Before we get to the Top SEC-Big Ten Game of the Last Decade, let's take a moment to run back through Nos. 2-10, as selected by Team Speed Kills and The Rivalry, Esq.
#2 -- Michigan v Alabama, 2000 Orange Bowl
#3 -- LSU v Illinois, 2002 Sugar Bowl
#4 -- Michigan v Florida, 2008 Capital One Bowl
#5 -- South Carolina v Ohio State, 2002 Outback Bowl
#6 -- Iowa v LSU, 2005 Capital One Bowl
#7 -- Georgia v Purdue, 2000 Outback Bowl
#8 -- Michigan State v Florida, 2000 Citrus Bowl
#9 -- Florida v Iowa, 2006 Outback Bowl
#10 -- Wisconsin v Arkansas, 2007 Capital One Bowl
And now, without further ado, the No. 1 game between the SEC and the Big Ten of the past decade is:
Florida v Ohio State, 2007 BCS National Championship Game
The game was so good, they made a movie about it.
Before we get started, a note about what I'm sure will be a controversial pick in some corners. We should point out that the first person to suggest that this game be included in the list was one of the Big Ten fans among us. And ranking this No. 1 will be defended fully at the end of the post, so read before you begin bashing away.
I. The Build Up: Florida Will Die in the Desert
Nobody gave the Florida Gators a chance of winning this game, at least in the initial rounds of commentary that started soon after the BCS selections were announced Dec. 3. After all, the Ohio St. Buckeyes had clobbered Texas, 24-7 in Austin; defeated every other team except Illinois and Michigan by at least three TDs; and held off the Wolverines in the most anticipated game of the year.
To many, Florida didn't belong, or at least not any more than Michigan. Several Wolverine-boosters noted that Big Blue had lost to Ohio State by a field goal -- conveniently omitting that no one who watched the game really thought the game was that close -- and had won every other game.
Meanwhile, Florida had excelled at winning tight games, sometimes in the most unlikely of circumstances. The fingertips of Jarvis Moss were all that stood between the Gators and a loss to South Carolina. Florida beat Tennessee by one and a subpar Georgia by a TD. Their loss? A 10-point defeat at the hands of Auburn, which would end the season ranked in the Top 10 but was not undefeated Ohio State.
Some took to calling the Michigan-Ohio State game "the true national championship," convinced that Ohio State's crowning in the official event in Glendale was a mere formality.
Sam, of SB Nation's Ohio State blog We Will Always Have Tempe, was among those anticipating an Ohio State blowout.
I remember all the hype building up to this game. This was prior to my days a latte sipping hippie writing a blog, so I was just a run-of-the-mill Buckeye fan who got his opinions from sports radio, the WWL, and the latest Scout and Rivals board argument. You know, a moron. Anyway, I expected us to blow out Florida. After all, they barely beat Vanderbilt!
Even Florida fans, like Year2, had doubts about whether their faith in the Gators, Urban Meyer and Chris Leak was well-placed.
I think I can speak for many Florida fans when I tell you that my heart said Florida would win, but my head had its doubts. We all knew that Ohio State hadn't played a defense like Florida's, but Florida hadn't played many offenses that were as good as OSU's regular season squad was.
Ohio State's vaunted offense, remember, included Heisman Trophy Winner Troy Smith. Florida's quarterback was Chris Leak. This did not inspire universal confidence among Gator fans.
Just before the game, if you were watching, you could sense something happening. The assembled experts began to hedge their bets a little bit, saying that the game might be "closer than the experts expect." (This was an odd statement for some of them, since they were the experts who had deemed Florida such a large underdog.)
Part of this was likely because Michigan's secondary was obliterated by Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl a week before Ohio State and Florida played in Glendale. Suddenly, the cachet of defeating Michigan through the air back in November was dropping.
So the stage was set: A win by Ohio State, either close or by a large margin. If Florida won, it would be in a tight game.
The one thing everyone could rule out was Florida winning in a rout. That just wasn't their style.
II. The Game: Following the Script, and Then ...
The first play seemed to confirm what everyone thought: Florida, there are some lovely parting gifts for you in the locker room. Ted Ginn caught the opening kickoff at the Ohio State 7 and didn't stop running until the Buckeyes were up 7-0.
Sam: When Ted Ginn took the opening kick-off back for a touchdown, I leapt out of my chair and yelled "OVER!" I didn't realize then how right I was.
Ohio State would score just once more in the game, on an 18-yard Antonio Pittman rush in the second quarter. Florida would score many, many times.
Year2: After Ted Ginn's opening kickoff return, my stomach sank. After the Gators responded by driving right back down the field and scoring, my heart leaped. When Florida stopped Ohio State on fourth down and scored 13 quick points in the final 3 minutes of the half, no one I was watching the game with could believe it all really happened.
