By Robert Weintraub
Some folks tackled their kids or ran outside with no shoes on. My response to that incredible Iron Bowl on Saturday was to make a list. Where does Auburn's victory rank on the ladder of greatest college football games ever?
In 1963, instant replay made its broadcast debut during the CBS telecast of the Army-Navy game. So in honor of that signal moment in history, we're confining this list to games played in the 50 years since then -- after all, what fun would these fantastic finishes have been without seeing them in slo-mo? We're also weighting them based on the endings. Some games were titanic collisions of powerhouses that ended in matter-of-fact fashion. This particular list instead tips the cap to the wild and wooly, the games that had more twists and turns than the Nurburgring racetrack. But import is certainly a factor -- a national championship game outweighs the Iron Bowl, for example.
It is fifteen deep, one for each second it took Chris Davis to traverse the Jordan-Hare gridiron and make history. And it should go without saying that this list could have easily encompassed three hundred or so games without breaking a sweat, so apologies to all the quality entries left out.
15. Navy 21, Army 15
Dec. 7, 1963
Municipal Stadium, Philadelphia
Why not start at (our artificial) beginning? That momentous instant replay game was also an instant classic, played with heavy hearts after the game was delayed a week after JFK's murder. Navy, led by Heisman-winner Roger Staubach, led 21-7, but Army closed to 21-15, recovered an onside kick, and drove to the brink of victory. But the crowd noise generated by hyped Middies and Cadets so flustered Army quarterback Rollie Stichweh that the Black Knights incredibly mustered just one play in the final 58 seconds, and came up shy of the end zone. One can only imagine the recriminations today; I like to believe the JFK assassination would have tamped down the reaction had there been sports talk radio in 1963.
14. Harvard 29, Yale 29
Nov. 23, 1968
Harvard Stadium, Boston
Yale had Calvin Hill, Brian Dowling and a 29-13 lead with 42 seconds left. Harvard had Tommy Lee Jones and a what-the-hell? attitude. The Crimson scored a touchdown and two-point conversion, recovered an onside kick, and got another TD. With no time left, Harvard got another two-pointer to forge a shocking tie, one celebrated with the immortal headline in the following day's student newspaper, "Harvard Beats Yale 29-29."
13. Georgia 26, Florda 21
Nov. 8, 1980
Gator Bowl Stadium, Jacksonville, Fla.
Fabulous freshman Herschel Walker was the key to the Bulldogs run to the national championship, but it never would have happened if not for Lindsay Scott. His 93-yard catch and run to beat hated rival Florida in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is the greatest play in Bulldog history. Folks in the Peach State have Larry Munson's epic call memorized, stenciled on living room walls, engraved on tombstones, you name it...
"Gonna throw on the run-complete on the 25. To the 30, Lindsay Scott 35, 40, Lindsay Scott 45, 50, 45, 40-Run, Lindsay!--25, 20, 15, 10, 5, Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!!"
12. USC 34, Notre Dame 31
Oct. 15, 2005
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
Many games from this great rivalry are in the running, but the "Bush Push" takes its place on this list thanks to the three memorable touchdown drives in the final five minutes, culminating with Matt Leinart's sneak from a yard out on the game's final play from scrimmage, extending the Trojans winning streak to 28. The score was considerably aided by Reggie Bush's shove from behind, which alone may have won him the Heisman. The fact that USC later had to vacate the win thanks to Bush's off-field peccadilloes takes nothing away from his part in this classic.
11. Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
Nov. 25, 1971
Owen Field, Norman, Okla.
A game many consider the game's greatest ever is penalized here for its comparatively sedate fourth quarter, but there is no doubt this was a Big 8 battle for the ages. Number one edged number two thanks to the incomparable Johnny Rodgers, whose early punt return TD is among the more memorable plays of its kind of all time (but was there a clipping penalty on the play?).
Regardless, Lyell Bremser's radio call is legendary ...
"Man, woman and child did that put them in the aisles!! Johnny 'The Jet' Rodgers just tore them loose from their shoes!!"
Jeff Kinney scored his fourth touchdown of the game to give the Huskers the lead with two minutes left, and then the "Blackshirts" sacked Sooners QB Jack Mildren twice to ice the game. Nebraska went on to win its second straight national championship a few weeks later.
10. BYU 46, SMU 45
Dec. 19, 1980
Jack Murphy Stadium, San Diego
The Holiday Bowl would gain a reputation for tremendous games thanks to this insane epic. The Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James led the Mustangs to a 45-25 lead with 2:33 left. Enter BYU's Jim McMahon. Two touchdown passes, an onside kick recovery and a blocked punt later, the Cougars had the ball, down six points. With time left for one play, McMahon heaved one to the end zone. Tight end Clay Brown skied to haul in the Hail Mary, and the PAT completed one of the most incredible comebacks of all time.
9. Florida 31, Florida State 31
Nov. 26, 1994
Doak Campbell Stadium, Tallahassee, Fla.
Back when this Sunshine State rivalry was annually among the biggest games on the board, FSU overcame a 31-3 deficit with a wild 28-point fourth quarter to tie the shocked Gators, a miraculous comeback dubbed "The Choke at Doak." The Noles amazingly had the ball and were driving for the win, but ran out of time in Gators territory. The teams would rematch in the Sugar Bowl, with Florida State compounding Florida's pain with a 23-17 win.
