When Deshaun Watson threw a championship-winning touchdown pass to Hunter Renfrow with one second left to lift Clemson over Alabama in January, one big question was impossible to avoid: Did we just witness the best college football game ever?
We're not content with merely deciding who's No. 1. After ranking the top 100 college football coaches ever last summer, it's time to rank the best 100 games in the 148-year history of the sport. We have done this through months of research that included watching 139 full old games (through the magic of YouTube), watching highlights of countless more games and sorting through hundreds upon hundreds of recaps and clips. Sources that were particularly valuable included 50 Years of College Football (by Bob Boyles and Paul Guido), the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia, Sports-Reference.com, Newspapers.com and the Sports Illustrated Vault.
For a game to be considered, it had to include most or all of the following attributes: 1) close final score; 2) some sort of broader importance; 3) a good ending; and/or 4) unique qualities. There are lots of multi-overtime games. There have been lots of Hail Marys. There are great college football games every Saturday, every year. One hundred is a very small number in this exercise, leading to hundreds of worthy snubs. Tough cuts had to be made, and the biggest question that had to be asked for most games was: Did this mean something in a broader sense beyond just being a good football game?
Note that, with some unavoidable exceptions, we tried to limit specific team seasons to one or two games; specific matchup pairings to two or three games; and specific overall seasons to three or four games. We wanted to find the best or most memorable representations of certain types of games. We didn't want the seventh-biggest comeback or the fifth-best Iron Bowl or the sixth-best game from a recent season. In a handful of cases, we paired two inseparable or similar games together as one entry.
This series ran in four installments of 25. This is Part III, covering games 50-26.
Part III: 50-26
50. Notre Dame 12, Army 6
Nov. 10, 1928; New York, N.Y.
It's a game made famous because of a U.S. president acting in a 1940 movie. In 1928, Notre Dame had its worst season under Knute Rockne, going 5-4. It's the only time in 13 seasons that he lost more than two games. Despite the struggles of the Fighting Irish, they came from behind to win one for the Gipper and end Army's unbeaten run at Yankee Stadium. There was no score after two quarters, when Rockne supposedly (the story is almost certainly, at minimum, exaggerated) gave the most famous motivational speech in sports history, telling his team about a dying request of former Notre Dame star George Gipp, who died in 1920 at age 25, encouraging Rockne at his hospital bedside to use his story as motivation one day, to tell his team to dig deep and "win just one for the Gipper." The speech was dramatized in the 1940 movie "Knute Rockne: All-American," in which Ronald Reagan played the role of Gipp. On the field, Notre Dame then fell behind 6-0 in the second half before mounting a comeback. The Irish scored one TD to even the score, and Johnny O'Brien came off the bench in the fourth quarter to catch the go-ahead 35-yard TD from Johnny Niemiec late in the game. Army went on a drive to try to tie or win, but the final whistle blew with the Cadets just shy of the goal line, and Notre Dame's upset win would go on to be immortalized.
49. Stanford 24, USC 23
Oct. 6, 2007; Los Angeles, Calif.
The 2007 college football season is remembered for an endless list of bizarre happenings that made it the most chaotic season ever. Given that Appalachian State beat Michigan to start the year, and given that Stanford has developed into a national power now, it's easy to forget just how seismic the Cardinal's upset of USC was. USC was still the most powerful program in college football, ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll. Stanford, under new head coach Jim Harbaugh, was coming off a 1-11 season and had been destroyed by three ranked teams in the first month of the season. It all made Stanford a 41-point underdog for its visit to the Coliseum. Stanford trailed 9-0 at halftime, but it forced five turnovers, including a pick-six early in the third quarter. A Stanford field goal cut USC's lead to 23-17 with 5:43 left. On third-and-19, John David Booty was intercepted by Wopamo Osaisai, giving Stanford the ball at the USC 45 with 2:50 to play.
Tavita Pritchard -- who completed only 11 of 30 passes in the game -- led the Cardinal downfield, but they faced fourth-and-20 at the 29. Pritchard completed the pass for 20 yards to Richard Sherman to move the chains. On fourth-and-goal at the 10, Pritchard threw a jump ball into the end zone, and Mark Bradford went up and caught it for the touchdown. A PAT and one last Booty interception finished the enormous upset that marked the start of Stanford's national climb.
48. Carlisle 23, Harvard 15
Nov. 9, 1907; Boston, Mass.
