Friday, December 04, 2009

This Is It

Has there ever been a bigger game in the history of the SEC than what we will see tomorrow?

Yes, I know SEC football “didn’t start with Steve Spurrier”, or even with the advent of the SEC Championship game (though it’s hard to believe that this weekend marks the 18th SEC Championship game).

But consider – consensus number 1 Florida, undefeated, against consensus number 2 Alabama, also undefeated. The winner not only claims an SEC title, but will play for a BCS title. It is a de facto “national” champion semifinal game between undefeated teams.

The only thing that was close in the SEC Championship era was, well, last year. The rankings were reversed, but the teams were the same. In that game, however, Florida had a mar on it’s record in the loss to Ole Miss. For the rest of the SEC Championship era, there have been 7 other games where the SEC Champion went on to play for the putative “national” title. The SEC Championship representative has won the “national” title 7 of the 8 times it played for it, the only loss being the Nebraska-Florida blowout of 1995.

In the case of those other SEC national title winners in the SEC Championship era, no game other than last year’s was nearly so consequential. The games and the participants were (with AP rankings)–

1992 Alabama (2) over Florida (12)
1995 Florida (2) over Arkansas (23)
1996 Florida (4) over Alabama (11)
1998 Tennessee (1) over Mississippi State (23)
2003 LSU (3) over Georgia (5)
2006 Florida (4) over Arkansas (8)
2007 LSU (5) over Tennessee (14)
2008 Florida (2) over Alabama (1)

This year, not only are both teams undefeated, but the game is a contrast of historical periods. Alabama quite obviously represents the most successful team in SEC history with 21 conference titles, although their last came in 1999. At 21 SEC titles the Tide have 8 more than Tennessee, in second place at 13.

Florida is the story of modern success in the SEC. Historically Florida is 5th in total SEC football titles (behind ‘Bama, Tennessee, Georgia and LSU). However, since the Gator’s first “official” title in 1991 Florida has claimed 8 total titles, or nearly half of the 18 titles possible during that period. In the period of the SEC Championship, the Gators have overwhelming been the dominant program.

Titles in the SEC Championship Era

7 – Florida
3- LSU
2- Alabama
2- Georgia
2- Tennessee
1- Auburn

Or by win percentage –

Win-Loss Record since 1992 (including this season)

Florida 182-41-1
Tennessee 164-60-0
Georgia 156-64-1
Auburn 146-70-2
LSU 143-76-1
Alabama 142-82-0

It isn’t even close. As much as Alabama is the indisputable overall SEC leader, Florida is the dominant team of the past 2 decades.

(For those of you disinclined to recognize the dominance of Florida in the past 20 years (1990-present), Florida is the nation’s most winning program with a 201-51-1 record, or .798 winning percentage. By way of contrast Alabama, the dominant SEC power for the 20 years from 1970 to 1989, the Tide had a record of 188-49-3, or a .790 winning percentage, the 4th best in the nation during that time. (This was a period in which the Tide claims 3 “national titles”.) Florida’s nearest SEC rival by record in the past 20 years is Tennessee at 182-65-2, while ‘Bama’s during the 70’s and 80’s was UGA at 164-64-7. Florida is every bit the "Alabama" of the past 20 years.)

For long term historical parallel, the only game I could find was the 1971 contest between Alabama and Auburn. Both team were undefeated for the Iron Bowl (though curiously ‘Bama was 10-0 while the Tigers were 9-0). Alabama defeated Auburn and it’s Heisman winner Pat Sullivan 31-7, and Alabama went on to face – and lose to – Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for that year’s “national” title claim.

Even though the ’71 game was between bitter historic, and undefeated, rivals, I still think this year’s game is bigger. For one it’s a SEC Championship format, and for two Alabama was 4th ranked in the AP, and Auburn 5th ranked. It wasn’t 1 versus 2.

Tomorrow’s game is a story of SEC history against SEC present, with no consolation prize for the loser. In 2009 a one-loss SEC team has exactly a zero shot at the BCS title.

Put another way, Florida could end the season with the same record as it had in 1996, 2006 and 2008, and have no titles to show for it.

Tomorrow is for all the proverbial marbles. There hasn’t been a bigger game in SEC history.

Let’s get it on.


Robert said...

I am not disinclined to recognize Florida's dominance of the past twenty years (pained however...that I'd admit!), but you've skewed the numbers a little in your comparison. Bama was hardly dominant in the 1980s. We only won two SEC titles, and one of those was shared three ways with both UT and Auburn. If you want Bama's 20 year comparable period, that would be the 60s and 70s.

In that frame (1960-1979) Bama went 196-31-3 for a winning percentage of .852 and won thirteen SEC titles. As they said of Patton, we will not see their like again.

Mergz said...

Robert - I admit I didn't consider the '60-'79 time frame, and you are of course correct. (Not to mention as a 'Bama fan it must be nice to have multiple time frames to choose from!). Part of my problem in making historical comparisions was my personal perspective (I wasn't alive in 1960, and don't much recall the early 70's).

So no, the current Florida domination doesn't equal 'Bama's of the period you cite, but it may be second best of all SEC teams.

Dan Shanoff said...

I'll do you one better: Forget "SEC history" -- has there ever been a bigger non-national-title game in college football history?

1 vs 2
12-0 vs 12-0
Winner in title game, loser out
Winner favored to win title game
Two best coaches in the country
Best WR (Jones) vs. best CB (Haden)
Most pressure-packed regular-season game for the most celebrated player in the history of college football.

My readers keep saying "06 Ohio St-Michigan," which is definitely up there, but lacks the idea that the winner will probably win the national title. We know what happened in '06, not just to tOSU, but to Michigan, once they left the comfort of the Big Ten bubble.

The only other game that comes up is '66 Notre Dame-Michigan State. I will revise my superlative to say "In the era since ESPN transformed the way sports was consumed." (So, basically: 1980.)

Whatever the debate: It's a huge game that even non-SEC fans will tune into en masse.

Hogbody Spradlin said...

And it's going to be wierd that in this pass happy era the game could be a defensive slugfest. What goes around comes around.

Hogbody Spradlin said...

Also, maybe not of the same gravitas and immediate decisiveness to the national picture, but didn't LSU and Ole Miss play one or two times as 1-2 in the late 50's? The Billy Cannon punt return game was 1-2 wasn't it?

Mergz said...

Dan - Notably absent in this case is the ever-present countdown clock ESPN deployed in the lead up to the "GAME OF THE CENTURY!!" between OSU and Michigan in 2006. I guess a matchup in an actual championship game between undefeated SEC teams just doesn't rate.

And I think that is the difference between OSU-Mich '06 and UF-'Bama 09. While the '06 game was a de facto conference title, this is the first conference championship game between undefeateds.

I'm always wary of being myopic to my era, so declaring it the "best ever" might be a reach. But to this Gator fan, only the '96 game between undefeated UF and FSU seemed this important from a Gator perspective.

AnObfuscator said...

"The SEC Championship representative has won the “national” title 7 of the 8 times it played for it, the only loss being the Nebraska-Florida blowout of 1995."

Wrong, '97 Tennessee beat Auburn in the SEC champ game and then, just like us, got slaughtered by Nebraska.