The One that Started it All

Reflections on the greatest of SEC Championship games: the first one

Every year, a phenomenon occurs in the early part of December. The leviathan of the East meets the titan of West, and after the dust settles a Southeastern Conference champion is determined. And unless you are a Cenobitic monk cloistered far, far away from human society, you know that the Alabama Crimson Tide will meet Georgia Bulldogs this Saturday in Atlanta for the 27th installment of the SEC Championship Game.

There’s something inherently sexy about the words “SEC Championship Game.” Just uttering them makes one feel like a lion appearing in a herd of wildebeest. Say it with me, “SEC Championship Game.” Feels good, doesn’t it?

Perhaps I’m a bit biased, but this game strikes me as of much greater importance than, say, the ACC Championship Game or even the Pac-12 Championship Game, contests that do not have the same heightened connotation and which, from year to year, I am not confident that I could correctly recall where they are played. (Nevertheless, hopefully Clemson will be able to squeak by the mighty 7-5 Pitt this year.)

Though throughout the years the venues have changed—from the open air of Legion Field in Birmingham to the Georgia Dome and now to Mercedes-Benz Stadium—and the game itself has gotten more commercialized, the conference has settled into this format since 1992. After the SEC set the bar with its own championship game, other conferences followed suit, and divisions and conference championships began popping up like Claire’s in shopping malls. It was the popular thing.

But recently, writer Dan Wetzel in a piece for Yahoo! Sports called for the curtain on championship games, suggesting, not delicately, that, “College football will waste its time this weekend with the relic that is “Conference Championship Weekend” because the powers that be in the sport are old and unimaginative.” Wetzel has a point, and in no conference in the college football ecosystem has the championship game mattered less over the last few years than in the SEC. Twice, Alabama has gotten into the college football playoff without having won its conference championship game, and this year will probably do the same if it lips out against Georgia.

But overall for the SEC, a championship game has been a good thing. A very good thing. Yes, there have been some great games along the way and, yes, some busts and blowouts, but every passing year we are always subtly reminded of the first one.

That occurred on December 5, 1992, when Alabama met Florida in the first conference championship game in college football history. It was groundbreaking, for sure. And for Alabama fans, it will always be remembered by one immortal play by Antonio Langham.

But there was much more to this game than just one single play. I contend that it was one of the factors that transformed the nature of college football from a sport with a cult-like following to one of elite national prominence. In short, college football is arguably the most popular sport in America now, and its rise had a great deal to do with the 1992 championship game and the domino effect it had on the sport itself.

Further, the SEC championship game sounded the death knell for ties, forced the other conferences to get off their haunches and answer the SEC’s gauntlet move, and forced the NCAA to think more critically about how it was going to determine a champion. All of that aside, I have a deeply personal respect for the game: I was there.

The one thing I remember, as a 15-year-old spectator who attended the game that day, was that it was bitterly, bitterly cold. It was, without question, the coldest I have ever been at a sporting event. I was freezing, despite the fact that I was layered up with a big puffy Starter jacket, sweatshirt, several pairs of socks, and long johns underneath jeans. My father, much tougher than I, wore boat shoes, khakis, and no socks to the frigid affair.

“Dad, aren’t you cold?”

“Not even chilly.”

The game itself was a classic. In addition to the Langham interception, it had a back-and-forth motif that saw the Gators and the Tide trading punches and flexing their respective might. No one wanted to relent. Alabama boasted a top-level defense led by the famous “bookends” Eric Curry (6-foot-7, 270 pounds) and John Copeland (6-foot-3, 285), and cornerbacks Langham and George Teague. Florida countered with aerial assassin Shane Matthews and ground-gobbler Errict Rhett. But it was the cerebral game between Steve Spurrier’s offense and Gene Stallings’ defense that was the main storyline of the afternoon. Could Stallings and defensive coordinator Bill Oliver dial up a plan to stop Florida’s passing juggernaut? In the end, the answer was yes.

When the game began, it was 46 degrees and plummeting sharply. Florida received the opening kickoff and promptly marched down the field for a touchdown, making Alabama’s vaunted defense look like a sieve through which water had passed. After receiving that blow to the mouth and ego, Alabama countered on its next possession with some smashmouth football of its own, relying heavily on running back Derrick Lassic, who grinned broadly as he received a Jay Barker-hurled toss-sweep and crashed into convoys of blue jerseys. A 5-yard scamper by Lassic, followed by his best Fred Sanfordesque “I’m coming to join you!” heart attack pantomime, set things even at 7-7 at the end of the first quarter.