Carlisle 18, Harvard 15
Nov. 11, 1911; Boston, Mass.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, under the coaching of Pop Warner in his first season back after three years at Cornell, took college football by storm in 1907, showcasing a mastery of the passing game in its infant stages in the second season of its legalization. That season, Carlisle went 10-1, losing only to Princeton, and it earned its highly anticipated first win over Harvard. Led by Frank Mount Pleasant, Carlisle stunned the Harvard faithful with its passing expertise. It led 12-10 at halftime, and early in the third quarter, according to the New York Tribune, Mount Peasant made the play of the game with a 75-yard touchdown on a punt return. Harvard scored twice after Carlisle fumbles in its own territory, but otherwise the Crimson -- who had started the season 7-0 and went 10-1 the year before -- could not match the creativity and speed of Carlisle, which also had a young Jim Thorpe.
Four years later, in 1911, Carlisle beat Harvard 18-15 behind a legendary performance by Thorpe, who by then was emerging as one of the greatest athletes in history. Harvard started its reserves, hoping to spring its fresh first-teamers on a tired Carlisle later in the game. It didn't work. Thorpe kicked four field goals that day. Twenty years later, according to Allison Danzig's "History of American Football," Warner looked back in awe at the performance, saying, "Jim Thorpe, bandaged from head to foot, kicked four field goals, and his battered, crippled mates, in as fine an exhibition of sheer grit as I have ever seen, not only beat back the rushes of the eleven fresh men but swept them down the field."
47. Auburn 22, Oregon 19
Jan. 10, 2010; Glendale, Ariz.; BCS National Championship
It couldn't help but feel like a letdown. After the long layoff, Oregon's fast-paced No. 1 scoring offense and Auburn's dominant offense led by Heisman winner Cam Newton were sloppy early. With a national championship shootout expected, the game's first six possessions featured three punts and three interceptions. Things finally heated up in the second quarter to allow Auburn to lead 16-11 at halftime (the quarter included and Oregon two-point conversion and an Auburn safety), before a 29-minute stretch in which only three points were scored. After Newton lost a fumble, Oregon had the ball at the Tigers' 40. It took eight plays to score, with LaMichael James' two-yard shovel pass TD coming with 2:33 left. Oregon needed two to tie, and Darron Thomas found Jeff Maehl for the conversion.
Auburn responded with the bizarre signature play of the game: On second down at the 40, Newton handed to Michael Dyer, who ran right and was spun down at the 46. Or so everybody thought. Dyer got up, then realized he had been on top of the defender, never officially being whistled down. Amid the confusion, Dyer took off running, gaining 37 yards to the Oregon 23. A 16-yard Dyer run got Auburn near the goal line, and with no time left, Wes Byrum made the national title-winning field goal, "for all the Tostitos."
46. LSU 7, Ole Miss 3
Oct. 31, 1959; Baton Rouge, La.
LSU had won the previous national championship, and it had the Heisman Trophy winner in Billy Cannon. While it would squander its hopes for back-to-back national titles with a loss to Tennessee the next game, LSU got the most famous play in school history and ruined the title chances of its rivals from Oxford on Halloween night in Death Valley. LSU was No. 1, having allowed a total of six points in six games. Ole Miss was No. 3, having allowed only seven points in six games. The Rebels took an early 3-0 lead after a fumble, and they nursed the lead for much of the game as the Tigers struggled to avoid mistakes, even choosing to punt on a few first downs to maintain a field-position edge.
From his own 42-yard line with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Jake Gibbs sent a punt downfield that bounced to Cannon at the 11. Cannon juked through traffic, shed a tackler, shed another tackler and raced past the defense into the open field for an 89-yard touchdown. Now needing to score, Ole Miss drove down the field all the way to the two, but Doug Elmore was stopped at the one-yard line with 48 seconds left. Its unbeaten season spoiled, Ole Miss got revenge with a 21-0 win over LSU in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl and is credited as national champion by several ratings systems, but that couldn't erase the fact that the 1959 season will always be remembered first and foremost for Cannon's punt return.
45. Florida State 18, Nebraska 16
Jan. 1, 1994; Miami, Fla.; Orange Bowl
Nebraska coach Tom Osborne entered the 1994 Orange Bowl with a 1-5 record in the Orange Bowl, including the heartbreaking missed two-point conversion that cost the Cornhuskers the 1983 national championship. A decade later, Nebraska was back in Miami trying to win the title against Florida State at the end of a chaotic season. Florida State was ranked No. 1 by the AP poll and No. 3 by the coaches, with a loss to one-loss Notre Dame. Nebraska was ranked No. 2 by the AP and No. 1 by the coaches with a perfect record. Ten seasons after a Nebraska loss gave Miami its first title, a Nebraska loss gave Bobby Bowden and Florida State their first title, too. The heartbreak tone was set early with a 71-yard punt return TD wiped out by a penalty. Nebraska got a dominant performance from linebacker Trev Alberts and touchdowns from Lawrence Phillips and Reggie Baul, but after a two-point conversion failed, it trailed 15-13. Tommie Frazier led a go-ahead drive capped by a 27-yard field goal with 1:16 left. It was only the beginning of what turned out to be a bizarre ending.
