The 2013 edition of the SEC Championship Game will be the 22nd game in its existence for the conference that not only is widely regarded as the best conference in college football, but was also the one responsible for starting the conference title game craze.
Here now is a look at the ten best games in SEC Championship Game history:
#10: 1998 (Tennessee 24, Mississippi State 14)
In the first year of the soon-to-be-gone BCS era, the Vols entered the game against the underdog Bulldogs as heavy favorites. But the game would wind up being a tight defensive battle that Tee Martin and the Volunteers led, 10-7, in the early stages of the fourth quarter. That was until the Bulldogs' Kevin Prentiss took a punt back 83 yards and gave them a 14-10 lead. All of that would be for naught, though, as Martin would throw two touchdown passes in a 32-second span to give the Vols a 24-14 lead that they wouldn't relinquish on their way to an Orange Bowl win over Florida State and the first national championship of the BCS era, and Tennessee's last national championship.
#9: 2004 (Auburn 38, Tennessee 28)
2004 is known mostly in SEC-land as the year that time forgot, as it would become known for the victorious Tigers being passed over for a BCS titlre game appearance despite what became a 12-0 regular season after winning this game. As for the game itself, Auburn quickly jumped out 14-0 behind the play of QB Jason Campbell, who would go on to win MVP honors in the game, and led 21-7 at the half before the Vols rallied to tie the game at 21 in the third quarter. But 17 points by Auburn in the fourth quarter would put this one away for the Tigers, who would go on to defeat Virginia Tech and complete a 13-0 season in the Sugar Bowl while USC and Oklahoma played for the national title.
#8: 1997 (Tennessee 30, Auburn 29)
This was a close game, but didn't really have any national title implications for one of the first times in the game's history. What it did have was a matchup without either Florida or Alabama in it for the first time in the game's history. And some guy named Peyton Manning was quarterbacking the Vols. I wonder whatever happened to that guy, anyway? Tennessee trailed 27-17 in the third quarter of this one when Manning would engineer another one of what is now routine for him: comebacks. However, Tennesee would trail 29-23 after Manning hit Peerless Price for a touchdown, since Auburn would return the blocked extra point for a two-point conversion. After Marcus Nash turned a short Manning pass into a 73-yard game-winnind TD, the Vols would hang onto to win 30-29, and Manning would be named MVP of the game in his only SEC Championship Game appearance.
#7: 1994 (Florida 24, Alabama 23)
In the 1994 edition, which was the third edition of the game, and the third one to pit the Gators and Crimson Tide, as well, it was typical Steve Spurrier trickery that won it for the Gators. This was also the first SEC title game to be played at the Georgia Dome after two years at Legion Field in Birmingham, and it has remained there ever since. With Florida losing 23-17 in the fourth quarter, Spurrier would dip into his bag of tricks for two big-time plays that would put the Gators ahead. The first one appeared to be an unfortunate break for the old ball coach when starting quarterback Danny Wuerffel appeared to limp off with an injury, only for backup QB Eric Kresser to hit Ike Hilliard for 42 yards and get them across midfield, with Wuerffel returning no worse for the wear on the next play. Later in the drive, Spurrier called another trick play that saw running back Chris Doering hit a 20-yard pass to the 2, before taking it in himself on the next play.
#6: 2006 (Florida 38, Arkansas 28)
In 2006, the Gators weren't quite in the midst of their Alabama-like lording over of the college football landscape, but this win over Arkansas is probably the game that would eventually set it in motion. The Razorbacks had not had a great history up until this point in SEC title games, having been outscored 69-6 in their previous appearancesd in the game (and they have still not managaed to win one), but after falling behind to the Gator juggernaut 17-0 in this one, the Higs would show some fight not previously seen in their other two title game appearances to take a 21-17 lead in the midway in the third quarter. But that's when tbey would make the crucial mistake of the game, fumbling an attempt at an over-the-shoulder catch of a punt, which Florida would recover in the end zone for the go-ahead, and back-breaking touchdown on their way to the first BCS Championship Game and their manhandling of Ohio State.