Sam: It was obvious in the first couple series that Ohio State could not consistently protect Troy Smith or open holes for Antonio Pittman. With that, it was over. With no running game to speak of, Jarvis Moss and Derrick Harvey abused Ohio State tackles Alex Boone and Kirk Barton, and Ohio State couldn't get anything going. For the first time in my life, I turned off the game.
Florida led 34-14 at the half. Troy Smith, who had just weeks before been proclaimed the best player in the game, was under nearly constant pressure. But no Gator fan was too confident. After all, they still had Chris Leak.
Year 2: We were cautiously optimistic as halftime wore on, glad for the 20 point lead but scared of Bad Chris Leak. Good Chris Leak definitely played the first half, but Bad Chris Leak had a habit of showing up in the third quarter of games and nearly blowing them. He almost lost the SEC title game by himself (thank goodness for Percy Harvin).
A funny thing happened though. Bad Chris never showed up. The offense played it safe until Tim Tebow put it away for good early in the fourth quarter. And the defense. Oh my, did the defense come ready to play that day. It was by far the best they'd played all season. It was a game that made me feel good for some of the maligned guys on the team too, from Leak finally putting a full game together under Urban Meyer, to Chris "Mr. 4-13" Hetland nailing both his field goals, to converted receiver CB Reggie Lewis getting an interception.
Tim Tebow, just beginning to write his legend, would rush for a TD in the fourth quarter to bring the final score to 41-14. Had it not been for Boise State shocking Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl a week earlier in the same stadium, it might have been the most surprising game of the 2006-07 bowl season.
Leak was 25-of-36 for 213 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. Tebow threw for one score and rushed for another. Also scoring on the ground were DeShawn Wynn and Percy Harvin.
Smith imploded along with his offensive line, going 4-of-14 for 35 yards, a pick and a fumble. He was sacked five times, part of an abysmal performance by the Buckeyes front that ended with Ohio State netting just 47 yards on the ground, including Pittman's 62-yard performance.
III. The Fallout: ESS EEE SEE Speed and Its Discontents
Immediately, the experts began searching for the reasons they were so wrong. One excuse emerged from a theme that had been touched on before the game: Ohio State hadn't played football in 51 days, and somehow forgot how to. That Florida had gone 36 days since its last game was apparently irrelevant, so we must assume that the magic day on which you become "rusty" lies somewhere between 36 and 51.
But the other reason given for Ohio State's loss was the story that has since become a long-running theme of college football analysis with no signs of letting up: ESS EEE SEE SPEED!!!! This was not well received by Buckeye fans -- or fans of any other conference, for that matter.
Sam: The difference between the two teams in this game was not speed, and it was not athleticism. Ohio State had just as many athletes as Florida and a similar level of talent. ...
The national perception that the south has an iron grip on any and all "speed" and the north has a lockdown on slow, clunky, unathletic corn-fed Baby Hueys would rear its head once again as a result of this game's outcome. Anyone who watched would see that the only discernible speed difference was on the lines, and it's accepted fact that the SEC routinely churns out the best defensive linemen. This game, however, gave ESS EEE SEE fans a whole new bravado, in which their players were of a superior master race of athletes the likes of which simply are not seen in other conferences. While these people are generally seen for what they are (morons, like I was), it won't stop the media from repeating the meme every time a big game happens between a Big 10 and SEC team. You have this game to thank for that these days.
The SEC speed argument has been had over and over, but for knowledgeable fans of the conference, it has always been line speed that has defined the league's advantage. Yes, there are those who think that "SEC speed" means the conference's wide receivers and running backs can dash like cheetahs past the lumbering tortoises of the Big Ten. And that is the sense in which too many shallow commentators wield the term.
Wrong or not, though, the fact that the notion of SEC speed has lingered with us over three years shows the impact of this game. No one remembers that, a week before the clash in the desert, Wisconsin defeated Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl and Penn State largely shut down Tennessee's running game in the Outback Bowl to win 20-10.
When Ohio State badly lost the next national championship game to another SEC team, this one 38-24 to LSU in New Orleans, the theory of SEC speed was cemented in the national consciousness.
For Florida fans, the why of the 2007 game was not quite so important: They won. After the turmoil of the Zook Era, it seemed like the glory of the Spurrier years was finally returning.
Year2: It was the perfect game on the perfect night. I can't imagine asking for a better way to end a season.
Two years later, Florida would win its second national title under Urban Meyer, and now sets its sights on a third.
But the Gators should know better than anyone else how quickly assumed national championships can evaporate.