Heisman winner Charlie Ward led a FSU drive aided by a Nebraska late hit and pass interference to set up Scott Bentley's 22-yard field goal with 21 seconds left to put the Seminoles ahead. A celebration penalty helped Nebraska with field position, and a completion to Trumane Bell got Nebraska to the 28-yard line as the clock ran out. A Florida State celebration began, including a Gatorade bucket dumped on Bowden, but officials ruled that there was a second left, and Nebraska called timeout. The field cleared after a delay, and Byron Bennett trotted out for a 45-yard field goal attempt with the national title on the line. He hooked it left, no good, and the Seminoles celebrated their first national championship … despite previously losing to a fellow 11-1 team, Notre Dame, which would finish second.
44. Alabama 20, Washington 19
Jan. 1, 1926; Pasadena, Calif.; Rose Bowl
The 12th Rose Bowl Game proved to be as meaningful as any in terms of the big picture, leading it to be known as the Game That Changed The South, an Alabama victory that helped shift the perception of southern football to allow it to be taken more seriously nationally. Washington was experiencing a run of success under Enoch Bagshaw, and it took a 10-0-1 record into Pasadena to meet Wallace Wade and 9-0 Alabama, the first southern team to play in the Rose Bowl. Led by George Wilson, the Huskies dominated early, jumping out to a 12-0 halftime lead. After Wilson was sidelined with an injury, Alabama emerged with an all-time great performance in the third quarter. The Crimson Tide scored on a one-yard Pooley Hubert run; then, Johnny Mack Brown caught touchdown passes of 30 and 59 yards to put Alabama ahead. Wilson returned in the fourth quarter and threw a 27-yard TD, but Alabama's PAT advantage held, and the Crimson Tide claimed their first national championship.
43. Chicago 2, Michigan 0
Nov. 30, 1905; Chicago, Ill.
The 1905 Chicago-Michigan showdown marked the end of an area. That year proved to be a particularly violent one for the sport, resulting in a safety crisis that threatened the future of football. It led to rule changes that included the legalization of the forward pass beginning in 1906. First, however, the pre-passing era ended with an enormous matchup between the two western powers: Amos Alonzo Stagg's Chicago Maroons and Fielding Yost's point-a-minute Michigan Wolverines. Yost was 55-0-1 in five seasons leading up to the Chicago game, out-scoring opponents 2,821 to 40. Michigan had not allowed a point in 12 games in 1905. Under Stagg, Chicago was 10-0 in 1905, out-scoring opponents 269-5 that season. Thus, their Thanksgiving clash at Marshall Field was the game of the year and would decide the national championship.
Michigan seemingly couldn't be stopped and Chicago had the nation's best player in Walter Eckersall, but the game remained scoreless most of the way. In the fourth quarter, Eckersall punted toward the end zone. Michigan's Denny Clark fielded it and did not down it. Instead, he tried to make a play, breaking a tackle before being pushed back into the end zone by two defenders for a safety. "Chicago's stands nearly fell down in amazement mingled with unheard of joy," wrote the Chicago Tribune. Chicago held on to win, celebrating a national championship and the end of the point-a-minute era in Ann Arbor.
42. USC 42, Wisconsin 37
Jan. 1, 1963; Pasadena, Calif.; Rose Bowl
The greatest comeback that wasn't, in the first-ever bowl matchup of teams ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the AP poll (and the first of those games in general not involving Army and/or Notre Dame). Trailing 42-14 in the fourth quarter, the No. 2 Badgers staged a breathtaking rally against the No. 1 Trojans, led by the incredible-for-the-era 401 passing yards from quarterback Ron Vander Kelen, who completed 33 of 48 attempts. No other quarterback passed for even 300 yards in a Rose Bowl again until 1986. After a USC TD with 14:54 left in the game, Wisconsin scored the game's final 23 points on three touchdowns and a safety. Vander Kelen's 19-yard TD pass to Pat Richter (11 catches for 123 yards) cut the lead to five with 1:19 to play, but USC recovered the onside kick and successfully shut the door on the wild comeback as darkness set in over the Rose Bowl in a game that "lasted only slightly less long than the War of 1812," as Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote.
