EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second story in a series on the 15 most memorable SEC football games beat writer David Paschall has covered since joining the newspaper in 1990. The games are being presented in chronological order.
When it came to Southeastern Conference football in the 1990s, the number of people who pulled something over on Florida coach Steve Spurrier was quite small.
Roy Kramer was on that list.
Spurrier had just guided the Gators to their first SEC title in 1991 when he learned Kramer was forming two six-team divisions with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina and planned to have the division winners play for an overall league crown. Until Kramer implemented an SEC championship game in 1992, the only such contests existed among 12-team leagues at the NCAA's Division II and Division III levels.
"I didn't even know it was legal," Spurrier said in 2011, when the league was staging its 20th championship showdown. "I remember asking him one time, 'The NCAA approves that?' And he said, 'Yeah, as long as you have two divisions, you can put one together.'
"I was wondering why no one had ever done it, because it certainly creates a game for all the marbles."
Spurrier's Gators lost the inaugural SEC title game 28-21 to Alabama at Birmingham's Legion Field but then proceeded to win the next four conference championship contests. Had Florida won the first one, who knows how many more even would have been staged after that?
Alabama cruised to an 11-0 regular season and a No. 2 national ranking on the strength of its defense that yielded just 8.0 points per game. The 1992 Gators, however, may have been the weakest team in Spurrier's 12 seasons, having been thumped early in the season by Tennessee, 31-14, and Mississippi State, 30-6, and having entered Birmingham coming off a 45-24 humbling at Florida State.
"I know this may sound strange," Crimson Tide coach Gene Stallings said days before kickoff, "but we've won 11 games and haven't won anything yet."
Legion Field was hardly a neutral site with Alabama in the contest, and that was evident by the tranquil crowd when Florida quarterback Shane Matthews went 6-for-6 on the opening drive and connected with Errict Rhett on a 5-yard shovel pass for a 7-0 lead. The Tide quickly regrouped and evened the score on Derrick Lassic's 3-yard touchdown run, and Lassic's 15-yard score late in the third quarter seemingly had Alabama in control up 21-7.
Florida battled back, however, and forged a 21-21 tie with 8:09 remaining on Rhett's 1-yard touchdown run, and the Gators would get the ball again with less than four minutes left. Had Florida gone three-and-out, college football fans would have experienced the overtime format the sport would implement four years later, but Antonio Langham intercepted a Matthews pass intended for Monty Duncan and raced 27 yards for the deciding score.
"They had been running that little hitch route all day," Langham said, "so I squatted behind their receiver so Matthews couldn't see me. I don't think he ever saw me."
Alabama would play its best game of the season against top-ranked Miami in the Sugar Bowl, routing the Hurricanes 34-13 to claim the program's lone national championship between the six won by legendary Bear Bryant and the five won by current coach Nick Saban. Critics of Kramer's league championship game, which included several SEC coaches, claimed it would prevent teams from winning the national title, but five programs from the conference — Alabama, Auburn, Florida, LSU and Tennessee — have combined to win 14 national championships since the implementation of the SEC title game.
"We didn't realize what we were doing back then, but looking back now, I would say that was probably pretty good," said Spurrier, whose eight SEC title game trips are the most by any coach. "It became my favorite game."
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