For those who don't know, the SECCG started in 1992, the first year the conference split into two divisions with 12 teams (Arkansas and South Carolina). It was the first of its kind in major-conference football, the brainchild of Roy Kramer (who'd picked up the idea from some smaller-tier conferences at lower levels).
Strangely, the game was not always played in Atlanta -- the first two actually took place at Legion Field -- yes, that Legion Field -- in Birmingham.
It probably belongs in Atlanta -- playing in the Georgia Dome, a special venue that doesn't serve as any other university's home field, makes it a different kind of game and gives it a special feel. Fans enjoy going to it, and players and coaches recognize the importance of the stage.
"The Dome. That's why we get up in the morning. That's why we shave. That's why we brush our teeth. That's why we hug our kids: to get to that Dome."Obviously, Urban Meyer's more than a little nuts about the whole thing. On the surface, the concept of the game seems like little more than a money-making scheme: after all -- as my wife said the other day -- why should Alabama now be forced to play for a conference title it has spent the last three months winning on the field, putting its national-title aspirations on the line at the same time?
On balance, though, a brief look at the history of the game reveals that it's done more good than harm to national contenders from the conference. Teams that won the SEC Championship Game went on to win the national title in 1992 ('Bama), '96 (Florida), '98 (Tennessee), '03 (LSU), '06 (Florida again) and '07 (LSU again). In the case of '96 Florida, '06 Florida and '07 LSU, they might not have received the invitation to play on the nation's biggest stage, had not the SECCG existed at the time.
Actually, only twice has the conference title game stolen away someone's national hopes. The first instance was 1994, when an undefeated (and relatively unimpressive) Alabama team went down by a point to Danny Wuerffel and Florida, 24-23, in the first of the games played in Atlanta. Without the title game, the Tide would have played Florida St. or Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl, and possibly claimed a share of the title with a win there (Penn St., having joined the Big 10 that year, was locked into the Rose Bowl -- Nebraska wound up winning both shares of the crown). The other year was 2001, when Phil Fulmer's UT squad was all set to go to the Rose Bowl and play Miami, only to get tripped up by Nick Saban -- that man again -- and LSU in Atlanta. The Hurricanes instead dispatched an overmatched Nebraska team for the crown.
The other factor that makes the championship game unique is that it lends a certain credibility to the season that might not have existed otherwise. Don't forget that the conference schedule didn't include the entire conference early in the 1990s, much like the Big 10 schedule is set up now. How could '92 Alabama have been universally respected without playing and beating the conference's second-best team?
The same holds true this season. The SEC in 2008 has largely been a disappointment. Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, Mississippi St. and Auburn all fell well short of expectations -- suddenly this Alabama team's '08 schedule doesn't look as daunting as it did in preseason. Florida remains as a powerhouse, the juggernaut with the offense no one can stop and speed and athleticism that is impressive to watch, no matter your level of hatred for them. For Alabama to earn credibility as the nation's true number-one team, the Tide simply must play and defeat the conference's second-best team.
And that's why it's OK that there's one more mountain to climb. If we can scale it, we'll have earned that spot.