41. Miami 17, Florida State 16
Nov. 16, 1991; Tallahassee, Fla.
The storied past few decades of the Florida State-Miami rivalry are packed with easily identifiable games, even though there have been so many classics, often with high stakes. There's Wide Right II. There's Wide Right III. There's Wide Left. None of those can match the original: Wide Right I, 1991, a missed kick that would propel Miami to another national championship. The game was later than usual, Nov. 16. Florida State was 10-0 and ranked No. 1. Miami was 8-0 and ranked No. 2. Florida State led 10-7 at halftime thanks to a fourth-down TD by Paul Moore and a blocked field goal, and the Noles extended that to 16-7 early in the fourth quarter. It was a game of missed opportunities, though, as those field goals covered 20, 25 and 31 yards.
Miami answered with a field goal, and after blowing its own chances all game, it had the ball in the red zone, down six. On fourth-and-six at the 13, Gino Torretta completed a pass to Horace Copeland to convert, setting up Larry Jones' go-ahead score with 3:01 left. In the final minute, a Miami pass interference penalty put Florida State in field goal range. Gerry Thomas lined up for a 34-yard kick, and it sailed just barely wide right, starting a long-running trend of Miami-FSU games coming down to kicking miscues. A month and a half later, Miami crushed Nebraska for a share of the national title.
40. Georgia 26, Florida 21
Nov. 8, 1980; Jacksonville, Fla.
The national championship game is the defining moment for every team that wins a title, but in retrospect, it's not always the most important result or best win. Georgia beat Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl behind freshman running back Herschel Walker to win the title on New Year's Day despite completing only one pass in an ugly 17-10 win. Its best win came two months earlier against its hated rival in the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville. Georgia was 9-0 and No. 2. Florida was 6-1 and No. 20, despite going winless in 1979. A 72-yard TD run by Walker put Georgia up first, and it led 14-10 at halftime.
A big play by Tyrone Young set up Florida's go-ahead field goal, 21-20, with 6:52 left. After the teams each punted, Georgia had the ball at its own seven-yard line on third down. Walker rushed for 238 yards that day, but what happened next would top him: Buck Belue dropped back into the end zone, avoided a pass rusher, pointed to Lindsay Scott and completed a pass to him at the 26-yard line. Scott quickly turned upfield and outran the Florida defense, all the way for a 93-yard touchdown for the lead with a minute left, sending Georgia on its way to the best season in school history.
39. Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma 0
Nov. 16, 1957; Norman, Okla.
When Notre Dame, fresh off back-to-back double-digit losses, visited Oklahoma on Nov. 16, 1957, the Sooners -- actually ranked No. 2 in the AP poll -- had not lost a game since Sept. 26, 1953, a season-opening defeat at the Fighting Irish. Oklahoma tied Pitt the next week, then began the greatest streak in college football history. The Sooners went undefeated three straight seasons, with no ties. They brought a 47-game winning streak into the '57 game against Notre Dame. The Sports Illustrated cover that week read, "Why Oklahoma Is Unbeatable." All streaks end, though, and Bud Wilkinson's Sooners finally met their match.
It was a game of missed opportunities for both teams, with defenses bending but not breaking, and it remained scoreless into the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame got the ball at its own 20. The Irish proceeded on a 20-play, 80-yard drive that took most of the final period. Facing fourth-and-goal at the three, Dick Lynch took a pitch from Bob Williams and crossed the goal line for the touchdown with 3:50 left. The streak ended with a final Notre Dame interception in the end zone.
38. USC 18, Ohio State 17
Jan. 1, 1975; Pasadena, Calif.; Rose Bowl
From the 1972 season through 1979, six of eight Rose Bowls featured USC playing either Ohio State or Michigan. The Trojans won five of those games. The 1975 game ('74 season) marked the third straight meeting between the Trojans and Buckeyes in Pasadena. USC won 42-17 in the first. Ohio State won 42-21 in the second. This time, a national title ended up being on the line. AP No. 1 Oklahoma was on probation and ineligible for the UPI title. UPI No. 1 Alabama would lose to Notre Dame, allowing No. 4 USC to vault over Michigan and Ohio State to a share of the title with a win. USC had lost its opener to Arkansas but won the rest of its games. Ohio State, in Archie Griffin's first Heisman season, was upset by Michigan State in November.
