Power Shift: The Most Important Conference Title Games in College Football History

Championship weekend can change the playoff outlook. Here's a look at some of the most consequential college football conference title games ever played.

November 29, 2023

We’re barreling toward the end of another compelling college football season, and we could be in for a final twist this weekend with some crucial conference championship games. Georgia would clinch the top seed in the College Football Playoff with a win over Alabama, but a loss would set off a spirited argument about which of them — if any — would get in.

In the ACC, Florida State will look to keep its playoff position — despite losing star quarterback Jordan Travis — with a win over Louisville. Finally, the winner of the final Pac-12 Championship between Washington and Oregon will also likely punch their ticket to the playoffs.

Meanwhile, in the Big 12, we have Texas taking on Oklahoma State. With a convincing win, the Longhorns would have a compelling case to reach the playoff if FSU slips up. And does one-loss, idle Ohio State still fit into the title race at all if things break a certain way?

Given all those implications, it’s only appropriate to look at some of the most historically impactful conference championship games on the national landscape to see how things shifted going into bowl season.

Alabama vs. Florida – 1992 SEC Championship

This was the first conference championship game ever, so it deserves recognition for the fantastic and compelling games that have occurred ever since. With a win, Alabama secured its spot in the Sugar Bowl, where they defeated No. 1-ranked Miami to secure the national championship in the AP and Coaches’ rankings. Florida entered the matchup at 8-3, so the loss ultimately had little effect on the outcome of their season.

Texas A&M vs. Kansas State – 1998 Big 12 Championship

Kansas State entered this game 11-0 and appeared poised to appear in their first BCS National Championship game. All they had to do was down a 10-2 Aggies squad that had lost to Texas just one week prior. The task seemed straightforward enough as Kansas State maintained a 27-12 lead through three quarters.

However, Texas A&M stormed back to score twice in the fourth quarter to tie the game with a two-point conversion with only 1:05 left in regulation. In the second overtime, the Wildcats were limited to only a field goal and had their hearts broken when Sirr Parker subsequently caught his second touchdown of the game. As a result of the loss, Kansas State fell to third in the BCS polls, which allowed Florida State to take on Tennessee for the title at the Fiesta Bowl.

Colorado vs. Texas – 2001 Big 12 Championship

Colorado was still in the midst of its glory days as a program and was ranked inside the top 10 after beating No. 2 Nebraska, . Given the Cornhuskers’ loss, third-ranked Texas almost certainly would have been heading to the National Championship game with a win. However, the Buffaloes led the entire game, hanging on to a 39-37 win. From there, there was plenty of controversy — Colorado had just defeated Nebraska, yet remained behind them in the rankings. The Huskers were crushed in the title game by a Miami Hurricanes team many consider to be one of the best ever.

From there, there was plenty of controversy — Colorado had just defeated Nebraska, yet remained behind them in the rankings.

Kansas State vs. Oklahoma – 2003 Big 12 Championship

Though it didn’t mean a spot in the BCS National Championship game, Kansas State got some revenge in conference championship contests in 2003. They upset top-ranked Oklahoma by a dominant margin of 35-7. Even in the face of the humiliating defeat, the Sooners retained the top spot in the BCS rankings and then went onto lose in the National Championship game to LSU.

But due to the controversy of Oklahoma keeping its spot in the big game, the BCS was restructured moving forward to include a combination of the Harris Poll, the Coaches Poll and the computer ranking. Meanwhile, the AP Poll pulled itself from the BCS Ranking system.

Florida vs. Alabama – 2008 and 2009 SEC Championships

We’ve seen the Michigan-Ohio State game billed as the first unofficial playoff game in the last couple seasons (even though OSU made the playoff after losing to the Wolverines in 2022), but this matchup between the Crimson Tide and Gators was actually the semifinal matchup in 2008. Alabama held the top spot in the BCS rankings while Florida was number three entering the game. Tim Tebow led Florida to victory in the game and ultimately to a National Championship against Oklahoma.

Almost the exact same situation arose again in 2009, but this time Nick Saban and ‘Bama came out on top and went to claim the National Championship. Needless to say, this matchup has carried a ton of historical significance.

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Texas vs. Nebraska – 2009 Big 12 Championship

This was another “win and in” scenario, this time for Texas. They found themselves down 12-10 in the final moments of the game, but were driving down the field primarily on the basis of horse-collar and pass interference penalty calls. Even then, it appeared that Texas was going to squander its opportunity as Colt McCoy let the clock run out before throwing the ball away despite being in field-goal range.

Instead of letting the game go final, officials controversially put one second back on the clock and allowed the Longhorns to kick the game-winning field goal. As some may believe, karma won out, as Alabama took out Texas 37-21 in the BCS National Championship Game.

Instead of letting the game go final, officials controversially put one second back on the clock and allowed the Longhorns to kick the game-winning field goal.

Alabama vs. Georgia – 2012 SEC Championship

As has become a pattern in the SEC, this was another de facto semifinal game as the Crimson Tide entered the game ranked second in the nation with the Bulldogs at number three. In a back-and-forth affair, Alabama ultimately prevailed by the score of 32-28 after the clock expired with Georgia five yards away from the game-winning score. The Crimson Tide went on to defeat Notre Dame for another national championship.

Michigan State vs. Iowa – 2015 Big Ten Championship

We don’t have many games from the Big Ten for two reasons. First, the conference couldn’t have a championship game until 2011 because it didn’t have 12 teams – a requirement of the NCAA to hold a conference championship. Since then, the divisional alignment has left the East as the dominant part of the conference with Penn State, Michigan and Ohio State in that section of the conference. With that in mind, the East is often set up to dominate their counterparts in the West.

One exception was in 2015, when Michigan State entered the game ranked fifth in the country and Iowa fourth. The Spartans pulled off the moderate upset to earn the third seed in the College Football Playoff. They were pasted 38-0 by Nick Saban and Alabama in the CFP semis.

Dale Weber
Dale began working at RotoWire in 2017 writing MLB game wraps. He now covers primarily MLB, NFL and racing, but also has experience writing in a wide range of sports, including MMA, golf and soccer.