Ever since Antonio Langham returned an interception for a touchdown in the first SEC Championship Game back in 1992, one truth has remained: no college football team is safe on conference championship weekend.
Since that groundbreaking night in 1992, more conference championships have been created and they add to the excitement of the season. However, they can also wreak havoc on the national title picture (or in the current landscape, the College Football Playoff) depending on the results. Here is a history of how upsets in conference championships have impacted the national championship outcome.
Most college football fans remember that the 1994 Penn State team may be the best team to not win a national title. The undefeated Nittany Lions finished second to unbeaten Nebraska as voters were moved to give Tom Osborne his first national title. Few remember that Alabama also was 11-0 going into the SEC Championship Game, the only such contest at the time, but the Crimson Tide lost 24-23 to a 10-1 Florida team. In this instance, the loss eliminated some of the chaos, allowing voters to only make one unpleasant decision instead of two.
Nebraska went 60-3 and won three national titles in Tom Osborne’s final five seasons. A loss to Florida State in the 1994 Orange Bowl cost the Cornhuskers a fourth title and an upset by Texas in the 1996 inaugural Big 12 Championship Game prevented them from playing for a fifth. The third-ranked Huskers were beaten 37-27 by a 7-4 Longhorn team. Had they won, they would have met top-ranked Florida State in the Sugar Bowl and since No. 2 Arizona State lost the Rose Bowl, the game would have been for the national championship. Instead, Florida moved into Nebraska’s spot and beat the Seminoles in a rematch to win the school’s first national title.
Tennessee, Kansas State, and UCLA were undefeated going into conference championship week and there was a great deal of controversy over who would play in the first Bowl Championship Series (BCS) national title game. By the end of the day, there was still controversy, but in a different form. UCLA played first, meeting Miami in the Orange Bowl in a game that had been postponed earlier in the season because of Hurricane Georges. The Bruins blew a 38-21 lead with 1:28 left in the third quarter and the resurging Hurricanes upset them 49-45. When the upset was announced over the loudspeaker at St. Louis’ Trans World Dome, Kansas State fans had little time to cheer because their team was in the middle of a dogfight with Texas A&M for the Big 12 title. Instead of closing the deal, the Wildcats imploded, giving up 15 points in the fourth quarter to allow the Aggies to tie the game. Texas A&M then scored a touchdown in the second overtime to end Kansas State’s national championship hopes. Tennessee nearly followed suit, as the Vols were down 14-10 to Mississippi State in the fourth quarter but they scored two touchdowns to win the SEC Championship Game 24-14. The controversy over which one-loss team would face Tennessee was now mostly a moot point. Florida State got the nod, and the Volunteers beat the Seminoles in the Fiesta Bowl to claim the national title.
The chaos actually started Thanksgiving weekend, when Colorado beat top-ranked and undefeated Nebraska 62-36. The loss knocked Nebraska out of the Big 12 Championship Game, as the Buffaloes represented the North Division instead. The next week, the Buffaloes upset third-ranked Texas in the conference championship game. The SEC Championship Game was delayed until the next week because of 9/11, but No. 2 Tennessee was upset by LSU. The upsets left voters and the BCS computer rankings to determine whether 9-2 Colorado, 10-1 Oregon or 11-1 Nebraska should face No. 1 Miami in the Rose Bowl. In the end, the Huskers became the first team to play for a national title without winning its conference or division and they were blown out 37-14 by the Hurricanes.
Top-ranked Oklahoma had blown out virtually all of its regular-season opponents, but suffered an embarrassing 35-7 loss to Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship Game. The loss knocked the Sooners down to No. 3 and moved USC and LSU into the respective top spots in the AP poll, but somehow the BCS rankings kept OU at No. 1 and moved USC to third. Second-ranked LSU beat Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and the Trojans won the Rose Bowl resulting in the only split national championship of the BCS era.
The final week of one of the wackiest seasons in college football history began with Missouri and West Virginia holding the top two spots. The Tigers faced Oklahoma in a rematch in the Big 12 title game, and as was the case with the regular season, the Sooners won. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers lost to a 4-7 Pittsburgh team in the Backyard Brawl. The upsets resulted in LSU being the only two-loss team to play for a national title, and the Tigers beat Ohio State 38-24 in the BCS National Championship Game.
Ohio State was No. 2 and riding a 24-game winning streak. A victory in the Big Ten Championship Game would pit the Buckeyes against undefeated Florida State in the final BCS title game, but they had to beat an 11-1 Michigan State team. Ohio State led 24-20 going into the fourth quarter, but the Spartans scored two touchdowns to secure the 34-24 win and end the Buckeyes’ national championship hopes. Because of the loss, SEC champion Auburn (12-1) went on to face Florida State (13-0) for the national championship, which the Seminoles won after beating the Tigers 34-31 in thrilling fashion.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.
(Photos courtesy of Getty Images)