The two staged a classic to make up for the previous two forgettable contests, with a Pat Haden TD pass putting USC ahead 10-7 early in the fourth. Ohio State responded with a drive led by Griffin and Cornelius Greene, whose three-yard TD put OSU back ahead, and the Buckeyes added a field goal to make the margin seven. Haden directed the Trojans on an 84-yard drive, ending with a 38-yard touchdown pass to John McKay Jr., the son of the legendary coach, with two minutes left. USC went for two and the lead, and Haden rolled right and, just before a hit, tossed a pass to a diving Shelton Diggs for the conversion. Ohio State went on to miss a 58-yard field goal, giving the elder McKay his fourth and final national championship.
37. Florida 32, Florida State 29
Nov. 22, 1997; Gainesville, Fla.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the Florida State-Miami ruled the state and, really, all of college football. Steve Spurrier ensured that Florida State-Florida's end-of-season battles moved to the forefront, with 13 matchups in 11 seasons, all of which featured both teams ranked in the AP top 10. Perhaps the peak was 1996, when No. 2 Florida State beat No. 1 Florida 24-21, only for Florida to demolish the Noles, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. In 1997, Florida again ruined FSU's title hopes in the rivalry's best game. With Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel gone, the No. 10 Gators had lost twice when they welcomed No. 2 Florida State to the Swamp, and Spurrier seemingly couldn't go a play without switching QBs. The teams fought at midfield before the game, and Florida quickly took the lead after a fourth-down reverse pass from Jacquez Green to Doug Johnson. The Gators led 18-17 after a wild first half.
Fred Taylor and Travis Minor exchanged big TD runs. Florida State took a 29-25 lead on Sebastian Janikowski's third field goal with 2:38 left, setting up a classic Florida drive. On the first play, Johnson threw downfield to Green, who made the catch and followed with a big run for 63 yards on a play that Spurrier reportedly drew up on the sideline. Taylor carried inside the five on a draw. With 1:50 left, Taylor crashed into the end zone for the go-ahead points, and Florida clinched the game with an interception, marking the second time in the same calendar year that it prevented FSU from winning a national title.
36. USC 52, Penn State 49
Jan. 2, 2017; Pasadena, Calif.; Rose Bowl
It's amazing that this game even happened at all. When the calendar flipped to October, the Trojans and Nittany Lions had a combined record of 3-5. But USC snapped out of its funk behind new quarterback Sam Darnold, winning eight in a row to get to Pasadena. Penn State evolved into a big-play offense behind QB Trace McSorley and RB Saquon Barkley and used a blocked field goal return for a TD to beat Ohio State as a springboard to nine straight wins and the Big Ten championship. The two hottest teams in the country proceeded to put on a show in the most thrilling non-national-championship Rose Bowl ever.
After an ugly start to the game, Penn State went on one of the most absurd runs you'll ever see, scoring touchdowns on seven straight possessions. At one point, that included a TD on four straight offensive plays: an 11-yard pass to Mike Gesicki late in the second quarter, a breathtaking 79-yard run by Saquon Barkley early in the third, a 72-yard pass tipped to Chris Godwin and a three-yard McSorley run after a 24-yard Brandon Bell interception return. Penn State led 49-35 after three quarters, but then Darnold, the star redshirt freshman, took over the game, throwing for 453 yards and five TDs, including a brilliant 27-yard strike to Deontay Burnett to tie with 1:20 left. Three plays later, Leon McQuay intercepted McSorley and returned it 32 yards to set up Matt Boermeester's 46-yard field goal as time expired, giving USC a roller-coaster win in an all-time classic Rose Bowl.
35. Colorado 33, Missouri 31
Oct. 6, 1990; Columbia, Mo.
Can a game be considered truly great when the result happened only because of the worst officiating blunder in football history? Yes, when it also leads to the winning team claiming a national championship. Colorado had lost the national title in the Orange Bowl the year before, and it was 3-1-1 and ranked No. 12 when it visited Missouri (which finished 4-7), with no margin for error. The game was close throughout, with Colorado taking the lead early in the fourth on a 70-yard TD pass from Charles Johnson to Mike Pritchard. The teams traded field goals, and with 2:32 left, Missouri took a 31-27 lead on a 38-yard screen pass to Damon Mays. Colorado had 2:24 to score a TD from its own 12. It got a first down at the five-yard line with 31 seconds left and spiked it. Eric Bieniemy was stopped at the one.