#5: 2001 (LSU 31, Tennesee 20)
In the 2001 game, LSU was still pre-Les Miles, but did have pre-Alabama Nick Saban coaching them as they prepared to take on #2 Tennessee in the Tigers' first SEC Championship Game. What they didn't have, at least for the majority of the game, was the steady hand and leadership of their quarterback Rohan Davey, who went down early in the game and was replaced by redshirt freshman Matt Mauck. But all he would do is win MVP honors in leading LSU back from a 17-16 fourth-quarter deficit to 15 points in the final victory and an upset win in the game. It also gave LSU their first SEC title since 1988, and their first outright one since 1986. It also sent them to the Sugar Bowl and the Vols tumbling from a potential Orange Bowl and national title opportunity all the way down to the Citrus Bowl.
#4: 2007 (LSU 21, Tennessee 14)
It's not by accident that I rank these games back-to-back, as six years after LSU ruined Tennessee's national title hopes, the Vols had the chance to do the same to the now Les Miles-coached Tigers. And they were almost successful. Led by the unheralded but effective Erik Ainge, the Vols held a slim 14-13 lead in the fourth quarter when he made the crippling mistake that wound up costing them the game. With just over 10 minutes left to play in the game, Ainge had a pass picked off by LSU defensive back Jonathan Zenon and ran back 18 yards for the game-winning score, and would go up by seven after game MVP and LSU QB Ryan Perrilloux ran in a 2-point conversion to account for the final margin, Thanks to losses by both West Virginia and Missouri on the same day, LSU would use this game to propel them to a BCS national title, as they would beat Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game.
#3: 1992 (Alabama 28, Florida 21)
The inaugural SEC Championship Game, played in Birmingham, would be the last stop on the way to undefeated Alabama's national title-winning Sugar Bowl destruction of Miami, but would also be one of the Tide's toughest. It didn't appear as though it would start out that way, as Alabama would eventually get out to a 21-7 lead, only to see the Gators rally to tie the game at 21 halfway through the fourth quarter, putting the first really legitimate heat on Gene Stallings' eventual championship outfit since they squeaked past Tennessee by a touchdown in October. But the Tide wouldn't blink, and it would be their defense that would come through with the game winner, as Antonio Langham would intercept Shane Mathews and run it back 21 yards for a score with 3:21 left, sending Langham to the game's MVP honors and Alabama to an easy national title-clenching Sugar Bowl win over "the U".
#2: 2008 (Florida 31, Alabama 20)
This was the sixth meeting between the Gators and Crimson Tide (and the following year's rematch would make it seven), but there had never been more on the line than in this one between the undefeated, Nick Saban-coached #1 Crimson Tide and the second-ranked, once-beaten, Tim Tebow-led Gators. And as the SEC always seems to do, its featured attraction lived up to the hype. After a field goal gave Alabama a 20-17 fourth-quarter lead, the Gators and their star power would take over, as Tebow would lead them on two touchdown drives, one finished by a Jeff Demps run and one finished off by Tebow himself, as he threw a touchdown pass to Riley Cooper, earning Tebow game MVP honors and the Gators a national title game appearance, where they would beat Oklahoma for their second title in three years.
#1: 2012 (Alabama 32, Georgia 28)
Accuse me of taking the easy way out if you want, but in my opinion, not only is last year's game between the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs the most recent SEC title game, but it's also the best. Alabama, obviously, was coming into the game as the defending national champion, and even though they had lost a regular-season game to the Johnny Football-led Texas A&M Aggies earlier in the year in Tuscaloosa, they, as were the Bulldogs, were assured a spot in the title game with a win here, with only Notre Dame left standing unbeaten. We all know how this one unfolded, I'm sure, as it happened 367 days ago as of this writing, but for those who might not remember, the Bulldogs started a drive from their own 15-yard line with a chance to win the game late, only to fall 5 yards short after Aaron Murray had a pass deflected and caught short of the end zone, which led to Georgia running out of time thanks to Mark Richt not knowing how to work a clock and leaving them without a timeout.
So there you have my list of the ten best games in SEC Championship Game history. I'm sure this one will be up for great debate, but one thing we can all agree on is that by Saturday night, we'll know whether this year's Auburn-Missouri edition belongs on this list or not.