arkansas’ overtime miracle at Ole Miss (2015) … Hurts bails out Bama in the SEC Championship (2018) … Tua goes down (2019) … Ole Miss pisses away the Egg Bowl (2019).