8. Boston College 47, Miami 45
Nov. 23, 1984
Orange Bowl, Miami
As a Thanksgiving weekend audience watched rapt, Doug Flutie and Bernie Kosar traded haymakers all day, despite a heavy rainstorm that soaked the field. Melvin Bratton's fourth TD of the game gave the Canes a late four-point lead, but then came "55 Flood Tip," the fabled Hail Mary from Flutie to Gerard Phelan. The modern scourge of a defining "Heisman Moment" was born as Phelan cradled the pass like a "first-born," as Phelan later said. Flutie's incredible bomb into gale-force winds as time elapsed is arguably the most famous play in college pigskin history, at least before Saturday.
7. Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
Jan. 1, 1979
Cotton Bowl, Dallas
Houston led 34-12, Texas was suffering through the frosty aftermath of a rare ice storm, and Joe Montana was sick to death. But the future Hall of Famer inhaled a bowl of chicken soup at halftime, and then turned in a performance only a mensch could achieve, leading the Irish to 23 points in a manic fourth quarter. Joe Cool hit Kris Haines with no time remaining to tie the game, and after a penalty, the PAT was true.
It was Montana's final game for Notre Dame. Not a great draft prospect, most assumed this finale would be the lasting moment of his football career. They would be wrong.
6. California 25, Stanford 20
Nov. 20, 1982
Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Calif.
The "Big Game" might not fire the rivalry emotions like the Iron Bowl or Michigan-Ohio State, but on this day, it was as good as any. John Elway, later to be renowned for his great late drives, led the Cardinal to a seemingly game-winning field goal by Mark Harmon, the kicker, not the actor (playing defense for Cal was "Riverboat Ron" Rivera, among others). Stanford's celebration was excessive enough, even by early-80s standards, to draw a penalty, giving Cal a smidgen of hope.
Then came all the laterals, the band out on the field, the long, long discussion, and then Joe Starkey's voice-shattering call on KGO-AM ...
"AND THE BEARS!! THE BEARS HAVE WON! The Bears have won! Oh, my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending... exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won the Big Game over Stanford! Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in the history of I have ever seen any game in my life! The Bears have won it! There will be no extra point!"
Sure, it should have been a penalty on Cal. But who cares?
5. Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42
Jan. 1, 2007
University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.
A hook-and-ladder TD in the dying seconds, a halfback-option pass in overtime, a Statue of Liberty two-point conversion to win the game -- this Fiesta Bowl classic set the standard for David strategies employed by heavy underdogs. Boise threw everything it had at the heavily favored Sooners (led by the indomitable Adrian Peterson), including a marriage proposal from running back Ian Johnson to his cheerleader girlfriend. Had Chris Myers not accidentally ruined the surprise, this might have ranked higher.
4. Ohio State 31, Miami 24
Jan. 3, 2003
Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.
The Hurricanes thought they had repeated as national champs. A roster stacked with future NFL stars celebrated with hugs and helmet tosses.
Then someone noticed the flag.
Great endings often come with controversy, and no game in recent memory is as etched in debate as this BCS title clash in the Arizona desert. Was it truly pass interference on Miami defensive back Glenn Sharpe? Was field judge Terry Porter blind, ignorant, or merely deliberate in calling the penalty so late? Would the game have even been in overtime had future pariah Maurice Clarett not stripped the ball from Sean Taylor after a third quarter interception?
All rhetorical questions, as it happens. What did happen is that OSU outlasted The U in a breathless double overtime thriller to win the crystal football.
3. Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Nov. 30, 2013
Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.
Unless you were visiting your in-laws in Moldova for Thanksgiving -- and perhaps even if you were -- you know all about it by now.
2. Texas 41, USC 38
Jan. 4, 2006
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.
Alabama's recent dynasty has served to obscure the Men of Troy's run to the cusp of three consecutive titles in the middle of the last decade (a hundred years ago in today's world). The Trojans had won 34 consecutive games entering the BCS championship game in the Rose Bowl, and played well enough to win number 35, except for a performance for the ages by Texas quarterback Vince Young. Vinsanity ran for 200 yards, including the game-winning score on fourth-and-five with 19 seconds left, and threw for 267 more, outplaying Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, the winners of the last two Heisman Trophies.
In a 32-point fourth quarter, it was a defensive play that turned the game. With a touch over two minutes left, Southern Cal turned to its ball peen hammer, LenDale White, to convert a fourth-and-two to ice the game. White scored three TDs and averaged six yards a carry on the night, but on his final tote he was brought down just short of the sticks. Young breezed down the field, and the Horns had a stunning national championship.
1. Miami 31, Nebraska 30
Jan. 1, 1984
Orange Bowl, Miami
How to calculate the impact of social media, 24/7 sports media, and the general milieu of second-guessing that exists today, had it all existed when Tom Osborne went for two to win or lose the national championship? The whole "Internet would melt" cliche seems, for once, apt.
Top-ranked Nebraska, led by Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier and Turner Gill, came into the game overwhelming favorites to beat Howard Schnellenberger's Hurricanes, then in its nascent-dynasty stage. But Miami, riding a huge home-field edge, raced to a big lead, only to have Nebraska inexorably reel them in, helped by a "fumblerooski" TD scored by Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler. Bernie Kosar responded by pushing the Canes back out to a 31-17 lead.
But the Huskers responded again, scoring on a fourth-and-eight option run to make the score 31-30 with 48 seconds left. A tie likely would allow Nebraska to win the title, but such a sullied victory didn't sit well with Osborne. "We wanted a clear-cut national championship," he said after the game. So he laid it all on the line with a Gill pass for two, which was batted down by Kenny Calhoun, giving The U its first title.
Oh, Twitter, where were you that sultry New Year's night?
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Robert Weintraub is the author of the books The Victory Season and The House That Ruth Built. He writes regularly for the New York Times, ESPN.com, Football Outsiders, CJR, Slate and many others. Follow him on Twitter @robwein.