A Trip Down Memory Lane
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This morning, as I was preparing for work, I heard on my local sports talk station Jay Barker and Antonio Langham – former Alabama Crimson Tide players – reminisce on the inaugural SEC Championship game of 1992. That game featured eventual national champion Alabama facing off against a tough Florida team. It also, for me, was an introduction to college football as a whole. But more than anything else that year marked the beginning of nearly two decades in what would become one of the most important and underrated rivalries in the Southeastern Conference. As the former players recalled the days of yore, I also found myself drifting back to that year…
It was 1992. I was a lad of but eight years old. For the first time, I was donning the pads of a football player for my first year of little league play. That was also the first season in which I saw Alabama play in person. In fact, circumstances beyond my understanding at the time ensured that I would ultimately have a ticket to each home game of the season. One Saturday after another, my mother and I would arrive at my field for morning games, then load up for the drive to Tuscaloosa, or in some cases, Legion Field. As December neared, the Crimson Tide climbed higher and higher in the rankings. After a 17-0 Iron Bowl win, the second ranked Tide started getting ready for the matchup with Florida.
As Jay and Antonio told the story, revenge was the flavor of the week. Going back to the beginning of the ’91 season, Alabama had lost only one game in two seasons. That game was a trip to Gainesville that left the Alabama on the losing end of a 35-0 beat down. No one on the team wanted to do that again. After the Iron Bowl, as they said, “If it weren’t for this conference championship game, we would be getting ready for Miami right now”. That’s true, but having that extra game at the end of the season gave Alabama just the experience it needed to take with them to New Orleans. It’s as though no one on that Alabama squad wanted to play the Gators again, but they needed to. They needed to exorcise the demons from the prior season. They needed to regain that hunger again. They needed the chance to prove something again.
When the game began, so did the rain. I sat freezing in the corner of the end zone, shivering and cheering. Hypothermia and pneumonia couldn’t stop me from screaming “Roll Tide!” at the top of my lungs every chance I got. As the game wound down, Antonio Langham intercepted Gator QB Shane Matthews and returned it for the game winning touchdown with just over three minutes remaining. Man, what a night.
Then I got to thinking about all the great games involving these two teams over the years. While both teams have rivals that they are continually embattled with – Alabama has Auburn, LSU and Tennessee while Florida has Georgia, Tennessee and Georgia – there’s something special about when the
stars schedules align and these two find themselves on the same field. Since the SEC expanded to twelve teams in 1992, the Tide and Gators have met a total of 12 times, and the teams are dead even at 6-6. The winner in five of those contests has gone on to win the national championship. Seven of those games have decided the SEC crown. Alabama has not played any team in the SEC Championship Game except for Florida. And over the years, it seems that when these teams aren’t playing for the conference crown, there are always some sort of high stakes. And these programs seem to be a barometer for each other. As one team is breaking in a new coach or offensive scheme, how they perform against the other often springboards the winner to greener pastures, while the losing team seems to take it just as personally as if they had lost to an in state rival.
Consider 1998, the first year these two teams met in the regular season. Alabama was still trying to find its way with second year coach Mike DuBose. They came into the game 2-1, and off of a 42-3 shellacking at Arkansas the week before. Florida was ranked eighth in the nation, yet won only 16-10. The following year, Bama came to The Swamp as the third ranked Gators were protecting their national best 30-game home winning streak. The #21 ranked Tide kicked the game winning field goal in overtime to win, and later in the SEC Championship game stole the show in a 34-7 trouncing that knocked Florida out of the national title picture for good.
In 2005, both teams were looking for an identity. Alabama, rising from the ashes of NCAA sanctions with their third year, but unproven, head coach Mike Shula, was in need of a signature win. Florida was fifth in the country under first year coach Urban Meyer. With the home crowd on their side, Bama hit the Gators right in the mouth on the first play of the game, an 80-yard touchdown pass. The Tide would go on to roll 31-3. The following year, the Gators repaid the favor, beating the Tide on their way to a national title.
In 2008, an incredible thing happened. By the time the SEC Championship Game rolled around, both Alabama and Florida found themselves ranked #1 and #2, respectively. For the first time, the SEC Championship had the top two teams in the country. As most know, Florida upset Alabama en route to their second national title in three years. The next year repeated the trend, only this time Florida was #1. The Tide turned as Alabama won on their way to their first national title since that magical ’92 season that started it all for me.
Last season, the Gators were humiliated in Meyer’s swan song as head coach. The Gators find themselves in a similar position Alabama was in all those years ago. A humiliating road trip. A chance for redemption. The Gators would love nothing more than to find their identity under first year coach Will Muschamp, while the Tide looks to supplant itself as a national contender with a strong road win. Whoever rises from the ashes will certainly find that they control their own destiny. As in times passed, there’s a good chance that the game tomorrow is only an appetizer for the showdown in Atlanta come December. The winner tomorrow may very well find itself holding the crystal football in January. But regardless of the outcome, the game will be great. They always are with these two teams. Soak it in. I know I will. This is what college football is about.
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