Picture Patrick DiMarco the first weekend of December sitting in front of a television set, alternately fascinated and muttering to himself about what might have been.
South Carolina's senior tight end always has watched the SEC Championship Game, he said, no matter how much it rubbed in the lingering disappointment of another fruitless league season.
"It kind of upsets you sometimes knowing we could be out there playing," DiMarco said.
Still, every year he found himself pulling up a chair. "It's must-see TV," he said.
Now, finally, the No. 18 Gamecocks have a part in the show. USC (9-3) takes on No. 2 Auburn (12-0) on Saturday at 4 p.m. in the school's first SEC Championship Game.
"Obviously, playing in this game is a little different feel because everyone's watching," Tigers head coach Gene Chizik said. "Everybody is watching you, and it's a neat feeling. Everybody else is out recruiting right now, and you're practicing."
It took USC 19 years to make the championship game. The game was established in 1992, the year the SEC added the Gamecocks and Arkansas and split into Eastern and Western divisions.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier was a vocal supporter of the divisional split and addition of a championship game at the time and celebrated its inception by taking his Florida Gators to the first five title games played. He made seven appearances in the championship game at Florida's coach and won five of them.
"We were fired up to get in that first one, and we were fired up to get in every one after that," Spurrier said. "That's my favorite game of the year."
It's also the favorite of the conference's accountants. The SEC earned $14.5 million last year from the game. The 2009 contest between Florida and Alabama was the highest-rated college football game on CBS in 19 years and the highest-rated non-bowl game on any network since 2006. This year, the conference accredited more than 500 media members to cover the game and turned away 200 more.
As for the stakes on the field, the winner of the SEC championship game has gone on to play for the BCS national title the past four seasons and will again if Auburn wins.
"It's a big-time atmosphere," Spurrier said. "I have been in two national championship games, but I can assure you that I rate the SEC Championship Game just a fingernail below the SEC Championship Games we were in. It's almost the exact same feeling."
Georgia coach Mark Richt knows the feeling of taking a long-suffering fan base to the SEC title game. He ended the Bulldogs' 20-year title drought in 2002, when his team beat Arkansas 30-3 in the game.
"The thing that I really enjoy about the Southeastern Conference is, if you win the league title, it doesn't matter if you are undefeated going into the game or if you are 8-3 going into the game, you did something special," Richt said. "Everybody's fans understand that in our conference, whether you are playing for the national championship or not, it is a special, special thing."
Houston Nutt coached the Razorbacks in that loss to Georgia and made the game again in 2006. When he took over as Mississippi's coach, he used those appearances to motivate his new team, he said.
"I told these guys when I first got here, 'You think the bowl is a great time, and it is, but let me tell you, the best environment is the championship game," he said. "The atmosphere, the fans, the exposure. It is very bowl-like, but I think it's almost times two. The magnitude of the media, the stage that you are on; it's just hard to explain how good that is."
After Saturday, there will be only three conference teams that haven't played in the game: Ole Miss, Kentucky and Vanderbilt still are looking for their first appearance. Auburn is making its fourth overall appearance and first since 2004, when Chizik was the Tigers' defensive coordinator. The Tigers are 1-2 in their previous appearances.
Florida head coach Urban Meyer, owner of two national championships, said the SEC title game is "like the Super Bowl." He first coached in the game in 2006.
"With all due respect to the national championship game, it's hard to say that there is any difference," Meyer said. "That's what makes getting that ring that says you are SEC champs that special."