The second of four documentaries set to air on ESPNU this year as part of the SEC Storied documentary series, “The Play That Changed College Football” is an intricate look at the first Southeastern Conference Championship Game played in 1992 between the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide (11-0) and No. 12 Florida Gators (8-3).
Directed by Jeff Cvitkovic and narrated by Luke Perry, the film is centered on the thesis that one game – and more specifically one play – “helped shape how conferences are constructed and championships are decided.”
When the SEC expanded to 12 teams (adding Arkansas and South Carolina) nearly two decades ago, then-commissioner Roy Kramer chose to format the conference into two six-team divisions and add a championship game that was previously unheard of in Division I college football.
The prevailing thought was that a SEC team would never win a national championship because even if one got through the regular season undefeated, the team could be canalized in the title game and ruin its chances at national glory. What Kramer saw, however, was not the risk but instead the rewards of increased exposure, television revenue and conference prestige.
“You had a chance to have a team play for the national championship. Now, all of a sudden if they lose this game, they’re gonna lose their shot at a national championship. I was concerned we had shot ourselves in the foot,” he admitted.
The former commissioner is honest and forthcoming when admitting that, while he may be considered a visionary now, he was one play away from potentially being a pariah. Luckily for him, the former came true and not the latter.
Read the rest of OGGOA’s review of ESPN’s latest documentary…after the break!
Florida entered the 1992 season as defending SEC regular season champions, and Alabama had a chip on its collective shoulders after being routed by UF 35-0 in Gainesville, FL just one year earlier. After going undefeated in the regular season, UA would have normally immediately gone to the Sugar Bowl to face Miami for the national title. Instead the Crimson Tide was forced to square off with the Gators for the conference title first.
Florida head coach Steve Spurrier (whose team was favored heading into the season) believed the game was a benefit for the second place squad, which had everything to gain and nothing to lose. As it turns out, Spurrier’s team wound up being in that position and had a chance to spoil Alabama’s 21-game winning streak and national title hopes.
“Divisions and a championship game? I didn’t know that was legal,” he joked.
Gators fans will see plenty of Spurrier as well as appearances from Gators quarterback Shane Matthews and running back Errict Rhett, while Crimson Tide faithful will be most concerned with hearing what cornerback Antonio Langham has to say.
Matthews, the back-to-back SEC Player of the Year who threw the faithful pass, is cast in the Bill Buckner-like role, while Thorpe Award winner Langham got to enjoy the glory associated with making a game-changing play before committing a serious mistake which partially impacted his legacy.
Cvitkovic does a masterful job setting up the game, storyboarding the critical aspects of the contest and looking at the “play that changed college football” from a number of angles. Not only is actual game footage used, but Cvitkovic also had Rhett bring a copy of Spurrier’s game plan to a filming session and used it to showcase how UF was able to find success early in the game.
Kramer, Langham, Matthews, Rhett and six more players all met on Legion Field in Birmingham, AL (the site of the game) to discuss the impact it and the one play in particular had on their lives and the sport of college football.
Watching the former players reenacting the plays together, one could tell how pained Matthews was by his mistake and how much Langham’s big play has impacted his life. It also delights the viewer to see how much these guys, years removed from the game, still enjoyed getting on a field and playing some football.
In the end, Cvitkovic’s contention that Langham’s interception “changed college football” is relatively sound. It legitimated the conference championship game as a non-obstacle to winning a national title, leading other conferences to eventually increase their size to 12 teams. He does a fine job tying in the SEC’s decision to add two teams and a conference championship in 1992 to the eventual creation of the BCS (by Kramer) and all of the realignment going on in the present day.
However, the film also falls short in a few areas.
Cvitkovic’s choice of Perry (an Ohioan) as narrator, while time period conscious, was not the best choice for a documentary about football in the south. His voice simply did not fit the topic and another choice such as a Billy Bob Thornton, for example, would have made the production even more authentic.
Additionally, while the premise is certainly legitimate, it is an assumption to say the game would have been a failure if Langham did not intercept Matthews. The SEC Championship would have still been a huge success from a financial and exposure standpoint, and the game itself was exciting and the perfect way to conclude a conference season.
Since its inception, only one SEC title game has cost a team (Tennessee) a shot at a national championship. Assuming that it would have been dropped all together if it happened the first time around in 1992 – considering how successful it was in other aspects – may be a bit of a reach.
All-in-all, like most ESPN films as of late, it is a must-watch and a great look into the history of the SEC and one of the reasons why the conference stands head and shoulders above the rest nationally.
“The Play That Changed College Football” airs Thursday, Dec. 1 at 11 p.m. on ESPNU with replays on ESPN and ESPN2 in the coming days and weeks.