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5 Biggest College Football Conference Championship Upsets of All Time

Many teams' national title hopes have come to a stunning end because of what happened in their conference championship games.
James Brown, Texas Longhorns Football in 1996 Big 12 Championship Game

James Brown and the Texas Longhorns stunned Nebraska in the 1996 Big 12 Championship Game in a result that changed the national title outlook.

College Football Playoff spots will hang in the balance this weekend as all 10 conference championship games occur.

The SEC was the first conference to implement a title game and the Sun Belt was the most recent, but a conference championship is now decided during the first week of December for each of the 10 FBS leagues. Over the years, conference championships have brought both jubilation and agony.

As USC has already found out (and TCU hopes not to), championship weekend can be a time when national title dreams go to die. On that note, we’ll count down the five biggest upsets in conference championship history.

We begin with those that narrowly missed the list:

Note: Ranking in () is from the AP Top 25.

Honorable Mention

2005 MAC Championship: Akron 31, Northern Illinois 30

2008 Conference USA Championship: East Carolina 27, Tulsa 24

2011 Conference USA Championship: (24) Southern Mississippi 49, (7) Houston 28

2020 MAC Championship: Ball State 38, (23) Buffalo 28 

5. 2005 ACC Championship: (22) Florida State 27, (5) Virginia Tech 22

The inaugural ACC Championship Game in Jacksonville featured coaching legends in Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer. The Hokies were 10-1 and ranked No. 5 while the Seminoles had limped into this matchup on a three-game losing streak, which consisted of a home loss to NC State and road blowout losses at Clemson and Florida. The teams managed just a field goal apiece in the first half, but Willie Reid’s 83-yard punt return for a touchdown early in the third quarter spurred a string of 24 straight FSU points. Virginia Tech scored the game’s final 19 points, but that was not enough. As a 14-point underdog, the Seminoles claimed their 12th ACC title in 14 years.

4. 2008 MAC Championship: Buffalo 42, (12) Ball State 24

With Utah and Boise State ranked above it, busting the BCS wasn’t a reality for Ball State as it entered the 2008 MAC Championship Game in Detroit, but completing a perfect season was. The Cardinals were 12-0 and had played just one game decided by fewer than 12 points. Buffalo was 7-5 and a 15-point underdog. Ball State led 17-14 in the third quarter before consecutive fumble returns for touchdowns totaling 166 yards by the Bulls swung momentum dramatically. The Cardinals outgained Buffalo by more than 200 yards, but five turnovers ultimately killed their hopes of remaining undefeated. Buffalo’s Drew Willy passed for three touchdowns in the win as Turner Gill and the Bulls got the better of Brady Hoke and Ball State.

3. 1998 Big 12 Championship: (10) Texas A&M 36, (2) Kansas State 33 (2OT)

Kansas State was a 17.5-point favorite and ranked No. 3 in the BCS standings as it arrived in St. Louis for the third Big 12 Championship Game. With Miami’s upset over No. 2 UCLA earlier in the day, the Wildcats needed only a win to play for a national title. Kansas State took a 27-12 lead into the final quarter, but the Aggies drew even with two Branndon Stewart touchdown passes and a successful two-point conversion. After the teams traded field goals in overtime, Martin Gramatica’s fourth field goal of the day gave the Wildcats a 33-30 lead. Texas A&M looked in trouble as it faced third-and-17 from the Kansas State 32-yard-line on its second possession of overtime, but Stewart and versatile Sirr Parker successfully executed a quick slant. In stride, Stewart hit Parker, who made the first defender miss before outrunning and stiff-arming Wildcats on his way to the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.

2. 2003 Big 12 Championship: (12) Kansas State 35, (1) Oklahoma 7

Entering the 2003 Big 12 Championship Game at Arrowhead Stadium, Oklahoma was a unanimous No. 1, averaging better than 48 points per game, and had not played a game decided by fewer than 14 points since the first weekend in September. Throughout the college football world, it seemed as if everyone was playing for second place. But someone forgot to tell Kansas State. The Sooners scored on their opening drive to take a 7-0 lead but would not score again. Ell Roberson passed for four touchdowns for the Wildcats while running back Darren Sproles racked up 323 yards from scrimmage and a touchdown catch. Ted Sims capped the scoring by returning eventual Heisman Trophy winner Jason White’s interception 27 yards for a score. The Sooners would still play in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship, but ultimately fell to Nick Saban and LSU, 21-14. The Wildcats would win the Big 12 in 2012, but from 2010 to 2016, the conference did away with a title game after shrinking to 10 teams. This remains the Wildcats’ lone victory in the Big 12 title game.

1. 1996 Big 12 Championship: Texas 37, (3) Nebraska 27

The Big 12 Championship Game takes the top three spots in the poll. As nearly a three-touchdown favorite, Nebraska was expected to cruise in the inaugural Big 12 title game in St. Louis. Instead, Texas racked up more than 500 yards of offense and scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown courtesy of a 66-yard James Brown-to-Wayne McGarity connection with less than nine minutes to play. The lasting moment from the contest, however, came with Texas’ decision to keep its offense on the field on fourth-and-inches inside its own 30-yard-line with less than three minutes remaining. Brown rolled out on the play and found tight end Derek Lewis, who rumbled for a gain of 61 yards. Priest Holmes’ touchdown run on the next play would ultimately put the contest away. Brown passed for 353 yards while Holmes rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns. The upset would end Nebraska’s hopes of threepeating as national champions.

— Written by Mike Ferguson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeWFerguson.