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 the final part, covering the top 25 games ever.
Part IV: 25-1
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25. Harvard 29, Yale 29
Nov. 23, 1968; Boston, Mass.
With apologies to the Florida-Florida State Choke at Doak, this was the greatest, most gut-wrenching comeback tie in college football history. Harvard and Yale both entered the final game of the season undefeated, making their annual rivalry showdown a decisive battle for the Ivy League championship. It marked the first time that both met while undefeated since 1909. Yale scored the first 22 points of the game and led 22-6 at halftime. While Harvard scored in the third quarter, Yale again took a 16-point lead with 10:44 left on a five-yard touchdown run by Brian Dowling, who ran or passed for all four Bulldogs touchdowns. Fumbles were nevertheless a problem for Yale all game. With Yale driving for another score to put away the game, Bob Levin fumbled at the 14-yard line and Harvard recovered.
The Crimson marched 86 yards for a TD, a pass from Frank Champi to Bruce Freeman. The two-point conversion cut Yale's lead to 29-21 with only 42 seconds left, and Harvard recovered the onside kick. With the help of two key runs and a penalty, Harvard had the ball at the eight-yard line with three seconds left. Champi looked right and couldn't find an open receiver, he scrambled to avoid the pass rush and, with a defender about to hit him, he fired a pass to the left side of the end zone for Vic Gatto. Harvard still needed two to tie, and Champi connected with Pete Varney over the middle with no time on the clock. Harvard had scored 16 points in less than a minute. In the record books, the teams shared the Ivy League title, both 8-0-1 overall. But the Harvard Crimson's headline said it all: "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29."
24. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32
Sept. 1, 2007; Ann Arbor, Mich.
It doesn't matter that Appalachian State was a legitimately good team in the middle of a run of three straight FCS titles. It doesn't matter that, while it was ranked No. 5 entering the opener, Michigan would stumble to four losses. This was Appalachian State vs. Michigan. This was a 63-scholarship FCS team taking on one of the establishment titans of college football, in the biggest stadium in America, on the debut game broadcast of the Big Ten's new cash-cow television network that further illustrated the divide. Appalachian State could have beaten many FBS teams, but this was still an all-time great upset made better by an all-time great finish.
The Mountaineers proved they belonged early with a 68-yard Edwards TD pass to Dexter Jackson. A 21-0 run in the second quarter gave them a 28-17 lead at halftime. Appalachian State did not score a second-half touchdown, and yet it managed the improbable win anyway. With a five-point lead in the fourth quarter, it forced a fumble and stopped Michigan on a fourth down. But the Wolverines finally took a one-point lead on a 54-yard Mike Hart TD run with 4:36 left. A shocking sequence followed: Edwards was intercepted. The Mountaineers blocked a field goal with 1:37 left. Edwards led them back down the field and, with no timeouts left, Appalachian State decided to kick a 24-yard field goal for the lead with 26 seconds left. When Chad Henne found Mario Manningham for a 46-yard gain to the 20-yard line, Michigan thought it was going to escape. Jason Gingell lined up for a 37-yard field goal, but Corey Lynch blocked it and secured the historic upset in front of a shocked Michigan Stadium crowd of nearly 110,000, setting off impromptu celebrations across the college football world.
23. Navy 21, Army 15
Dec. 7, 1963; Philadelphia, Pa.
The 1963 season marked the last time that either Army or Navy finished in the AP top 10. Entering the annual rivalry showdown, Navy was 8-1 and ranked No. 2, led by Heisman winner Roger Staubach. It would go on to play in the Cotton Bowl. Army was 7-2, making this a highly anticipated showdown. It was originally scheduled for Nov. 30, but after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, the status of the game was in flux. Ultimately, the president's family urged the playing of the game, and it was pushed back to December. A Municipal Stadium crowd of 102,000 watched arguably the greatest game in Army-Navy history.
Army opened the game's scoring with a first-quarter touchdown, but Navy scored the next 21 points to lead 21-7 with 10:32 left. Army answered with a 52-yard drive, with Rollie Stichweh running in both a TD and two-point conversion to trim the lead to five. Army went for an onside kick and recovered it, then drove down the field and found itself at the four-yard line with 45 seconds. The crowd was in a frenzy, and Stichweh asked the officials for time to quiet the fans down. A run got Army to the two with the clock winding down. As Stichweh lined up under center, he again appealed to the officials for a crowd timeout with only two seconds left, but this time they wouldn't grant it. The clock ran out with Army two yards away, as Navy narrowly avoided the upset with the help of the Midshipmen in the stands.
22. Notre Dame 10, Michigan State 10
Nov. 19, 1966; East Lansing, Mich.
The Notre Dame-Michigan State rivalry has not been played in November since 1966, when circumstances aligned for their showdown to become the latest Game of the Century. The previous year, No. 1 Michigan State beat No. 4 Notre Dame, 12-3, and claimed a share of the national title. In 1966, Notre Dame made the short trek to East Lansing ranked No. 1 with an 8-0 record. Michigan State was 9-0 and ranked No. 2. Notre Dame still had a game left against USC, but this felt like a national championship game anyway. Unfortunately, not everything played out as hoped, and the game left more questions than answers.
