What Steve Spurrier, Gene Stallings said about SEC football schedules, divisions, championships | Toppmeyer
When the SEC commissioner assured him that, yes, NCAA rules permitted such a game, Spurrier’s second thought was: This is going to be awfully fun.
“Ain’t nothing like a championship game,” Spurrier said when we chatted a few days ago.
In 1992, after adding Arkansas and South Carolina, the SEC boldly split into two divisions to take advantage of an NCAA rule that allowed a conference championship game if the league included at least 12 teams and was divided into two sides. Other conferences later followed the SEC's lead.
Spurrier’s Gators met undefeated Alabama in the inaugural SEC Championship. Gene Stallings' Crimson Tide prevailed, 28-21, en route to a national title.
SEC SPRING MEETINGS: 4 likely topics more interesting than NIL grumbling
Thirty years later, the NCAA has changed its rules governing conference championships. Divisions are no longer required, and the Pac-12 and Mountain West already dumped divisions for this season. The ACC is expected to follow suit in 2023, and the SEC may be next.
The SEC is considering shedding divisions in favor of an undivided 16-team conference after Oklahoma and Texas join, according to multiple reports.
“Times are changing,” said Spurrier, who added that he supports any format that pits the SEC’s top two teams against each another for a conference title.
Neither Spurrier nor Stallings mourn the potential end of the SEC’s division era.
“I just feel like the SEC is by far the best conference in the country, and as long as good teams play good teams, I have no problem (with the format),” Stallings said from his Texas ranch when I reached him by phone.
Alabama football, Florida Gators clash
Alabama was 11-0 entering that first SEC Championship and boasted the nation’s best defense.
Still, the Crimson Tide “hadn’t won anything” yet, Stallings said, considering what lie ahead.
Spurrier’s pass-happy Gators were tied with Alabama late in the fourth quarter, and Florida had seized momentum.
“It looked like, right at the last, they were going to go ahead and win the game,” Stallings said.
Antonio Langham intervened.
Alabama's star cornerback intercepted a Shane Matthews pass and returned it for the decisive touchdown.
“Antonio Langham picked off the hitch pass,” Spurrier recalled. “Our receiver went about 8 yards deep, and he got (the interception) from the outside. I’ve never seen a pick-six from the outside on a hitch pass, but that’s what happened that night.”
SEC's move to divisions created ‘the biggest game of the year’
The first several SEC Championship games were conducted before the dawn of the BCS era, and the game's winner usually advanced to the Sugar Bowl.
[ WANT MORE OPINIONS FROM BLAKE TOPPMEYER?: Subscribe to the SEC Unfiltered newsletter for an exclusive column every Friday ]
Spurrier’s teams appeared in the Sugar Bowl five times, and his 1996 Gators became national champions, but he always told his team that the SEC Championship was “the biggest game of the year.”
After the ’92 loss to Alabama, the Gators won the SEC Championship each of the next four years, including three triumphs over the Tide.
“They threw the ball better (than the rest of the SEC), and they were just better offensively,” Stallings said. “We could compete with them defensively, but I felt like Spurrier did a better job offensively than the rest of us.”
Spurrier won eight SEC East crowns – seven at Florida and one at South Carolina. He ranks second among SEC coaches all-time for division titles, trailing Nick Saban’s 14 times winning the SEC West.
The first two SEC Championship games were played at Legion Field in Birmingham before shifting in 1994 to Atlanta, where the game remains.
On this topic, Spurrier and Stallings diverge.
“I feel like the championship game should be played where the conference office was,” Stallings said. “Spurrier was opposed to that, because he felt like anytime we were doing something at Alabama, it was to our advantage and to his disadvantage.”
“We all know Alabama sort of tells the SEC what to do,” said Spurrier, who remains a maestro of quips even in retirement. “Finally, after two years, though, Commissioner Kramer said, ‘You know, I think it would be more fair if we played this in Atlanta.’”
Would eliminating divisions affect SEC rivalries?
Divisions diluted some rivalries while enhancing other matchups.
Florida and Auburn played 48 years in a row until schedule restructuring interrupted the series. The teams have met just four times since 2002, despite AU being the SEC school nearest to UF.
“That was our second-biggest SEC rival. Georgia, then Auburn,” Spurrier said.
While the SEC has not settled on an alignment or schedule structure for its expanded future, SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has consistently vowed that no teams will go as long between matchups as some interdivision foes do in the current structure.
Eliminating divisions would interrupt some rivalries from occurring on an annual basis but would make other matchups more frequent.
“There will always be rivalries,” Stallings said. “Now, it may not be the way we would exactly like them, but there’s going to be rivalries.”
The creation of divisions spawned, at least for a few years, an Alabama-Florida rivalry that decided the SEC’s champ.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.