On what should have been third down, Bieniemy was stuffed again. The clock was briefly stopped as bodies had to be untangled from the pile, and when it started running, Colorado spiked the ball with two seconds left, which should have resulted in a turnover on downs. At one point, the chain crew had not flipped its down marker -- on top of the chaos of the game, a fan who was having a heart attack was being treated on the track behind them -- and the referees lost track of the downs, too. On a fifth down, Johnson kept it and made it into the end zone by an inch for the win with no time left. Missouri fans stormed the field amid the confusion. Officials soon realized the down mistake, but after a long delay, the players were called back onto the field … merely for Colorado to kick the extra point. Colorado took a knee and walked off with the win. The result was not reversed, and despite owning what should have been a 10-2-1 record (but was really 11-1-1), Colorado won out to split the national title with Georgia Tech.
34. Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Nov. 16, 2013; Auburn, Ala.
What happened at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 16, 2013, felt like a once-in-a-lifetime game-winning play that could not be topped. And then Auburn topped it to beat Alabama two weeks later. The Kick Six will always be more famous, but the Prayer at Jordan-Hare capped a phenomenal rivalry showdown with Georgia that kept Auburn in the national title hunt in the first place. Auburn took a 37-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, but Georgia stormed back with two Aaron Murray TD passes. After an Auburn three-and-out, Georgia drove 50 yards to the Auburn five, where it faced fourth-and-goal with 1:56 left. Murray dropped back to pass, then pulled the ball down and ran up the middle, diving for the end zone as he was met at the goal line. Officials called it a touchdown, which, despite plenty of debate, instant replay upheld.
Trailing by one, Auburn went nowhere and faced fourth-and-18 at its own 27 with just 36 seconds left. What happened next could only be trumped by a play like the Kick Six. Nick Marshall floated a deep pass for Ricardo Louis in double coverage. Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons converged on the ball, which was tipped forward to Louis, who gathered the ball and coasted into the end zone for the improbable 73-yard winning score.
33. USC 34, Notre Dame 31
Oct. 15, 2005; South Bend, Ind.
Nothing inspires more hype and attention in college football than a resurgent Notre Dame trying to return to glory. The Fighting Irish had lost to Michigan State a few weeks earlier, but in Charlie Weis' first season, they climbed to No. 9 when No. 1 USC visited South Bend in mid-October, making this a highly anticipated game that would prove to be the signature event of one of the craziest days in college football history. (Among other things, in the same time slot Michigan beat undefeated Penn State on the final play.) Notre Dame led 21-14 after a first half that included a 36-yard TD run by USC Heisman winner Reggie Bush and a 59-yard punt return TD by Irish safety Tom Zbikowski. After a missed Irish field goal, Bush put the Trojans ahead 28-24 with 5:09 left. Notre Dame responded with an eight-play, 87-yard drive, ending with Brady Quinn's five-yard TD run for a three-point lead with 2:04 on the clock.
With Bush and fellow Heisman winner Matt Leinart, USC initially stalled and faced fourth-and-nine at its own 26. Leinart threw down the sideline to Dwayne Jarrett, who beat the cornerback and raced for a 64-yard fourth-down conversion, all the way to the 13. Bush picked up a first down to the three, and Leinart then rolled left and took off running, aiming for the pylon, but he was hit and the ball flew out of bounds short of the goal line with seven seconds left. Leinart took the next snap and kept it himself. He was stood up in a crowd before Bush infamously gave him a push into the end zone for the winning points and the signature win of another undefeated USC regular season.
32. Texas A&M 36, Kansas State 33
Dec. 5, 1998; St. Louis, Mo.; Big 12 Championship
Miami 49, UCLA 45
Dec. 5, 1998; Miami, Fla.
They are two games forever linked together, two teams ruining their national championship chances on the final Saturday of the regular season in the debut year of the BCS. Entering Dec. 5, Tennessee was ranked No. 1, with UCLA second and Kansas State third, all undefeated. Florida State was No. 4, 11-1. There were five games that day, three involving title contenders: Tennessee beat Mississippi State in the SEC title game to clinch its BCS spot. Kansas State had to beat Texas A&M in the Big 12 title game. And UCLA had to visit 8-3 Miami in a game rescheduled from Sept. 26 because of a hurricane threat. UCLA's game began first, and despite a productive afternoon from Edgerrin James (who rushed for 299 yards), the Bruins led 38-21 late in the third quarter. But Miami quickly scored a TD, then recovered a fumble and got a 71-yard TD from Santana Moss. The teams traded touchdowns to put UCLA up 45-42 with 6:08 left. Miami recovered a fumble at its own 26, and with 50 seconds left, James scored the winning touchdown for Miami.