Notre Dame RB Nick Eddy injured his shoulder getting off the train on Friday. QB Terry Hanratty separated his shoulder in the first quarter of the game on a hit by All-American Bubba Smith. Neither team scored in the first, but Michigan State took a 10-0 lead with a Regis Cavender TD run and a field goal. A 34-yard Bob Gladieux TD catch from backup QB Coley O'Brien got Notre Dame on the board before halftime. With Michigan State's offense stalled in the second half, Notre Dame tied the game with a field goal early in the fourth after a fumble was negated by an offside penalty. Notre Dame had a chance for the lead later after an interception, but its 41-yard field goal missed. After a Michigan State punt, Notre Dame had the ball at its own 30 in the final two minutes. Instead of making a push for the win, Notre Dame played it safe and ran out the clock, not wanting to throw away the game with a mistake. The game ended in a tie. Michigan State's season was over. Notre Dame was already No. 1 and stayed No. 1 after beating USC 51-0. "Old Notre Dame will tie over all," read the beginning of Dan Jenkins' story in Sports Illustrated. "Sing it out, guys."
21. Miami 26, Florida State 25
Oct. 3, 1987; Tallahassee, Fla.
For most of college football history, Miami-Florida State carried little national importance. The two met for the first time in 1951, and neither became a national power until the 1980s. After a handful of big games, the rivalry took off and attained all-time great status in 1987. The No. 3 Hurricanes visited the No. 4 Seminoles in what proved to be the game of the year despite a forgettable first half in which Miami had only 81 yards and FSU led 7-3. Florida State went ahead 19-3 thanks to a blocked punt retuned for a TD by Alphonso Williams and a 33-yard Deion Sanders punt return to set up a field goal. Miami finally woke up afterward.
Steve Walsh found Melvin Bratton for a 49-yard TD, plus a two-pointer late in the third. In the fourth, Walsh hit Michael Irvin for a 26-yard TD, plus a two-pointer to tie. After a Florida State fumble, Walsh found Irvin again for a 73-yard touchdown down the sideline on third down. Its back against the wall after the Miami comeback, Florida State converted a fourth-and-eight, then found life with Danny McManus completing a 31-yard pass to a leaping Dexter Carter followed by an 18-yard TD to Ronald Lewis. With 42 seconds left, and despite previously saying he'd go for a tie, Bobby Bowden chose to play for the win after his kicker struggled during the game. McManus' pass was broken up, and Miami recovered the onside kick. Neither team lost the rest of the year. Miami beat Oklahoma for the national title. Florida State was voted No. 2. One of college football's greatest rivalries was only just beginning.
20. Alabama 14, Penn State 7
Jan. 1, 1979; New Orleans, La.; Sugar Bowl
Alabama claims 16 national championships in its illustrious history. The NCAA's list counts 14. No matter how many titles you credit to the Crimson Tide, one moment more than any stands out as the most iconic: the goal-line stand in the 1979 Sugar Bowl, which allowed Alabama to claim the '78 national championship. Penn State had fielded undefeated teams in 1968, '69 and '73, but none had been rewarded with a national title. This time, the Nittany Lions went to New Orleans as the nation's lone unbeaten, with a chance for Joe Paterno to claim an undisputed first championship against Bear Bryant and No. 2 Alabama. The game proved to be a tense, defense-first affair, with no points until the end of the second quarter. Tony Nathan broke off a 30-yard run, and Penn State, thinking it was going to get the ball back, instead was pushed on its heels. With eight seconds left in the half, Jeff Rutledge connected with Bruce Bolton for a diving 30-yard TD to put Bama ahead.
After a diving Pete Harris interception, Penn State got its only points of the day as Chuck Fusina connected with Scott Fitzkee for a 17-yard score. The Tide retook the lead after Lon Ikner returned a punt 62 yards, setting up Major Ogilvie's go-ahead eight-yard TD. A Rutledge fumble at the 19-yard line gave Penn State its chance. On second down at the six, Fusina found Fitzkee, who was just barely stopped by a fantastic goal-line tackle by Don McNeal that deserves as much credit as the plays that happened next. On third down, Matt Suhey plunged over the top but was stopped at the foot line. Penn State used a timeout and decided to go over the top again: This time, Mike Guman got the ball and was met high by Barry Krauss, short of the goal line. Penn State could have gotten another chance thanks to a bad punt, but it was negated by a penalty for too many men on the field. It had two more chances, ending with a turnover on downs and an interception. Penn State waited another four years for a title, while the goal-line stand propelled Alabama to a split championship with USC, Bryant's fifth.
19. SMU 20, TCU 14
Nov. 30, 1935; Fort Worth, Texas
The Southwest Conference played football for another 60 years, but it may have reached its peak in the 1935 showdown between 10-0 SMU and 10-0 TCU, which had the legendary Sammy Baugh. The fireworks-filled game featured 677 total yards, a huge number for the time. Touchdowns by Bob Finley and Bobby Wilson allowed SMU to take a 14-0 lead in the second quarter, but a Jimmy Lawrence TD closed the gap to 14-7 at halftime. The score held into the fourth quarter, when Baugh found Lawrence for the tying TD. It led to a stunning play for the SMU win.
On fourth down at the 37-yard line, Finley dropped back to pass instead of punting and launched a risky deep ball that he perfectly dropped over two defenders and into the hands of Wilson, who hauled in a brilliant catch and scored. SMU held Baugh -- who attempted 44 passes, according to the AP -- and the Horned Frogs on their final few possessions and secured the Southwest championship. SMU went on to the Rose Bowl, where it lost to Stanford, 7-0, while TCU beat LSU in the Sugar Bowl, 3-2.
18. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 24
Nov. 13, 1993; South Bend, Ind.
Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39
Nov. 20, 1993; South Bend, Ind.
The first game was supposed to matter. The second game -- and the subsequent opinions of poll voters -- made sure that it did not. No. 1 Florida State visiting No. 2 Notre Dame, both 9-0, made for one of the biggest regular-season games ever, leading to College Gameday's first-ever road trip. The final score was close, but in reality, despite FSU scoring first, Notre Dame controlled most of the game. The Fighting Irish scored 24 straight points, and after FSU trimmed the lead, a Jeff Burris TD run put Notre Dame back up by 14 with six minutes left. Florida State scored on a 20-yard tipped Charlie Ward pass on fourth-and-goal, and when Notre Dame botched a punt, FSU had a chance to erase the seven-point deficit in the final minute. The last play of the game, however, was a pass batted down at the goal, vaulting Notre Dame to No. 1.
The Irish's stay atop the polls lasted one week. No. 17 Boston College, owning a seven-game winning streak, visited South Bend and provided the actual game of the year, after the Irish had won their rivalry meeting 54-7 in '92. The first half featured a stuffed BC fake punt, a blocked ND field goal, a stuffed ND fourth down, a 39-yard ND touchdown pass, a 36-yard BC TD pass and a TD by each team after fourth-down conversions. The Eagles led 24-14 at halftime, quickly went ahead 31-14, then recovered an onside kick but missed a field goal. Boston College led 38-17 early in the fourth when Notre Dame began a comeback, with a 29-yard Lee Becton TD and a fumble leading to a TD. The comeback was completed with a fourth-and-goal TD pass from Kevin McDougal to Lake Dawson to lead 39-38 with 1:09 left. Notre Dame thought it had escaped, but with the help of a personal foul on the kickoff, Boston College responded, and a Glenn Foley completion to the 23-yard line with five seconds left set up David Gordon for the game-winning 41-yard field goal.
Notre Dame fell back behind Florida State and went on to beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. Despite having the same record and a head-to-head win over the Seminoles, Florida State moved back up to No. 1 and was crowned national champion thanks to its Orange Bowl win over No. 2 Nebraska.
17. Princeton 21, Chicago 18
Oct. 28, 1922; Chicago, Ill
In one afternoon on Stagg Field in Chicago, college football took two major steps toward becoming more of a national sport: A football game was broadcast nationally on the radio for the first time (portions of the game can actually be viewed here, and the Chicago Tribune published full play-by-play charts), and it marked the first time one of the Ivy League Big Three -- Harvard, Yale and Princeton -- made a trip west. In 1921, Chicago went east and beat Princeton 9-0. A year later, the Tigers made the return trip for a highly anticipated rematch. In the book "Stagg's University," Robin Lester writes that "Chicago received well over a hundred thousand ticket requests," even though the stadium made room for just 31,000at the time. Chicago controlled the game for three quarters behind its running.
But up 18-7 in the fourth quarter, Chicago's backup center let loose a bad snap that bounced to Princeton's Howdy Gray, who ran 43 yards for a touchdown. Princeton soon went on a drive and scored again to take a 21-18 lead. Chicago's offense responded, all the way down to the one-yard line in the closing moments -- "Perhaps never in the annals of football has a more dramatic march down field been seen," the Chicago Tribune wrote in its play-by-play account -- but the Tigers held onto their comeback with a goal-line stand, stopping John Thomas short for the win. Princeton's "Team of Destiny" went on to finish 8-0.
16. Notre Dame 18, Ohio State 13
Nov. 2, 1935; Columbus, Ohio
Notre Dame's early powerhouse teams were most famous for their battles with Army and USC, but the actual best game the Fighting Irish took part in during the first half of the 20th century happened in 1935, in their first visit to Ohio Stadium. Under Elmer Layden, one of the famed Four Horsemen, Notre Dame was on the upswing and took a 5-0 record to Columbus. The Buckeyes were 4-0 and had won 10 in a row, with coach Francis Schmidt boasting an excellent offense. The highly anticipated contest became a legendary affair. Ohio State led 13-0 at halftime, its first touchdown coming on an interception by Frank Antenucci, who lateraled to Frank Boucher, who ran 70 yards for the touchdown.
A big punt return by Andy Pilney set up Notre Dame's first TD early in the fourth, but the PAT missed. The Irish squandered their next chance with a fumble in the end zone, but on their next drive, Pilney led the Irish downfield, finishing with a TD pass to Mike Layden. Again, the PAT was no good, and the Irish still trailed 13-12 late in the game. Ohio State recovered the onside kick, but Dick Beltz lost a fumble at the 45-yard line. Pilney dashed 36 yards inside the 20, but he was forced to leave because of a knee injury. Bill Shakespeare entered, and with 32 seconds, he found Wayne Milner in the end zone for the touchdown to complete the shocking comeback.
15. Florida State 34, Auburn 31
Jan. 6, 2014; Pasadena, Calif.; BCS National Championship
A significant portion of the college football world wanted to dance on the grave of the Bowl Championship Series as the playoff era was ushered in, but the 16th and final BCS title game allowed the divisive system to go out on a high note. Florida State had been dominant all season, crushing everybody to go 13-0 as Jameis Winston won the Heisman. Auburn made it to Pasadena through miracles, losing to LSU, beating Georgia on a 73-yard Prayer at Jordan-Hare and stunning Alabama with the Kick Six. Auburn also carried the SEC's seven-year national title streak with it, and it looked as if SEC dominance would prevail over FSU dominance when the Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. FSU trimmed Auburn's lead to 21-20 early in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for a tremendous final five minutes.
Auburn kicked a 22-yard field goal. FSU's Kermit Whitfield returned the ensuing kickoff the length of the field for a touchdown. Auburn responded with a 75-yard drive that ended with Tre Mason's 37-yard go-ahead TD with only 1:19 left. That left the ball in the hands of the Heisman winner at his own 20, BCS title on the line. With several completions, including a 49-yard pass in which Rashad Greene slipped through the defense for a big gain after the catch, FSU had the ball at the two with 17 seconds left. Winston dropped back and tossed high to the 6-foot-5 Benjamin, who went up and nabbed the game-winning touchdown to complete a perfect Seminoles season.
14. USC 21, UCLA 20
Nov. 18, 1967; Los Angeles, Calif.
It's hard to ask for much more from a rivalry game. In O.J. Simpson's first season at USC as a junior college transfer, USC started 8-0 before a 3-0 upset loss to Oregon State. The Trojans dropped from No. 1 to No. 4 in the AP poll as they got set to meet 7-0-1 UCLA, which had moved to No. 1. Despite USC's loss, the stakes were enormous at the Coliseum: a conference title, the Rose Bowl, the national championship and the Heisman Trophy, between Simpson and UCLA QB Gary Beban. Playing with bruised ribs, Beban threw a 55-yard pick-six to Pat Cashman in the first quarter, and USC led 14-7 at halftime after a Simpson touchdown. Despite the heath concerns, Beban tossed a 53-yard TD pass to George Farmer early in the third quarter and a 21-yard TD to Dave Nuttall early in the fourth quarter. The PAT was missed, though, so UCLA's lead was six with 11 minutes left.
On USC's next drive, it needed seven yards on third down at its own 36-yard line. It got much more: Simpson, whose foot wasn't 100 percent, unleashed one of the best runs in college football history. QB Toby Page called an audible and handed off to Simpson, who went left, darted upfield, bounced off a tackler, broke down the sideline and accelerated into the open field to score a 64-yard touchdown. USC held on to win the game, move back to No. 1, win the national title and beat Indiana in the Rose Bowl. Beban won the Heisman, but Simpson won it a year later.
13. Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
Dec. 31, 1973; New Orleans, La.; Sugar Bowl
Entering the 1973 bowl season, the top six teams in the AP poll all had zero losses: No. 1 Alabama, No. 3 Notre Dame and No. 6 Penn State also had zero ties, while No. 2 Oklahoma, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan each had one tie (the latter two against each other). The UPI still crowned its champion before the bowls, ensuring Alabama a split of the title. However, with Oklahoma on probation and banned from the postseason, the undefeated tilt between Alabama and Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl served as a de facto national title game on a rainy New Year's Eve at Tulane Stadium. The first-ever showdown between the two historic powers lived up to the hype, despite the fact that Alabama was held to zero yards in the first quarter. With the help of a 93-yard kick return TD by Al Hunter, Notre Dame led 14-10 at halftime, and the teams proceeded to trade scores. Wilbur Jackson led a big Alabama touchdown drive. After an Alabama fumble, Notre Dame jumped back ahead, 21-17, with an Eric Penick TD run.
In the fourth quarter, Bama QB Richard Todd scored a 25-yard TD on a throwback pass from Mike Stock, but the PAT failed with 9:33 to go. A big pass from Tom Clements to Dave Casper set up Notre Dame's go-ahead field goal with 4:26 left, and after a Bama punt, Notre Dame got the ball back at its own one-yard line, trying to run out the clock. From his own end zone on third down, Clements fooled Alabama and completed a 35-yard pass to Robin Weber that moved the chains and allowed the Irish to run out the clock and claim the national title. The UPI finally relented and began publishing its final poll after the bowls the next year.
12. Boston College 47, Miami 45
Nov. 23, 1984; Miami, Fla.
Jimmy Johnson lost only nine games in five seasons as head coach of Miami after inheriting the defending national champions from Howard Schnellenberger. Five of those losses came in his first season, including perhaps the most gut-wrenching back-to-back losses ever. Ranked No. 6 on Nov. 10, Miami blew a 31-0 halftime lead and lost to Maryland, 42-40. (That's game No. 59 on this list.) After a week off, Miami, now No. 12, hosted Heisman winner Doug Flutie and No. 10 Boston College on Black Friday. Flutie and Bernie Kosar dueled all game, as Flutie passed for 472 yards and three TDs and Kosar had 447 yards and two TDs. The game stood at 31-31 entering the fourth quarter. Two plays after a BC field goal, Melvin Bratton broke off a dazzling 52-yard TD run to put Miami ahead by four. Boston College went back ahead, 41-38, with 3:50 left. Bratton converted a fourth down to kick start a Miami drive, and at the two-yard line, he scored to push Miami ahead with 28 seconds to play.
Boston College got to the 48-yard line, one play for the game. Flutie dropped back, evaded a defender to the right and faded all the way back to his own 37-yard line. As time expired, Flutie launched a Hail Mary to the end zone. It sailed just over the heads of three Miami defenders and landed perfectly in the hands of his roommate, Gerard Phelan, who caught it while falling down for the touchdown. Less than two weeks after allowing what was then the biggest comeback in college football history, Miami lost on what is still remembered as the greatest Hail Mary.
11. California 25, Stanford 20
Nov. 20, 1982; Berkeley, Calif.
When Cal and Stanford kicked off in their regular-season finale, two things were on the line: typical rivalry bragging rights and the possibility of John Elway playing in a bowl game. That's it. Cal was 6-4. Despite the presence of Elway, who finished second in the Heisman race, Stanford was 5-5, needing a win to be eligible for a minor bowl in Elway's senior season. What happened next would have been an excellent rivalry game without the ending; the ending made it one of the most memorable games in sports history. Cal led 10-0 at halftime, but Elway engineered an 80-yard TD drive, then threw a 43-yard TD to Vincent White. Cal kicked a field goal, then got a spectacular 32-yard TD catch by Wes Howell diving in the corner of the end zone. Stanford kicked a field goal to trim the lead to two. Elway lost a fumble with 2:40 left, but Stanford forced a punt. Facing fourth-and-17 at his own 13, Elway threw a dart between defenders to convert. Another great Elway pass got Stanford inside the 40, and a big run pushed the Cardinal into the red zone. With four seconds left, Mark Harmon made a 35-yard field goal to take the lead. A celebration penalty backed up Stanford's kick, and Harmon squibbed it.
What happened next was something so spectacular that it can be described simply as "The Play": Cal fielded the ball at the 45. Five hectic laterals later, the ball ended up in the hands of Kevin Moen at the 25-yard line. By this point, the Stanford band had already come onto that end of the field. Moen found a lane through the Cardinal and the band and punctuated the most improbably bizarre touchdown in football history by running over a trombone player in the end zone.
10. Notre Dame 31, Miami 30
Oct. 15, 1988; South Bend, Ind.
The stars aligned perfectly for an all-time great midseason battle in South Bend, the game that would come to be known as Catholics vs. Convicts because of T-shirts with the slogan being sold before the game. Miami was No. 1, having shut out then-No. 1 Florida State and come back from down 30-14 to win at Michigan. Notre Dame was No. 4 in its third season under Lou Holtz. Miami humiliated Notre Dame in their previous two meetings, and the Irish were poised for revenge. A pregame fight added to the intensity, and the game was tied 21-21 at halftime. A 42-yard pass to Ricky Watters set up Notre Dame's go-ahead TD by Pat Eilers, and after Steve Walsh was intercepted, Notre Dame kicked a field goal to lead 31-21 at the end of the third quarter.
After cutting the lead to seven, Miami's Cleveland Gary lost a fumble just short of the goal line, although replays indicated afterward that he was likely down. The two teams then traded fumbles, and on fourth-and-seven at the 11-yard line, Walsh -- who had over 400 yards passing -- found a diving Andre Brown in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown … another play that would have likely been overturned had instant replay existed. Jimmy Johnson called timeout and Miami went for two, but Walsh's pass in the corner of the end zone was broken up by Pat Terrell, who had a 60-yard pick-six in the first half, too. Notre Dame held on to win the thriller by a point, and it went on to win the national title with a perfect record.
9. Texas 15, Arkansas 14
Dec. 6, 1969; Fayetteville, Ark.
ABC's plan worked to perfection. The Texas-Arkansas game was moved back from October to December for a national TV audience. Both teams spent all year in the top four, but defending national champion Ohio State threatened to be a wire-to-wire No. 1 … until the Buckeyes lost their first meeting with Bo Schembechler on Nov. 22. Even though Penn State also had a perfect record and the AP would hold its final vote after the bowls, the stage was set for No. 1 Texas vs. No. 2 Arkansas to be viewed as a national title game, with President Richard Nixon ready to crown the winner in the locker room afterward. Nixon arrived via helicopter just before kickoff, just in time to witness a thoroughly sloppy first half on a dreary day. With the Longhorns plagued by turnovers, Arkansas lead 14-0 after three quarters.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, though, Texas QB James Street scrambled 42 yards for a touchdown, then ran in the two-pointer. Arkansas responded with a big drive, only for Danny Lester to intercept Bill Montgomery in the end zone. After a Texas fumble and an Arkansas punt, Texas faced a fourth-and-two at its own 43 with under five minutes left. Darrell Royal went for it, and Street rolled left, threw downfield and beat double coverage on a perfect pass to Randy Peschel to the 13-yard line. Jim Bertelsen soon scored from two yards out, and the PAT gave Texas the lead. The Longhorns held on with an interception, earning the UPI championship and an unofficial honor from Nixon, despite backlash from Penn State. Voters agreed, though, as Texas won a dramatic Cotton Bowl against Notre Dame and claimed the AP title over the Nittany Lions, too.
8. Penn State 14, Miami 10
Jan. 2, 1987; Tempe, Ariz., Fiesta Bowl
Penn State was playing in its fourth national title game in nine years, hoping to win its second championship. Miami was the new national power, also owning a title and hoping for a second. Both teams were undefeated, but the No. 1 Hurricanes entered the Jan. 2 showdown in Tempe as the decisive favorite over the No. 2 Nittany Lions. The 1-2 matchup in Tempe was arranged and moved back to prime time on Jan. 2 to give it a Super Bowl-like feel. It all succeeded -- NBC drew record ratings -- with a week of hype and story lines, including Miami players infamously showing up to Arizona dressed in battle fatigues and storming out of a game-week steak fry. Penn State looked overmatched at the start, as QB John Shaffer -- whose only loss as a starter dating back to middle school was the '85 national title game -- was sacked for a loss of 15 on the first play, then sacked again. Miami out-gained Penn State 133-7 in the first quarter, and yet there was no score. Safety Ray Isom set the tone with a massive hit on Michael Irvin, and Penn State's defense spent the night baffling Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde. Melvin Bratton put Miami ahead 7-0 after a PSU interception, but Penn State responded with a drive, and Shaffer scored from seven yards out to even the score at halftime.
After a mistake-filled third quarter, Miami took a 10-7 lead with 11:49 left. Penn State punted, but Shane Conlan intercepted Testaverde and returned it 39 yards to the five. D.J. Dozier soon punched it in for the go-ahead TD with 8:13 left. After a Miami fumble and a punt, it got one last chance from its own 23-yard line. Testaverde completed a big fourth-down pass to Brian Blades, and the Canes charged down the field. Against a gassed PSU defense, Testaverde completed four more passes to push the Canes inside the 10. Testaverde was sacked on second down. A pass was incomplete on third. That set up fourth-and-goal at the 13 with 18 seconds left and the title on the line. Penn State dropped eight into coverage, and Testaverde threw his fifth interception as Pete Giftopoulos sealed Penn State's championship.
7. Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42
Jan. 1, 2007; Glendale, Ariz.; Fiesta Bowl
Oklahoma was merely a 7 1/2-point favorite, and No. 8 Boise State was ranked two spots ahead of the Sooners in the BCS standings, owning an undefeated record. And yet the David vs. Goliath story was irresistible. Oklahoma had won seven national championships. Boise State didn't even start playing at the FBS level until 1996. It was a member of the WAC. It had a first-year coach, Chris Petersen. It had played one power conference opponent, Oregon State. The era of Internet recruiting databases made it easy to see that Oklahoma's roster was littered with blue-chip recruits; Boise State's was anything but that. All of that is merely the set-up for one of the craziest games ever, one in which Boise State fully embraced its quirky, team-with-the-blue-turf underdog status and went for broke as creatively as possible in the biggest game the school ever played.
The Broncos showed they belonged early, building a 28-10 lead by the middle of the third quarter that included two long TD passes and a pick-six. But the game changed when Boise State let a bouncing punt hit a player, creating a live-ball situation as Oklahoma recovered. Adrian Peterson quickly scored a TD, and an early fourth-quarter field goal cut the deficit to eight. After a fumble and four punts, the game went off the rails to become one of the most memorable ever. Paul Thompson threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Quentin Chaney. After penalties on both teams, Oklahoma converted for the tying two on its third attempt. On the next play from scrimmage, Jared Zabransky's pass toward the sideline was intercepted by Marcus Walker and returned 34 yards for a touchdown, putting Oklahoma ahead by seven with just 1:02 left.
After a long completion, Boise State faced a desperation situation: fourth-and-18 and the 50, 18 seconds left. The call was a hook-and-ladder, executed to perfection: Zabransky to Drisan James, who pitched back to Jerard Rabb. By the time Oklahoma's defenders could change direction, it was too late. Rabb sprinted to the end zone, and the PAT sent it to OT. Oklahoma immediately answered the improbable heroics, as Peterson broke off a 25-yard TD on the first play of OT. Boise State soon found itself in another desperation situation: fourth-and-two at the six-yard line. Petersen boldly called for receiver Vinny Perretta to get the snap as Zabransky shifted wide. Perretta rolled right on an option and tossed a perfect ball to Derek Schouman for the touchdown. Boise State couldn't resist rolling the dice once more and going for two and the win. Zabransky took the snap and looked like he'd throw right to a group of receivers. Instead, he placed the ball behind his back, a Statue of Liberty play, and Ian Johnson took the handoff and followed blockers into the end zone for the winning score. An improbable sequence of highs and lows, of bold play calls, all capped by Johnson proposing to his cheerleader girlfriend live on Fox after scoring the winning two points. A college football night that will never be forgotten.
6. Ohio State 31, Miami 24
Jan. 3, 2003; Tempe, Ariz.; Fiesta Bowl
The story felt familiar. Sixteen years after undefeated Miami was upset in the Fiesta Bowl by an underdog with a great defense, essentially the same thing happened. Just swap Penn State out for Ohio State and add double overtime. Miami won the 2001 title with one of the greatest teams ever, and it took a 34-game wining streak into 2002's BCS title game. Led by steady QB Craig Krenzel, breakout freshman RB Maurice Clarett and a loaded defense, Ohio State survived several close calls to get to Tempe in Jim Tressel's second season. It faced Miami as a 12-point underdog.
Both sides made mistakes early, and Ohio State took a 17-7 lead on a field goal in the third quarter after a wild sequence in which Krenzel was intercepted by Sean Taylor in the end zone but Clarett stole the ball back on the return. Miami cut the lead to 17-14 on a Willis McGahee TD, but McGahee was lost to a serious knee injury early in the fourth. After both teams missed field goals, Roscoe Parrish lost a fumble for Miami, only to quickly get redemption with a 50-yard punt return that set up Todd Sievers' 40-yard field goal to force overtime. Miami scored first. Ohio State converted a fourth-and-14 to Michael Jenkins, then faced another fourth down at the five. Krenzel threw right to Chris Gamble, but the pass was broken up. Miami briefly thought it won the title, until a late flag called the Canes for pass interference -- a controversial call still debated to this day. Krenzel soon scored, and Clarett put the Buckeyes ahead in the second OT. Miami converted a fourth down, then faced another at the one, and under pressure, Dorsey's pass fell incomplete, ending the Canes' win streak as Ohio State claimed the national championship.
5. Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
Nov. 25, 1971; Norman, Okla.
Forty-six years later, watch this game and it is impossible to fully feel the magnitude of Thanksgiving 1971, No. 1 Cornhuskers vs. No. 2 Sooners, two teams that, to this point, had not won a game by fewer than 13 points. But make no mistake, this was a Game of the Century that lived up to the billing from start to finish, beginning with one of the most famous plays in college football history: Early in the first quarter, Oklahoma punted to Johnny Rodgers, who fielded it amid traffic at his own 28-yard line, made a few moves, somehow eluded defenders and burst downfield for a breathtaking 72-yard touchdown. The rest of the Cornhuskers and Sooners followed suit by raising their level of play to meet the Game of the Century hype.
Jon Harrison caught a 24-yard touchdown pass from Jack Mildren late in the second quarter to give the Sooners a 17-14 halftime lead. Nebraska responded with the first two touchdowns of the third quarter, both Jeff Kinney runs. Oklahoma battled back with two touchdowns of its own, a Mildren run after a big reverse pass thrown by Harrison, then a beautiful 16-yard pass from Mildren to Harrison to put Oklahoma ahead 31-28 with 7:10 left. Of course Nebraska rose to the occasion in response, Big 8 and national championship on the line. Jerry Tagge, Rodgers and Kinney mounted an impressive 12-play drive, and Kinney -- who rushed for 171 yards -- punched it in from two yards out for the four-point Nebraska lead with 1:38 to play.
Oklahoma finished with 467 total yards, but it wasn't enough to overcome three lost fumbles and the early heroics of Rodgers, a punt return that effectively launched him to the 1972 Heisman Trophy. Undefeated No. 2 Alabama still awaited Nebraska in the Orange Bowl on New Year's Day, but by the end of that 38-6 blowout Cornhuskers win, it was abundantly clear that the real national championship, a classic game that checked a lot of boxes -- all-time great players, all-time great plays, No. 1 vs. No. 2, a game fully worthy of the hype -- happened on Thanksgiving in Norman.
4. Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Nov. 30, 2013; Auburn, Ala.
College football has seen a long list of incredible game-wining plays over the years. Many make this list, whether it's Cal-Stanford or Doug Flutie's Hail Mary. They were outstanding plays that deserve to be celebrated. Given the context, however, the most shocking game-winning play in college football history happened at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Nov. 30, 2013.
Consider that: 1) Two weeks earlier, Auburn beat Georgia on the fourth-and-17 tipped pass to Ricardo Louis, who ran for a 73-yard TD. 2) Alabama was undefeated, ranked No. 1, coming off back-to-back national titles and seeking a third. 3) Auburn had gone 3-9 the year before and fired a coach who won a national title two years before that. 4) At the time, it seemed like Auburn winning would end the SEC's seven-year BCS title streak, as it would take an Ohio State loss to Michigan State to put the Tigers in the championship game. 5) The SEC West title was on the line between hated rivals ranked first and fourth.
The national championship wasn't directly on the line this game, but never before had the stakes been so high for such a miraculous winning play. Down seven after blocking a field goal, Auburn tied the game with 32 seconds left on a 39-yard pop pass from Nick Marshall, who was just behind the line of scrimmage, to Sammie Coates. With the game tied, Alabama appeared content to play for overtime, but T.J. Yeldon ran for 24 yards and was knocked out of bounds … initially with no time left, but then one second left after a review. Cade Foster had missed three field goals for Alabama. Saban sent out Adam Griffith to try a 57-yard attempt with that extra second. Anticipating a short kick, Auburn planted Chris Davis under the goalpost. Davis caught the ball at the back of the end zone and took off running down the left side. He just barely stayed in bounds, got a few blocks and accelerated into wide-open field, delivering a walk-off field goal return touchdown that covered 109 yards to win the division, ruin Alabama's titles hopes and lead to Auburn to the BCS title game. The Tigers lost to Florida State, but it will never lessen the jaw-dropping impact of the Kick Six.
3. Clemson 35, Alabama 31
Jan. 9, 2017; Tampa, Fla.; CFP National Championship
Into the third quarter, the game felt frustratingly familiar, like many other Alabama games we've seen. The Crimson Tide defense was in control. Bo Scarbrough was running well. Alabama led 17-7. But then the game began to feel familiar in a different way: Clemson's offense started frustrating the Tide like it had a year earlier, when it lost a heartbreaking national title game despite a masterful performance by Deshaun Watson. Out for revenge, Clemson trailed by 10 entering the fourth, but an injury to Scarbrough and Bama's inability to sustain drives set the stage for a comeback as the unbreakable Tide defense wore down.
Early in the fourth, Watson threw a short TD to Mike Williams. After a series of punts, Watson directed an 88-yard drive, running to the one to set up Wayne Gallman's go-ahead touchdown with 4:38 left. Alabama, of course, wasn't about to fold. After Damien Harris converted a fourth-and-one, QB Jalen Hurts threw backward to WR ArDarius Stewart, who fired a 24-yard pass to O.J. Howard. On the next play, Hurts, who had struggled as a passer all game, took off running and burst through the defense for a 30-yard TD with 2:07 left.
Watson, a two-time Heisman finalist, needed to lead Clemson 68 yards to win the national title. He floated a 24-yard pass for a brilliant catch by Williams. Watson converted a third down to Hunter Renfrow. Clemson was surprisingly unconcerned about the clock, which was down to 14 seconds after a fantastic 17-yard catch by Jordan Leggett. After a pass interference call, Clemson lined up at the two-yard line with six seconds left. A field goal would force overtime. Instead, Watson rolled right and found an open Renfrow for the game-winning TD with only one second left. At the final moment, Alabama's powerful dynasty was denied a fifth Saban title, while Watson went out a champion and Clemson earned its first title since 1981.
2. Miami 31, Nebraska 30
Jan. 2, 1984; Miami, Fla.; Orange Bowl
Tom Osborne had waited a decade for a national championship of his own. He had won two as offensive coordinator under Bob Devaney, and he had coached 10 teams that finished the season ranked in the AP top 12, but none at the top. The previous season, Nebraska won the Orange Bowl and lost only once, in a heartbreaker at national champion Penn State. Jan. 2, 1984 was supposed to be a coronation, the undefeated Cornhuskers rolling into the 50th Orange Bowl with a perfect 12-0 record and an unstoppable offense that averaged 52 points per game, led by Turner Gill, Irving Fryar and Heisman Trophy winner Mike Rozier. Miami had other plans. Ranked No. 5 in the AP poll, Miami was the hungry upstart in its fifth year under coach Howard Schnellenberger, who had built the Hurricanes into a budding national power.
Led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, Miami raced out to a 17-0 lead in the first quarter, forcing Nebraska to play catch up. The Huskers did just that and evened the score at 17 --starting with a 19-yard touchdown on a fumblerooski -- only for Miami to dominate the third quarter and lead 31-17. Despite Rozier's ankle injury, the Huskers battled back again. Nebraska scored once to cut the lead to seven, backup I-back Jeff Smith plunging into the end zone with 6:55 left. They got the ball back after a missed Miami field goal and scored again, Smith running 24 yards for a touchdown on a fourth-and-eight option pitch from Gill with 48 seconds left. No. 2 Texas lost the Cotton Bowl to Georgia. No. 4 Illinois got crushed by UCLA in the Rose Bowl. No. 3 Auburn barely escaped Michigan in the Sugar Bowl. Nebraska was the only undefeated team in the country. It could kick the extra point, hold off Miami in the final moments and tie its way to a national championship. Instead, Osborne aggressively went for the win to leave no doubt. Gill took the snap, rolled right and fired a pass intended for Smith, but Miami's Kenny Calhoun got a hand on it and broke it up. Miami held on to its improbable one-point lead. "You can't go for a tie in that case," Osborne said after the game. "I don't think our players or anybody else would have been satisfied if we backed in by kicking the PAT. That's not the way the game is played. We came down here to win the football game."
Thus, one untimed play at the goal line decided a national championship. Nationally irrelevant only a few years earlier, Miami vaulted from No. 5 to No. 1 and claimed its first title with the help of other bowl results. The 1980s had been shaping up to be Nebraska's decade; instead, while Schnellenberger left, the '80s belonged to Miami. Osborne's first national title would have to wait another 11 years. By that point, Miami had already won another three.
1. Texas 41, USC 38
Jan. 4, 2006; Pasadena, Calif.; Rose Bowl
The greatest college football game of all time featured two historically great teams with storied histories, including a USC team coming off back-to-back titles and owning a 34-game winning streak. It featured two Heisman Trophy winners (Reggie Bush, Matt Leinart) on one side, and one of the best players to never win the Heisman on the other (Vince Young, who had dazzled in the previous Rose Bowl against Michigan). It was staged at the Rose Bowl, college football's grandest venue, the nation's two unbeaten teams battling in a riveting game from start to finish with a great ending, called by the legendary Keith Jackson in his final national title game. This was everything we want out of a game to decide the national championship: decided on the field, with no controversy, winner-take-all, down to the final minute, with an all-time great individual performance.
USC was a clear favorite, with "greatest team ever" talk leading into the game, but Texas was loaded, too and it had a star quarterback ready for one of the best games any quarterback has ever played. There were some mistakes -- headlined by Bush trying to do too much and losing a fumble on a lateral at the end of a big play -- and the Longhorns led 16-10 at halftime. Texas punted to start the third quarter; it was the game's final punt. LenDale White scored to put USC ahead. Young answered with a 14-yard TD. White scored again with a 12-yard TD on fourth down. After Texas missed a field goal, USC went on an 80-yard scoring drive capped by Bush's 26-yard TD. Texas kicked a field goal. USC went ahead by 12 on a 22-yard Leinart TD pass to Dwayne Jarrett. With time winding down, Texas wouldn't give in. Young marched the Longhorns down the field and scored from 17 yards out. Up five with a chance to run out the clock, USC went for it on fourth-and-two at the Texas 45. With Bush watching form the sideline, White got the ball and was stopped.
Young, who would finish with 267 passing yards and 200 rushing yards, took nine plays to get Texas down to the eight-yard line. The Longhorns faced fourth-and-five with 26 seconds left. Young dropped back, was flushed from the pocket, pulled the ball down and took off to the right. He beat a defender to the first-down marker and coasted into the end zone for the national championship. Other games have had more breathtaking plays, but no game in the history of college football has matched the combination of the high stakes, high quality of play for the entire game and great ending that we witnessed in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
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