Game over

As Auburn and Cam Newton found out last year, a conference title game can really pay off. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This story appears in the November 28, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

EVER SINCE THEN-SEC COMMISSIONER Roy Kramer added a showdown to the end of his conference's 1992 schedule, the merits of league title games have been hotly debated. Consider the debate over. It's almost impossible to look at college football's changing landscape without concluding the best route to the BCS title game runs through a conference championship.

Granted, Big 12 schools might not be so quick to agree with that assessment. In 1998, undefeated and top-ranked Kansas State was upset by Texas A&M in the conference title game. Big 12 teams' national championship hopes were similarly derailed in 2001 (Texas) and 2007 (Missouri).

But the SEC, home of the last five national champs, provides compelling evidence that one last marquee matchup is a title-game springboard more than it is a hurdle. Last year's conference championship game, when Auburn defeated South Carolina 56-17, not only locked the Tigers into the BCS title game, it secured more than $20 million for the SEC.

"It's a double-edged sword," says ESPN's BCS analyst, Brad Edwards. "It could help you and hurt you, but if there's no greater likelihood it's going to hurt you, then take those millions in revenue and put it in the bank."