CFB’s Top Five Conference Championship Games
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Ever since college football’s first conference championship game was played 20 years ago, some of the sport’s most memorable moments have come in these bowl-season appetizers. With another slate of these contests upon us, we count down the Top Five Conference Championship Games Ever based on their excitement and significance.
How Miami (OH) won its second ever MAC championship, in 2011, is Exhibit A for why football teams practice the tip drill. The RedHawks faced a 4th-and-20 and trailed Northern Illinois, 21–20, late in the fourth quarter. Miami QB Austin Boucher scrambled out of the pocket and let a desperation pass fly. Miraculously for Miami, it deflected off an NIU defensive back and wound up in the hands of WR Chris Givens for a 31-yard gain.
Two plays later, Boucher found a wide-open Armand Robinson — who finished the day with 14 catches and 176 yards — for a game-winning 33-yard score with 33 seconds remaining.
“Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good,” the QB said after the game. “It got tipped but the play still got made.”
Any doubts that Big 12 officials had concerning the efficacy of a conference title game were wiped out in the aftermath of the inaugural edition in 1996. 10–1 and third-ranked Nebraska entered the contest as 21-point favorites against unranked Texas and was gunning for a shot at a third straight AP national title.
Stunningly, Texas held a 30–27 lead late in the fourth quarter. But that was just a prelude to “Roll Left.”
Facing 4th-and-inches from its own 28-yard line, the Longhorns lined up in a power-I set. Nebraska brought everyone in an effort to stop what the Huskers thought was a running play. Only it was “Roll Left,” a staple of Texas’ goal-line offense in which QB James Brown faked a handoff before rolling left and either keeping it or throwing it.
In this instance, Brown calmly went with the latter, finding a wide open Derek Lewis down the sideline for a backbreaking 61-yard gain. RB Priest Holmes ran for a game-clinching score on the following play to seal one of the biggest upsets of the 1990s.
The first ever conference championship game, a contest that all of the SEC’s coaches and players were against scheduling when the season began, ended up providing “The Play That Changed College Football.”
The title for the ESPN documentary that premiered last December may be slightly hyperbolic. But looking back, SEC commissioner Roy Kramer’s decision to have the best teams from two divisions duke it out for a conference championship did shape the identity of his league and eventually college football as a whole.
What happened on the play itself? With the score knotted at 21-all, Florida QB Shane Matthews telegraphed his short pass to the right, which Tide CB Antonio Langham easily stepped in front of and picked off. The sophomore wove through anyone and everyone en route to the end zone, where his score provided the final 28–21 margin. Less than a month later, 'Bama would defeat Miami (FL) in the Sugar Bowl for the national title.
Thirteen years after a high-scoring, seemingly unstoppable Nebraska team was upset by an upstart Texas team in the inaugural Big 12 title game, the Cornhuskers nearly returned the favor.
Led by prolific QB Colt McCoy, Texas rolled over most of its opposition in 2009. But in the conference title game, Nebraska proved to be far from “most opposition.” Led by unblockable DT Ndamukong Suh, Nebraska sacked McCoy nine times and forced him into three interceptions.
Nebraska took a 12-10 lead with 1:44 left on a 42-yard field goal that appeared like it would set off BCS chaos. Battered but not beaten, McCoy led a final five-play, 31-yard drive to set the stage for a literal, last-second field goal try. (The extra second was put back on the clock by game officials.) Hunter Lawrence’s 46-yard kick sailed just inside the left upright, sending his team into hysterics and to Pasadena for the BCS national title game.
All of the conference championship games on this list have enjoyed exciting finishes. But only our selection for No. 1 can boast an overtime game. What’s more, it had two extra periods.
Kansas State, the No. 3 team in the country, was on the verge of a BCS title game appearance after UCLA lost earlier in the day and raced to a 27–12 lead that held up through three quarters. But the Aggies — themselves ranked eighth in the BCS — ran off 15 unanswered points in the fourth, the final eight of which came courtesy of receptions by RB Sirr Parker on a TD and two-point conversion.
After the two teams traded field goals in the first overtime, Kansas State took a 33–30 lead in the second extra period on a Martin Gramatica field goal. When A&M got the ball back and were faced with 3rd and 17, Parker raced by the Wildcats after catching a four-yard slant, nicking the pylon on a 32-yard score to send the Aggies to victory.
For Parker, who grew up in gang-infested Los Angeles before arriving in College Station, it was a Hollywood ending. (Fitting for a player whose life story would be turned into a 2001 Showtime movie, They Call Me Sirr.) And college football found its gold standard for what conference conference championship games should be.
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