Photo courtesy of Alabama athletics
The College Football Playoff has certainly changed the stakes of championship week.
Still, the week of conference championships has always played a vital role in determining a national champion. In this piece, we’ll reach into the vault — but not too deep — to remember six conference title game upsets that changed the national title race:
1996 Big 12 Championship: Texas 37, (3) Nebraska 27
Although Nebraska was No. 3, it was very much alive for a national championship as it faced 7-4 Texas in St. Louis for the inaugural Big 12 Championship. With a win, the Cornhuskers would’ve faced ACC champion Florida State in the Sugar Bowl. That victory would not come.
Nebraska took a 24-23 lead into the final quarter. After a Kris Brown field goal extended the lead to four, Texas went ahead for good on a 66-yard touchdown pass from James Brown to Wayne McGarity. With just over two minutes to play and the ball inside their own 30, Texas rolled the dice and it paid off. Facing 4th-and-1, Brown rolled out and found tight end Derek Lewis who rumbled into the red zone.
Running back Priest Holmes would put the game away for Texas with an 11-yard touchdown later in the drive. The win would send Florida to the Sugar Bowl to face the Seminoles in a rematch. The Gators avenged a regular season loss in Tallahassee with a 52-20 win over the rival Seminoles. That, coupled with Ohio State’s thrilling Rose Bowl victory over Arizona State, handed Florida its first national championship.
1998 Big 12 Championship: (8) Texas A&M 36, (3) Kansas State 33 (Double-Overtime)
Despite being No. 1 in the Coaches Poll, Kansas State entered the day on Dec. 5, 1998 on the outside looking in. The Wildcats were No. 3 in the BCS standings, but shortly after kickoff, realized they would have a chance to play for college football’s ultimate prize with a win. Earlier in the day, Miami upset No. 2 UCLA in a contest scheduled for earlier in the season that had postponed, 49-45.
The door was open for Kansas State to reach the Fiesta Bowl and play for a national championship. Led by three total touchdowns by All-American quarterback Michael Bishop, Kansas State raced to a 27-12 lead over Texas A&M in St. Louis. That however, would not hold. The Aggies used a pair of touchdown passes from Branndon Stewart and a 2-point conversion to draw even in the final quarter and force overtime.
After the teams traded field goals in the first overtime, Texas A&M held the Wildcats to a fourth Martin Gramatica field goal. Facing 3rd-and-17 on its second overtime possession, Texas A&M stunned the Wildcats with a slant to Sirr Parker for the game-winning 32-yard touchdown. The upset would allow Florida State to play Tennessee for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl. The Volunteers won, 23-16.
2001 Big 12 Championship: (7) Colorado 39, (3) Texas 37
All that was standing in the way of Texas and a trip to the Rose Bowl was a win over Colorado. Earlier in the day on Dec. 1, 2001, No. 2 Florida had been upset at home by Tennessee. At No. 3, the Longhorns seemingly controlled their own destiny to the BCS title game. Against Colorado at Texas Stadium, Texas was unable to get the job done.
The Longhorns drew first blood on a Cedric Benson touchdown, but by the early parts of the third quarter, the Buffaloes were ahead 36-17. Texas would score the next 13 points, but a late field goal by Colorado’s Jeremy Flores essentially put the game away. Colorado’s Chris Brown rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns in the victory. Texas turned the ball over four times. Longhorns’ starting quarterback Chris Simms was benched after throwing three interceptions.
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2001 SEC Championship: (21) LSU 31, (2) Tennessee 20
One week after Texas lost to Colorado for the Big 12 title, the door was open for Tennessee to play for a second national championship in four years. The Volunteers were coming off a road win at No. 2 Florida and needed only to beat LSU to make the Rose Bowl. In the second half however, Tennessee could not figure out LSU’s defense.
The Volunteers raced to a 17-7 first-half lead behind a pair of Casey Clausen touchdown passes, but would manage just a field goal the rest of the way. After three long field goals by LSU kicker John Corbello cut the lead to one after three quarters, the Tigers went ahead for good on the second touchdown run of the day by quarterback Matt Mauck. Domanick Davis’ touchdown run on the next LSU drive put the game away.
The loss would send Nebraska to the Rose Bowl to face Miami for the BCS national championship. The Hurricanes would prove to be too much for the Cornhuskers in a 37-14 victory.
2009 SEC Championship: (2) Alabama 32, (1) Florida 13
In what would be a de facto national semifinal, reigning national champion Florida was undefeated and riding a 22-game winning streak. Entering Atlanta, the Gators were a 5-point favorite over Alabama. In the previous year’s SEC Championship, Alabama had arrived ranked No. 1 and undefeated before Florida rallied late for a 31-20 victory. The Crimson Tide were again undefeated, but there would be no comeback this time around.
Alabama led 19-13 at halftime before shutting out Florida’s high-powered offense in the second half. Greg McElroy passed for 239 yards and a touchdown while eventual Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram rushed for 113 yards and three scores. As a team, Alabama finished with 490 yards of offense. The 13 points tied the lowest offensive output for the Gators in a Tim Tebow start.
Alabama would go on to beat Texas in Pasadena for the BCS National Championship, 37-21. That would serve as the first of five national championships for the Crimson Tide under head coach Nick Saban.
2013 Big Ten Championship: (10) Michigan State 34, (2) Ohio State 24
Fresh off probation, Ohio State was riding a 24-game winning streak as it made its way to Indianapolis for the third Big Ten Championship. Michigan State was all that stood in the Buckeyes’ way of a trip to Pasadena for the BCS National Championship.
Michigan State raced to a 17-0 lead, but Ohio State responded with 24 unanswered points, courtesy of three Braxton Miller touchdown passes. As the contest started, the game also ended with 17 straight points for the Spartans. After a field goal by Michael Geiger late in the third quarter cut the Ohio State lead to four, Michigan State went ahead for good on Connor Cook’s third touchdown pass of the night — this one a 9-yard scoring strike to Josiah Price. Following a fourth down stop on Miller in Michigan State territory, running back Jeremy Langford cemented the Spartans’ victory with a 26-yard touchdown with less than three minutes remaining.
Cook passed for 304 yards in the win while Langford ran for 128 yards. The loss not only ended Ohio State’s 24-game winning streak, but it opened the door for Auburn to get a shot at Florida State for the national title. The Tigers would ultimately let an early 18-point lead slip away in a thrilling 34-31 victory for the Seminoles.