ATLANTA – Conference championship games, a key building block in the massive Greed Pyramid of college football, have largely been a bust.
Except for here. Like most aspects of the sport, the Southeastern Conference has been several steps ahead of its peers when it comes to staging a compelling, competitive and relevant title game.
In its eight-year existence, the Atlantic Coast Conference game has never had an impact on the national championship. Not once. Title game No. 9 won't matter, either, with 6-6 Georgia Tech stumbling into Charlotte to play Florida State while two other members of the Coastal Division (North Carolina and Miami) are ineligible. Attendance figures to be abysmal, as it has been several times previously.
The Pac-12's first title game was last year, and it also featured a 6-6 impostor in place of a power team on probation. That was UCLA, which lost to Oregon on its way to becoming the first team in college football history to go 6-8. This time around the Pac-12 offers a rematch of a game played last week: UCLA-Stanford.
Someone might want to point out to the league that scheduling inter-division games too close to the end of the regular season isn't the brightest idea – especially when Stanford would rather be playing rival California then, as opposed to in October.
The Big Ten had a dramatic inaugural game last year between Wisconsin and Michigan State, but it had no effect on the national title picture, either. This year, the 7-5 Badgers "won" their division, thanks to the double ineligibility of Ohio State and Penn State. Tickets for Nebraska-Wisconsin are going for as cheap as $20 on StubHub, roughly what you'd pay for popcorn, a drink and a seat to see "Lincoln."
The Big 12 had its title-game moments – Texas' last-second field goal to stave off a massive upset against Nebraska and make the BCS Championship Game in 2009 was certainly memorable. But the league did away with the game when it downsized to 10 schools last year, and with good reason: It has mostly served as a double-jeopardy game for a team that didn't need to win it to play for a national title. If Kansas State had not coughed up an epic hairball against Baylor, the Wildcats would have been in the BCS game without benefit of a league championship contest.
But then there is the SEC game, where the stakes are always high and the game is often good. (Well, the stakes are almost always high – LSU might actually have been able to lose last year and still play for the national title.)
In its 20 years of existence, the winner of the SEC title game has gone on to claim the national title nine times. Then there was Alabama, which didn't play in the game last year but still won it all.
The SEC Championship game has never been played without at least one team ranked in the AP top 10, and both teams have been in the top 10 seven times. Saturday will be the eighth time, when No. 3 Georgia faces No. 2 Alabama.
If this game lives up to the last two meetings of top-10 teams, we'll have something.
The 2008 title game between No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Florida remains one of the most intense and hard-fought games I've ever seen. The Gators rallied in the fourth quarter for a 31-20 victory behind the will and skill of Tim Tebow.
The rematch the following season was less dramatic – No. 2 Alabama pummeled No. 1 Florida, 32-13 – but was a stunning turn of events that marked a watershed moment in the league and around the nation. That's when Nick Saban established himself as the alpha coach of college football, and Urban Meyer began his journey through a midlife coaching crisis.
This time around, it is Mark Richt trying to take down Saban. If he does, it will be the legend-making moment that has eluded him in an otherwise highly successful 12-year tenure at Georgia. Richt has won a lot, but never won enough to step up alongside Vince Dooley in Georgia history. A victory Saturday could do that, especially if he follows it up by doing what Dooley did in 1980, beating Notre Dame in a bowl game for the national title.
For anyone to beat Saban over the past five seasons, it has taken exceptional quarterback play. There have been just seven Alabama losses in that time, and the common denominator has been an opposing quarterback playing about as well as he can possibly play.
The list of quarterbacks who have beaten ‘Bama in that time includes some Heisman-quality guys: Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel. And it includes some unlikely guys who played a great game: Utah's Bryan Johnson, South Carolina's Stephen Garcia, LSU's Jordan Jefferson twice.
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What they have in common in those games are two things: an avoidance of mistakes and an ability to make plays on their feet. Those quarterbacks combined to throw 15 touchdowns against just one interception while beating the Tide. And only Johnson had negative yardage rushing; the rest were able to elude the Alabama pass rush and make key plays on the ground.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray is a brilliant passer – he leads the nation in efficiency. But elusiveness is not is best trait. He's been sacked 77 times in his three-year career, 21 of them this season. His rushing total in 2012 is minus-59 yards.
Alabama has had better pass-rushing teams than this one in recent years, but the Tide still know the way to the quarterback. They rank 26th nationally in sacks, averaging 2.5 per game.
So keeping Murray upright will be vital for Georgia Saturday. But even if he gets knocked around and Alabama wins in a rout, this is the only conference championship game that matters. Again.
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