The Biggest Battles in College Football History
The truth is that not all college football games are created equally.
Yes, some contests are billed as “game of the century” affairs before a single snap is taken and live up to the hype, other simply fail as epically as they were predicted to dazzle.
And, the flip side of this coin is that some games that are not supposed to be worth watching or are billed as only marginally intriguing (especially to the participating fanbases) magically play out to be the classic contests that we remember for the rest of our lives.
Epic clashes, monumental struggles, historical battles, memorable and meaningful gridiron warfare—regardless of how they come to be ours, we welcome them with open arms.
The following slideshow celebrates and then ranks for your pleasure, the 10 greatest fracases in college football history.
The contests listed here are chock full of twists and turns, physicality, toughness and ultimately resulted in an unforgettable victory for one and an indigestible defeat for another.
These games are so good that, regardless of whether you smoke or not, they leave you with the urge to step outside and light up an aromatic cigarillo.
10. Oklahoma vs. Florida State, 2001 Orange Bowl
Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images
Though this pick may well be poo-pooed by folks who can think of 10 football games that are more legendary than the 2001 Orange Bowl, in reality this was one of the most physical battles in recent college football history.
Florida State rode into what was for all practical purposes the 2000-01 national championship with an 11-1 record that was marred only by a narrow 27-24 defeat to Miami (Fla.) on Oct. 7.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, was 12-0 and was fresh off of a paper thin 27-24 win against Kansas State in the 2000 Big 12 title game.
What made this game even more thrilling was the fact that the Seminoles were 10.5 point favorites and were expected to dominate over the Sooners.
What actually happened was that a very scrappy Oklahoma defense managed to shut out the Florida State offense, a unit that had averaged over 42 points per game in 2000.
Yes, the ‘Noles' sole points in the game came via a fourth quarter safety and Oklahoma won the day and the national title in a thrilling, defensive and physical smack down by a score of 13-2.
9. Notre Dame vs. Michigan, 2011
Leon Halip/Getty Images
In perhaps the most exciting game in college football in the present century, 2011’s edition of Notre Dame vs. Michigan was larger-than-life in every sense of the phrase.
Michigan came into the Ann Arbor sited game 1-0 and fresh off of a less than convincing victory over Western Michigan in Week 1.
Notre Dame, on the other hand, came into the game after its unthinkable 23-20 home opener loss to South Florida, who beat the Irish in a memorable, though unbelievable turnover-laden affair.
The Irish held a commanding 24-7 lead coming into the fourth quarter, which is when the real meat of the classic meal was dished up to Saturday night viewers across our great land.
The Wolverines scored on the first play of the fourth and followed up with another quick score after Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first possession of the final stanza.
After turnovers by each squad’s offense, the score stood at 24-21, Notre Dame, with less than three minutes left to go in the game.
A 21-yard toss from Michigan’s Denard Robinson to Vincent Smith gave the Wolverines the lead 28-24, an advantage that they held for about 42 seconds until Irish QB Tommy Rees hooked up with Theo Riddick on a 29-yard TD play that made the score 31-28, Notre Dame.
The final 30 seconds of the game will go on down in history: Michigan took possession on its own 20, and on a first down, Robinson threw an incomplete pass.
On a second down, Robinson connected with Jeremy Gallon for an unbelievable 64-yard play that finally ended at the Notre Dame 16.
Next, magically and deliciously, came the blockbuster first down (Robinson to Roy Roundtree), 16-yard pass play that finally ended the game, 35-31, with just three ticks on the clock.
Notre Dame, who was expected to rise back to the top of the charts in 2011, went on to an 8-5 finish that included a narrow loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Michigan, who was not in anyone’s preseason Top 25 coming into the year, went 11-2, beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl and finished the season ranked No. 12 in the AP and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll.
8. Army vs. Notre Dame, 1947
photo from headlinesports.net
The Army vs. Notre Dame game in 1947 was billed as a clash between two of the most prolific offenses in college football.
The Irish were 5-0 coming into the Nov. 9 game vs. Army and had, to that point in the season, outscored their opponents 177-18.
Army, on the other hand, was 6-0 and had outscored its foes by a margin of 185-34, shutting out its first four opponents of the season and then scoring 125 points in the three contests leading into the game vs. Notre Dame.
The game itself, which was played in South Bend, was anything but offensive and became one of the greatest defensive battles in the history of college football. It ended in a surreal 0-0 tie in which realistically, each team had only one real opportunity to score.
The contest featured the two previous season’s Heisman winners, Army’s Doc Blanchard (Mr. Inside won in 1945), Army’s Glenn Davis (Mr. Outside had won in 1946) and then included the guy who would go on and win the 1947 trophy, Notre Dame’s Johnny Lujack.
Army finished the season 9-0-1 under Red Blaik and was awarded a national title, and Notre Dame finished the year 8-0-1 (Frank Leahy was the Irish coach) and was also declared the champs.
Both titles are still recognized as bona fide national championships.
7. Texas vs. Arkansas, 1969
photo from fanbase.com
In another epic clash that lived up to pregame billing, the 1969 game pitting No. 1 Texas vs. No. 2 Arkansas is one of the all-time classics in college football’s long and storied history.
Texas was a perfect 9-0 coming into the game, and the Longhorns had absolutely dominated their 1969 foes, outscoring them by a margin of 399-88.
