CFB: The Best Conference Championship Games in Recent Years
Conference championship week is here. In the world of college football, this weekend determines so much more than the winners of all division one conferences. This weekend also determines which teams will ultimately play for the national championship; which players will be finalists for the Heisman trophy; and even which coaches may or may not return to the sidelines next season.
With many teams done until bowl season, each and every championship game is under the microscope, providing ample opportunity for final evaluations to be made before the committee picks the four teams that will participate in the College Football Playoff. Looking at the history of championship games within the power conferences of the sport, you see mostly blowouts, indicating a potential imbalance of power within each conference.
However, over the last five seasons, the four major conferences that still have a championship game (SEC, Big 10, PAC 12, and ACC) have had at least one memorable game to determine its conference champion. With that, let’s look at the best of those games since 2010 and hope that one, if not all of the games this weekend, provide the same type of can’t-miss action.
Big 10: Wisconsin vs. Michigan State, 2011
What a season Russell Wilson and the Wisconsin Badgers had back in 2011. A transfer QB, Wilson made Wisconsin a dangerous team with a dynamic offense that could hurt opponents in so many ways. (Remember that the great college running back Montee Ball was on that team as well.) The Badgers found themselves in the Big 10 title game after a 10-2 season, going up against a stout Michigan State team and a great QB of their own.
A senior that year, Kirk Cousins led the Spartans to a 10-2 record as well (a team that had Le’Veon Bell, too), setting up what turned out to be an unforgettable matchup to determine the conference championship. After falling behind 21-7 after the first quarter, Cousins threw two touchdowns to lead MSU to a 22-point second period, taking a 29-21 lead into halftime. The third quarter saw the two teams match touchdowns, leading to an epic fourth quarter.
Down 36-28, Wilson threw a touchdown pass to Ball to get the game within two points. Then, following a Michigan State field goal, Wilson and Ball led Wisconsin to a game-winning score and two-point conversion with 3:45 left. The defense finished the game, sending the Badgers to the Rose Bowl, where they lost to Oregon.
PAC-12: Stanford vs. UCLA, 2012
The 2012 Stanford Cardinal team was supposed to be rebuilding. They lost the great Andrew Luck and several other players to the NFL Draft as well as their head coach (Jim Harbaugh) to the NFL, which lowered the expectations for the program. Instead, coach David Shaw and his (at the time) freshman QB Kevin Hogan took the Cardinal to places Luck never could.
Stanford made the 2012 PAC-12 Championship on the strength of a 10-2 season, facing off against the 9-3 UCLA Bruins. The Bruins had Brett Hundley at QB, a dynamic player in just his first season as a starter. With two capable defenses present in this contest as well, the result was the best game in the short history of the PAC-12 title.
A game that never saw a team take a lead larger than seven points, the Bruins entered the fourth quarter with a 24-17 advantage. Hogan tossed a touchdown early in the fourth before leading the Cardinal to a field goal with about six minutes left, giving Stanford a 27-24 advantage. The Cardinal defense held on down stretch, keeping the Bruins off the scoreboard and securing a Rose Bowl berth. Stanford looks to capture another conference title this weekend when they take on USC.
SEC: Alabama vs. Georgia, 2012
We’re used to seeing Alabama win conference championships. The Tide’s impressive run of excellence isn’t what made the 2012 SEC title game memorable though. Instead, it was the play of the heavy underdog Georgia Bulldogs that made this matchup one of the best in the long history of the SEC Championship game.
Behind the play of quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley, Georgia had a great season in 2012, equaling the Crimson Tide at 11-1. The teams were ranked second and third in the nation, respectively, indicating that this game was essentially a play-in game for the national championship (this was prior to the College Football Playoff). Despite all that, Georgia was a lofty 7.5-point underdog. That didn’t stop them from nearly taking down mighty Alabama.
Heading into the fourth, Georgia held a 21-18 advantage. Then, Gurley rushed for a touchdown with about 13 minutes left to answer an Alabama score by running back Eddie Lacy earlier in the quarter. Georgia held the lead until AJ McCarron found Amari Cooper for a touchdown, giving Alabama a 32-28 advantage. The Bulldogs drove the ball to the Tide’s five-yard line with five seconds left, but time expired and Alabama went on to win the game and the national title. Of course, Alabama looks to win yet another SEC title this weekend against Florida.
Big 10: Michigan State vs. Ohio State, 2013
Ohio State entered this game with a long, 24-game winning streak under new head coach Urban Meyer. They were No. 2 in the nation at 12-0, in a prime position to reach the national championship game a year after being ineligible for postseason play. None of that scared the Michigan State Spartans.
It’s not as if the Spartans were a bad team in 2013 — not at all actually. They were 11-1 entering the Big 10 Championship and had a chance to reach the Rose Bowl with a win. Nobody had beaten Meyer and the Buckeyes though, making them seemingly invincible. Quite simply though, MSU outplayed OSU in this one.
Led by Connor Cook, Michigan State scored twice in the fourth quarter after training 24-20 to upset the Buckeyes 34-24. Sparty went on to win the Rose Bowl against Stanford while Ohio State suffered a second-straight defeat in their bowl game against Clemson. As is the common theme, Michigan State (who ended another long OSU winning streak a few weeks ago) looks to win the conference again this weekend against Iowa.
ACC: Florida State vs. Georgia Tech, 2014
During a three stretch prior to this season, the Florida State Seminoles were dominant. Jimbo Fisher led the school to three straight ACC titles, one national championship, and an appearance in the College Football Playoff last season. As great as that stretch was, it nearly got disrupted by Georgia Tech in last season’s ACC championship game.
The Yellow Jackets’ crazy rushing offense had its eyes on ending a historic 28-game Seminole winning streak in this one. Jameis Winston tossed three touchdowns in the game though, and FSU held a 37-28 advantage with only a few minutes left.
Georgia Tech had one more gasp, scoring a touchdown with 1:47 remaining in the game, but their on-side kick attempt failed and they never saw the ball again. The Seminoles won 37-35 in one of the best games in ACC championship history. They went on to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff (where they were crushed by Oregon).
All statistics courtesy of ESPN.com.