For the next quarter-and-a-half, Alabama seized control. A second quarter 30-yard pass from Barker to Curtis Brown took the Tide into halftime leading 14-7, and a 66-yard drive late in the third quarter, punctuated by another Lassic run, made it 21-7 Alabama with 5:14 left in the third. But Florida was not going to go gently into that good Southern night.

Late in the third quarter, Matthews directed a 68-yard drive of his own. Facing a fourth-and-1 at Alabama’s 28, the gunslinger connected with Willie Jackson on a crucial 3-yard gain and found him again for a Gator touchdown with 1:21 remaining. Florida tied the game in the fourth quarter after the usual suspects of Matthews, Rhett, and Jackson coordinated a brilliant 51-yard drive.

The Bama offense appeared to have something cooking after a long run by Lassic, but then the drive stalled and petered out after two ineffective pass attempts by Barker. After a Bryne Diehl punt, Florida took over at its own 21 with 3:25 left in the game.

That’s when it happened.

Almost out of nowhere, Langham stepped in front of a Matthews pass and zigzagged his way to the end zone for an Alabama touchdown. Announcer Keith Jackson was in the middle of calmly promoting the USF&G Sugar Bowl when he said, “first let’s settle this one—and it’s a cracking good one” before Matthews made the passing mistake of his life, and Langham the defending milestone of his.

The game did come down to Florida’s offense and Alabama’s defense. And on this night, defense won. The Tide held Florida to only 286 yards of total offense—30 yards total on the ground—Matthews was intercepted twice, and in many ways, the 21 points allowed was not indicative of the kind of havoc the Alabama defense wreaked.

But it was a team effort. Lassic contributed 117 yards on the ground. David Palmer—the electrifying receiver/punt returner known as the “Deuce”—snagged five passes for 101 yards. And quarterback Barker was efficient enough on 10 of 18 passing for 154 yards. Martin Houston, the truck-sized fullback, pitched in with 22 hard yards and some yeoman blocks. And wide receiver Curtis Brown hauled in a big 30-yard TD.

Offensive coordinator Mal Moore summed it up by saying, “It was a great, great victory for us.”

One of the headlines from The Tuscaloosa News

So Alabama, not Florida, went on to the USF&G Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, where it defeated mighty Miami 34-13 for its 12th national championship in school history. And although the years go by and more championships trophies have arrived at the Capstone, for those of us who were old enough, there was something special about that 1992 season that will forever be remembered in the hearts and minds of the Crimson Tide faithful.

It was the game that set Alabama football back in its rightful place. First, it avenged the detestable 35-0 blowout in the Swamp in 1991 and showed the new bully on the block, Spurrier, who was the SEC boss—well, for a little while, at least. Second, it was Alabama’s first outright SEC championship since 1979, the longest such drought in the history of Alabama football.

Being the first to crown a champion in such a manner demonstrated the conference’s aforethought and mental moxie, and since then, the SEC has experienced remarkable success. In those 27 years, a team from the SEC has won the national championship an incredible 13 times! That includes the stretch from 2006-12 when the SEC dominated the national championship landscape and reeled of seven straight national championships. Alabama has been the biggest recipient—or administrator, however you want to look at it—of SEC dominance, claiming six titles of its own (’92, ’09, ’11, ’12, ’15, and ’17) and Florida, with three to its credit (’96, ’06, ’08), is an ample beneficiary as well.

The current structure of the college football playoff has diminished the importance of the conference championship games, and if undefeated independent Notre Dame strikes a presence in the 2018 CFB playoffs that point will be further underscored. But hopefully, if the brainiacs who make decisions can figure a way to make the appendage viable again, conference championships can be saved.

In review and at the time, it just seemed fitting that Alabama would compete in and win the very first SEC conference championship. After all, Alabama had historically been the most successful program in the conference, had won 19 prior conference championships and 11 national championships in its illustrious history. Florida was the New World Order, and Alabama was the true conference blue blood.

Yes, Florida won the SEC Championship the next year, the next, the next, and again in 1996. But the Gators can have their four SEC championships in the 1990s. We’ll keep this one.

It’s the most important, anyway. H&A

 

Cover photo: Alabama’s Antonio Langham scores on an interception return after intercepting pass thrown by Florida’s Shane Matthews, providing the final 28–21 win for the University of Alabama in the 1992 Alabama-Florida SEC Football game. (Bernard Troncale | AL.com file photo)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *