Every conference needs a showcase game. The showcase game for the sport’s biggest, baddest league has changed over the years, just like its best team has.
Often, these games determined which team would represent a respective division in the SEC title game. Sometimes, they went a long way in determining who would be in the national championship game.
For a long time, these pitted two traditional superpowers. At the moment, the top matchup is a little surprising, historically (it’s at 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS this Saturday), and that’s part of what makes it perfect. Let's see how we got to our current location.
Florida vs. Tennessee, circa 1995-2004
There was a time when the SEC’s season hadn’t really kicked off until these two hit the field. For a stretch of a little more than a decade, starting in the mid-1990s with Florida’s repeated beatings of Peyton Manning-led Vols teams, it was CBS’s season opener seemingly every year. Moments like Collins Cooper’s miss in UT’s national title season of 1998, the Gaffney catch, and Dallas Baker’s slap were indelible images.
Tennessee got bad, starting with its 5-7 2005, the beginning of the end for Phil Fulmer. Florida got bad too (two words: Will Muschamp).
Now both are crawling back to national prominence, but as that game’s significance fell off in the mid-2000s, it was replaced by another.
LSU vs. Auburn, 2004-2007
When the Tigers met the Tigers in in the mid-aughts, we all won, kinda. In Nick Saban’s final season of 2004, his defending national champion LSU team waltzed onto the Plains and left empty-handed. In true Saban fashion, it was a kicker that did him in. Ryan Gaudet missed an extra point in the second quarter and LSU fell, 10-9. Auburn would finish with a 13-0 record, culminating in the team not getting a crack at the national championship, because BCS.
In 2005, Kenny Irons told the camera he was going to rush for 200 yards because the game was on ESPN. Then he went and did the damn thing. His 218 yards weren’t enough, and the loss (fairly or unfairly) again fell on the shoulders of a kicker. John Vaughn missed a 49-yarder at the end of regulation with a chance to win, then missed a 40-yarder in overtime. LSU won, 20-17, which eventually served as the SEC West tiebreaker.
In 2006, with 153 yards of total offense, Auburn again got the better of their SEC West foes. It’s an SEC game, so we pretend the 7-3 result was an epic defensive struggle involving 12 punts and a lot of #grittiness. If LSU could have pulled it out, the Bayou Bengals would have owned a tiebreaker over Arkansas and played in the Big Ten, err, SEC Championship, rematching eventual national champion Florida.
2007 needs no introduction.
Of course LSU capped off the crazy season as a two-loss national champion instead of losing three games and finishing second in the West, like Auburn did.
Florida vs. Alabama, 2008-2009
These two met in consecutive No. 1-vs.-No. 2 SEC Championships that were essentially the College Football Playoff before the Playoff was an official thing.
In 2008, the Gators scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to put the Tide away en route to UF’s second national championship in three season.
In 2009, Alabama got revenge. As the ancient Chinese Proverb reads: Tebow cried, Roll Tide.
LSU-Alabama and/or the Iron Bowl, 2010-2013
As Alabama rose to power, the Crimson Tide went back and forth with both LSU and Auburn.
In 2010, Cam Newton took the world by storm, but on the regular season’s last weekend, Bama almost stopped the party. Up 21-0 in the second quarter, Mark Ingram fumbled for the first time that season and the third time in his career. He was on his way into the red zone in a game the Tide had been bossing. The rest is history. Auburn came back to win 28-27, Newton snagged the Heisman, and Auburn became national champions.
Then that guy poisoned the oaks at Toomer’s Corner, vaulting Paul Finebaum and his, uhh, colorful cast of callers into national stardom, taking the rivalry to yet another level. The next year, a 30 for 30 appeared. But while the off-field aspect of the rivalry exploded, Alabama dominated the on-field portion in 2011 and 2012, winning the Iron Bowl by a combined score of 91-14.
LSU filled the void with a victory in 2011’s 9-6 Game of the Century. Again, kickers did ol’ Nick in; LSU’s went 3 of 3, Alabama’s combined to go 2 of 6. That result was so inconclusive that the people, or at least some of them, demanded a rematch for the national championship. That game was far more definitive, as Bama mashed LSU, 21-0, in the Superdome. The next season, Alabama got the better of the Bayou Bengals, 21-17, on the way to another national championship. Those became part of five straight wins over LSU for the Tide.
But in 2014, the Iron Bowl took over as a de facto national quarterfinal, and Saban just had to have that one second put back on the clock.
But Gus Malzahn’s Auburn hasn’t been the same since that season. Someone else had to challenge Alabama.
That brings us to ...
Ole Miss vs. Alabama, 2014-present day
The current Crimson Tide iteration isn’t just good or elite. Alabama is simply inevitable. That is a category of excellence all on its own; please don’t get it twisted. But when someone beats inevitability, it makes it all the more special. When you tempt fate and win, we notice. Picture fate here as a team with superior talent at every position at nearly all times — besides quarterback — coached by one of the best to ever pace a sideline. Your fate is to lose, and often, you don’t have much say in how it goes down. You stand in the way, and you are nail to that rammer jammer yellow hammer.
If anything screams inevitability, it is Alabama beating Ole Miss. The historical dichotomy is this: Ole Miss loses. A lot. Before 2014, the Crimson Tide boasted a staggering 48-9-2 record against the Rebels. Bama claims to have won more national championships than Ole Miss claims regular season wins over Bama. In the 19 seasons briefly discussed in this story so far, Ole Miss finished ranked just five times.
Until Hugh Freeze arrived, Ole Miss’ program was futility upon futility (with a short break for Eli Manning) since essentially the time they let black people play in the conference. The Rebels chased the ghosts of glory past, while the Crimson Tide dominated the present. The phrase "we may lose the game, but we’ll never lose the party," plastered all around The Grove is funny, but it’s part defense mechanism.
But then Freeze came back home, stocked the starting 22 with a comparable level of talent to Bama’s, and beat Saban’s bunch, twice. He does something other teams don’t: He mixes a bit of luck with a whole lot of internal fortitude. Freeze & Co. will call a game that is in no way conservative, and it’s worked against Bama.
Ole Miss-Alabama is appointment television in Week 3, because that Crimson Tide has met a sandbar in each of the last two seasons. I love the matchup not simply because Alabama is threatened, but because of what it takes to beat them. It takes near-acts of God to beat Alabama in the regular season. Ingram has to fumble going out the back of the end zone, or you need a Kick Six. You have to get Bo Wallace to not go full Dr. Bo, for 60 minutes.
That is what it takes to knock down a leviathan.
Ole Miss isn’t supposed to win the game this year. Historically, they aren’t supposed to beat Alabama. The last two years they weren’t supposed to beat Alabama. But Ole Miss has done it two years in a row despite history and conventional wisdom. I’m excited to see if they can do it again.