2008 SEC Championship
With Alabama undefeated and ranked No. 1 and Florida at No. 2, this was essentially a national semifinal game with the winner going to the BCS title game. The Tide took a 20-17 lead with eight seconds left in the third quarter on Leigh Tiffin's 27-yard field goal. But Gators quarterback Tim Tebow led Florida on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to cap a 31-20 victory. Florida then went on to beat Oklahoma 24-14 for its second national title in three years.
Today, the SEC, Big 12 and ACC hold their championship games in football. While the conference championship games haven't been around that long, they have had a major impact on the national championship picture. Today, we look at the most memorable conference championship games in history:
1992 SEC Championship
The inaugural SEC Championship featured No. 2 Alabama and No. 12 Florida, led by coach Steve Spurrier, left. The Gators rallied from a 21-7 deficit to tie it with eight minutes left. With a little more than three minutes remaining and the Gators trying to drive for a winning score, Alabama cornerback Antonio Langham picked off a Shane Matthews pass and raced 21 yards for a touchdown to give the Tide a 28-21 win. Under coach Gene Stallings, Alabama then upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl to win the program's 12th national title but first since 1979.
2001 SEC and Big 12 championships
We lump these together because of how it set up the national championship game. No. 1-ranked Nebraska was blown out by Colorado in its regular-season finale and didn't even get to the Big 12 title game to face Texas. The Longhorns were ranked No. 2 going into the Big 12 game, but they, too, were upset by Colorado 39-37. Meantime, Tennessee needed only to beat LSU in the SEC title game to advance to the BCS final. But the Vols went down 31-20. Those two upsets — Colorado over Texas in the Big 12, and LSU over Tennessee in the SEC — meant Nebraska, which didn't even play in its own conference title game, made it to the national championship game. Not that it helped Nebraska. Miami crushed Nebraska 37-14 for the title.
1998 Big 12 Championship
Another example of a conference championship game throwing a monkey wrench into a team's national championship aspirations. Kansas State came into the game undefeated and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings. The Wildcats were heavy favorites to beat 10-2 Texas A&M. Earlier that day, No. 2-ranked UCLA was upset by Miami, and all Kansas State needed was a victory to get to the first BCS title game. And the Wildcats looked in great shape when they held a 27-12 lead in the fourth quarter. But the Aggies rallied to tie and eventually won 36-33 in double overtime. The team that benefited from the day of upsets was Florida State, which moved from fourth to second in the poll, and faced Tennessee in the national championship game. The Vols won 23-16.
1998 SEC Championship
Undefeated and top-ranked Tennessee was down 14-10 in the fourth quarter after Mississippi State scored on an 83-yard punt return. But Tennessee's Tee Martin threw two touchdowns in a 32-second span to give the Vols a 24-14 victory on their way to the BCS title game, which UT won against Florida State.
2009 SEC Championship
The same teams from the season before met again with the same implications. The winner between the top-ranked Gators and second-ranked Crimson Tide would get a berth in the BCS championship game. Alabama buried Florida 32-13. After the game, Gators coach Urban Meyer checked himself into a Gainesville hospital with chest pains. Three weeks later, Meyer announced he was retiring but later changed that to a leave of absence, although he barely stepped away from the program. Meantime, the Tide used the 2009 SEC title game as a springboard to yet another national championship, knocking off Texas 37-21 in the BCS title game.
2007 Big 12 Championship
Another top-ranked team that saw its national championship hopes blow up in the Big 12 title game. This time, it was Missouri. The Tigers were 11-1 and top-ranked as they faced an 8-3 Oklahoma team that was ranked eighth. Led by quarterback Chase Daniel, Missouri was tied at 14 going into halftime. The third quarter crushed the Tigers' national championship hopes as Oklahoma opened a two-touchdown lead on its way to a 38-17 victory. Meantime, West Virginia was ranked second that day and was shocked in its regular-season finale by a 4-7 Pitt team in a weird 13-9 game. That propelled Ohio State and LSU into the BCS title game. LSU knocked off the Buckeyes 38-24 for the national championship despite having suffered two losses during the season.
2009 ACC Championship
This didn't impact the national championship picture, but it was one of the wilder conference championship games and was, as of now, the last ACC Championship Game played at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium. Clemson overcame a 33-20 deficit in the fourth quarter and took a 34-33 lead. With six minutes left, Georgia Tech drove 86 yards on 14 plays and capped the 39-34 victory by scoring with only 1:20 left. The victory gave Georgia Tech its first outright ACC title since 1990.
2005 ACC Championship
The inaugural ACC Championship Game was one of the last great victories by legendary Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. The Seminoles were 7-4 and unranked, but they upset No. 5 Virginia Tech 27-22 behind Drew Weatherford, FSU's freshman quarterback who completed 21 of 35 passes for 225 yards and one touchdown. After the game, Hokies quarterback Marcus Vick, younger brother of Michael, stormed off the field and would not talk to reporters. After Vick picked up unsportsmanlike penalties in the Gator Bowl in January, it was learned that he had been cited for speeding and driving with an invalid license a month earlier. Fed up, Virginia Tech dismissed Vick from the team. Meantime, Bowden went on to face his old buddy, Penn State's Joe Paterno, in the Orange Bowl, a game won 26-23 in triple overtime by the Nittany Lions in the final meeting between the coaching icons.
1996 Big 12 Championship
The Gators are thankful for this game. No, they didn't play in it, but it allowed them to win their first national championship. Florida State finished the regular season undefeated and ranked No. 1. Florida was fourth, as a result of losing to FSU in their annual showdown. Meantime, Nebraska was ranked third going into the inaugural Big 12 title game against unranked Texas. But the Huskers were upset 37-27, taking them out of the national championship hunt. No. 2 Arizona State lost in the Rose Bowl to Ohio State and that, essentially, made the Florida-FSU rematch in the Sugar Bowl the national championship game. The Gators crushed the Seminoles 52-20 and won a national championship that likely would not have been possible had Nebraska won the Big 12 title game. Had Nebraska won, FSU would have headed to the Orange Bowl to play Nebraska for the mythical national title. Meantime, Ohio State, which had to play in the Rose Bowl, also claimed it should be counted as national champs, and the crazy ending to the season helped pave the way for the current BCS system.