SEC Championship Game on the line in Iron Bowl

Two rings are the difference in Alabama’s two championships under head coach Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide won three in 2009, but just one in 2011.

Southeastern Conference division and league titles eluded last season’s team. Given the choice, any team would choose a national championship over a league championship. But a win against Auburn Saturday would send the Tide back to Atlanta, Ga., for the first time since 2009, and give it a chance to do something it couldn’t last year.

“Winning the national championship [in 2011] was great, but I’m sure there’s a little bit of an empty feeling when they look at that trophy case and see the SEC Championship trophy missing,” said Ralph Russo, college football writer for the Associated Press.

As college football grows larger and larger every year, conference championships have taken a backseat to the national championships and other BCS bowls that deliver large payouts to their participants.

But Saban is crafting his legacy at Alabama, and SEC championships are an integral part of the Tide’s history and tradition.

“SEC Championships aren’t something to look past,” safety Vinnie Sunseri said.

Former Alabama coaches Harold Drew, Bill Curry, Gene Stallings, Mike DuBose and Wallace each have one. Wade Wallace and Frank Thomas won four during their tenure. And of course, the legendary Paul “Bear” Bryant captured 13 during his career.

Saban is one third of the way to matching Bryant in national championships, but is still at least a decade away from his SEC championships. And at a school and conference that is at the top of the college football world, every title matters.

“When you’ve got a conference like the SEC that’s dominated college football – six consecutive national championships, going for its seventh. To be the champion of that league is pretty meaningful,” said Don Kausler, who covers Alabama football for al.com.

“If [Saban’s] really going to be recognized as one of the best coaches out there, conference championships matter,” he said

Alabama’s history in the SEC championship begins and ends with the Florida Gators. The Tide played Florida in the inaugural SEC Championship in 1992, which set the stage for conference championships across the country.

Defensive back Antonio Langham returned an interception for a touchdown with just over three minutes left to seal the Alabama win. ESPN produced a documentary about the play, dubbing it “The Play That Changed College Football” as it saved Alabama’s undefeated record and kept it in the national championship hunt.

Alabama met the Gators again in 1999 in the postseason, handling them 34-7. But the stakes weren’t nearly as high as they were for their next two meetings in 2008 and 2009.

Both years were de facto semifinals for the BCS national championship game. Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer were at the height of their reign and Alabama was on the rise under Saban. The two split the series and went on to win their respective national titles.

And the stakes for the SEC championship are just as high in 2012. Alabama and Georgia sit at nos. 2 and 3, respectively, in the BCS standings and the victor would surely clinch a spot in Miami for the national championship.

“If they don’t win it this year, they’re not getting in,” Russo said. “They got their second chance Saturday and it makes them the front-runners to get to the national championship game.

“There’s no leeway at this point.”

And standing in Alabama’s way are the Auburn Tigers, which is having a season that would no doubt be forever remembered as the year they knocked off Alabama if the Tigers prevailed.

But an Alabama win would give the Tide one ring and a shot to play for another.

“Everyone is aware of the fact that we can win the West,” Saban said. “They have an opportunity to play for the SEC Championship, which is always a goal. So I’m sure it’s on their mind. But I think the focus needs to be for us on what we need to do to play our best football. I think that will give us the best opportunity to accomplish all those goals.”