That put Kansas State in the BCS driver's seat. The Wildcats went up 17-3 in the second quarter on a 66-yard TD when Darnell McDonald, and an early celebration began when the announcement was made that UCLA had won. The Wildcats led by as many as 15 in the second half, but after a Kansas State fumble, Texas A&M tied the game with a Sirr Parker TD and two-pointer with 1:05 left. Michael Bishop actually completed a Hail Mary on the final play of regulation, but it was a yard short of the end zone, forcing OT. Both teams kicked field goals in the first session. In the second, Kansas State went ahead 33-30 with a field goal, and on third-and-17, Parker took a quick pass and sprinted free for the walk-off TD. So close to the national title game a decade removed from being the worst program in college football, Kansas State was sent to the Alamo Bowl instead, as Florida State vaulted to No. 2.
31. Nebraska 45, Missouri 38
Nov. 8, 1997; Columbia, Mo.
Tom Osborne and Nebraska had already atoned for previous national title game heartbreak with back-to-back national champions in 1994 and '95, solidifying his place as one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. In '97, the Cornhuskers completed one of the greatest runs the sport has ever seen, sharing the national title with Michigan, its third in four years. It wouldn't have happened without a stroke of luck in Columbia. Attention was elsewhere on Nov. 8, as No. 3 Florida State met No. 5 North Carolina and No. 2 Penn State met No. 4 Michigan. But those games turned into easy wins for FSU and Michigan. The real game of the day was a surprise, as Nebraska played a thriller with Missouri, which finished 7-5. With the score tied 31-31 in the fourth, the teams traded interceptions, and Corby Jones threw a 15-yard TD pass to Eddie Brooks for a Missouri lead with 4:39 left.
The game turned bizarre, with sprinklers going off in one of the end zones, and after two punts, Nebraska had the ball at its own 33 with 1:02 left. It drove to the 12-yard line, and on the final play of regulation, Scott Frost threw to the end zone, where the ball hit Shevin Wiggins. As he fell, the ball bounced off his foot and miraculously into the hands of a diving Matt Davison. Missouri fans began trying to tear down the goal posts before realizing that Nebraska had scored. Once they were cleared, the Huskers made the PAT to force overtime, where Frost scored and the defense came up with a fourth-down sack to maintain Nebraska's undefeated record.
30. Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
Jan. 1, 1979; Dallas, Texas; Cotton Bowl
Notre Dame followed its national championship 1977 season by losing its first two games of 1978, and after a winning streak, it lost again to USC in the regular-season finale. But despite trailing 37-12 deep into the fourth quarter of the Cotton Bowl, Joe Montana's college career received a happy ending. In frigid conditions in Dallas, Notre Dame led 12-0 early. Houston turned the tables to score 37 straight points as a sick Montana struggled. In fact, the second half started with Montana in the locker room with the chills, eating chicken soup. Montana eventually returned, and after mistakes and missed opportunities, the comeback began with a blocked punt return for a TD by Steve Cichy (plus two) with 7:25 left.
Montana then led a drive that ended with a two-yard run plus an improvised two-point pass to cut Houston's lead to six with 4:15 left. After a Houston punt, Notre Dame got into Cougars territory, but it seemingly lost the game when Montana fumbled at the 20. Notre Dame held, and on fourth-and-one at the 29, Houston went for it but was stuffed, giving Notre Dame great field position with less than 30 seconds. On the last play of the game from the eight, Montana rolled right and found Kris Haines for an improbable touchdown in front corner of the end zone. Notre Dame had to kick the PAT twice because of a penalty, but it finished off the comeback with no time on the clock.
29. Alabama 45, Clemson 40
Jan. 11, 2016; Glendale, Ariz.; CFP National Championship
Alabama fans will remember Jan. 11, 2016, but everyone else will remember what happened a year later when Clemson got its revenge, dethroned the Crimson Tide and won the national title with one second left. Even though Clemson did not have a chance to win late in the 2015 title game, the first national title between these two remains an all-time great game anyway. Clemson racked up 550 total yards, with Deshaun Watson throwing for 405 and rushing for 73 yards in what would have been regarded as a Vince Young vs. USC like performance had the Tigers prevailed. Alabama had scored on a couple big plays, but its inability to contain Watson put it under immense pressure.
After tying with a field goal early in the fourth quarter, Nick Saban opted for a risk: a perfect Adam Griffith onside kick recovered at midfield. Two plays later, Jake Coker hit an open O.J. Howard for a 51-yard TD. Clemson followed with a field goal, but Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a TD. Again Clemson responded, but again Alabama answered with a 63-yard Howard catch setting up Derrick Henry's game-sealing TD with 1:07 left, allowing Alabama to win its fourth national title under Saban despite another late Watson TD.
28. Texas 21, Notre Dame 17
Jan. 1, 1970; Dallas, Texas; Cotton Bowl
The most famous two games of the 1969 college football season happened at the end of the regular season: Michigan upsetting No. 1 Ohio State in Bo Schembechler's first year, and No. 1 Texas subsequently beating No. 2 Arkansas on Dec. 6. But despite already owning the UPI title and being crowned national champion by none other than Richard Nixon, Texas still had to beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl to close out a unanimous national title over undefeated Penn State. The No. 9 Fighting Irish were making their first bowl appearance since 1924, finally ending their practice of forgoing the postseason. With the help of a 54-yard Joe Theismann touchdown pass to Tom Gatewood early in the second quarter, Notre Dame led most of the game.
Texas took the lead early in the fourth, but Theismann answered, with a 24-yard go-ahead score to Jim Yoder with 6:52 left. Texas got the ball back on its own 24-yard line and marched the length of the field on a dramatic drive that included a fourth-and-two conversion run by Ted Koy and a fourth-and-two eight-yard pass from James Street to Cotton Speyrer down to the two-yard line. On third down, Billy Dale scored the winning touchdown to finish off an unbeaten Longhorns season.
27. BYU 46, SMU 45
Dec. 19, 1980; San Diego, Calif.; Holiday Bowl
Few things have ever been more conducive to exciting football than LaVell Edwards-coached BYU teams playing in the Holiday Bowl. The Cougars played in the game 11 times from 1978-93, and the following games all have top-100 arguments: the 50-39 loss to Penn State in 1989, the 38-37 loss to Indiana in 1979, the 38-36 win over Washington State in 1981 and the national title-clinching 24-17 win over Michigan in 1984. While the latter gave BYU an improbable championship, no game can compare to what happened in 1980, when Jim McMahon's No. 14 Cougars met Eric Dickerson, Craig James and No. 19 SMU. James rushed for 222 yards, including two 45-yard touchdowns (the first on a fake punt). Dickerson added 110 yards. SMU led 38-19 in the fourth quarter.
BYU started a comeback with a fourth-down conversion and touchdown to cut it to 38-25, but SMU recovered the onside kick, and James broke away for his second TD with only four minutes left. Again, BYU scored and missed the two-pointer, but this time it recovered the onside kick. McMahon found Bill Davis on a pass to the one to set up a Scott Phillips TD, and this time the two-pointer was good, cutting SMU's lead to 45-39 with two minutes to play. After SMU recovered the onside kick, it tried to punt from the 48-yard line with 18 seconds left, but Bill Schoepflin blocked it. McMahon threw two incomplete passes. On the last play of the game, McMahon picked up the last of his 446 passing yards: From the 41-yard line, McMahon launched a pass into the end zone, and with two defenders on top of him and more around him, Clay Brown came down with the ball for the Hail Mary touchdown. BYU kicked the extra point, its 21st point in the final 2:33, to finish the most thrilling game in a history of thrilling Holiday Bowls.
26. Army 21, Navy 18
Nov. 30, 1946; Philadelphia, Pa.
The biggest game of the 1946 season -- one of the most highly anticipated in sports history -- was No. 1 Army vs. No. 2 Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 9. Three weeks later, Army played what proved to actually be the best and most consequential game of the season against Navy. The Cadets and Fighting Irish tied, 0-0, leaving Army still atop the AP poll when it met 1-7 Navy in the final game in the college careers of Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside, legendary Heisman winners Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. Army had not lost in 28 games -- not since the Navy game in 1943 -- entering the rivalry clash in front of 102,000 fans at Philadelphia's Municipal Stadium. Army was a 28-point favorite, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. With President Harry S. Truman in attendance, the Cadets dominated the first half, building a 21-6 lead on TDs by Blanchard and Davis.
With three TDs but no PATs, Navy cut the lead to 21-18 and converted a fourth down all the way to the Army three-yard line with a minute and a half left. After being stopped twice, Navy was penalized for delay of game. Pete Williams carried the ball back to the four-yard line near the sideline. Navy thought Williams got out of bounds, as the AP wrote in 2016. The officials didn't stop the clock. Time ran out before Navy could run one last play, and Army avoided the upset. Merely avoiding the upset wasn't enough, though. Army's close call combined with Notre Dame's 20-point win over USC prompted AP voters to vault the Fighting Irish to No. 1 and the national title.