As far as momentum goes, Texas was smoking hot by the time that the Dec. 6 contest in Fayetteville rolled around, as they were fresh off a month of beatdowns; they trounced SMU 45-14 on Nov. 1, whipped Baylor 56-14 on Nov. 8, annihilated TCU 69-7 on Nov. 15 and then routed Texas A&M 49-12 on Nov. 27.
Arkansas, on the other hand, was also 9-0 and with a “thus far” 1969 winning margin 317-61 was enjoying a healthy measure of dominance all its own.
In the actual game, the Razorbacks shut the high scoring Longhorns completely down through three thrilling quarters and held a sizeable, though far from rock solid, 14-0 lead coming into the final period of play.
Texas moved quickly to score early in the fourth, and after a successful two-point conversion, the score was 14-8, still in the Razorbacks favor.
Arkansas made it all the way inside the Texas seven-yard line during their next drive, but a damaging interception cost the Hogs a potential game winning score and gave the ball back to the Longhorns.
The play that became the turning point in the game came on a 4th-and-3 situation where Texas rolled the dice and gained 44 invaluable yards on a James Street to Randy Peschel pass that ultimately set up the winning Longhorn score.
The final tally was 15-14 in favor of Texas, who won the Southwest Conference title and went on to beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
The Longhorns finished the 1969 season 11-0 and were declared national champions.
Arkansas never really recovered from the comeback loss, finished the season 9-2-0 and was ranked No. 7 in the AP after losing to Ole Miss 27-22 in the Sugar Bowl.
6. Notre Dame vs. Ohio State, 1935
In the first game ever that pitted the Irish against the Buckeyes, this epic battle played out amid the backdrop of Ohio Stadium, which had opened 13 years beforehand in 1922.
Ohio State scored 13 points and held Notre Dame scoreless through three periods only to have the Irish claw back in the fourth by scoring three unanswered TDs. The winning points came via a pass play with less than a minute left on the clock, and Notre Dame ultimately won the game 18-15.
The loss was the only defeat suffered by the Buckeyes in 1935, and they eventually finished the season 7-1-0 under coach Francis A. Schmidt and captured a piece of the Big Ten title.
Notre Dame similarly finished 7-1-1 in 1935 under then coach Elmer Layden—the loss came at the hands of Northwestern (14-7) in South Bend, and the tie was a 6-6 draw with Army in New York City.
This game was actually advertised as the “Game of the Century,” and remarkably, it lived up to its billing.
5. USC vs. UCLA, 1967
In another blockbuster battle with back-to-back Heisman winners featured prominently, the classic 1967 matchup pitting No. 1 UCLA vs. No. 2 USC featured the 1967 Heisman winner Gary Beban from UCLA and the 1968 winner OJ Simpson from USC.
To further sweeten the pot, one of these guys almost won this epic clash, while the other actually did.
UCLA was 7-0-1 coming into the Nov. 18 clash with the Trojans—the Bruins' only blemish had come via a 16-16 draw against Oregon State two weeks earlier on Nov. 4.
The Trojans were 8-1 and had ironically dropped a defensive tour de force contest 3-0 to the same Oregon State team the week prior (Nov. 11) in Corvallis.
The game itself lived up to expectations, and the score was a scintillating 14-14 coming into the fourth quarter.
The Bruins struck first on a memorable Gary Beban TD pass but failed to convert on their extra point attempt, and the score stood ominously at 20-14 in favor of UCLA.
What happened next, with just over 10 minutes left to play, ultimately went down in football lore as one of the greatest single plays in big game history.
On a long 3rd-and-7, USC QB Toby Page was about to call a pass play when he recognized an opportunity to take advantage of UCLA’s coverage and instead audibled to a running play.
Page handed off the ball to OJ Simpson, who dashed dramatically for 64 yards and the winning TD.
The game was not only thrilling but had repercussions that rang out across the national college football landscape.
UCLA dropped not only out of the No. 1 spot but went on to lose its final game of the season the following week to Syracuse (32-14). The Bruins finished the season 7-2-1 and did not go bowling.
The Trojans, on the other hand, were awarded the Pac-10 title and the national championship after the game (it was their final contest of the season, and the pollsters still voted on the national title before the bowl games, a tradition that actually would change the next season in 1968).
USC went on to beat No. 4 ranked Indiana in the Rose Bowl and ultimately finished the season 10-1-0 under then coach John McKay.
4. Ohio State vs. Michigan, 2006
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
In what could perhaps be considered the best, meaning-ridden regular season game played in the last 40 years, the 2006 rivalry game pitting Ohio State vs. Michigan had it all.
The first ever No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting in the 100-plus-year-old rivalry between Wolverine and Buckeye, the ’06 edition of “The Game,” was for a Big Ten title and an opportunity to play in the BCS title game.
Ohio State was the favorite coming into the Nov. 18 game in the Horseshoe, touting an 11-0 record and a whopping 394-86 margin of victory over its opponents thus far in the season.
Michigan, on the other hand, was also 11-0 and had exercised a 323-133 advantage over its 2006 slate of foes.
The game itself exceeded its billing as a “game of the century” affair and began with a holiday TD exchange resulting in a 7-7 tie betwixt the long time rivals at the end of the first quarter.
The second period was dominated by the Buckeyes, who scored 21 points to the Wolverines' paltry seven, giving Ohio State a commanding 28-14 advantage at the half.
Michigan scored 10 points in the third and then 15 in the fourth, but even those high water marks weren’t enough to knock off the Buckeyes whose 14-second half points eked out a precarious, though thrilling 42-39 Ohio State victory.
Ohio State went on to lose the BCS title game 41-14 to Florida and ultimately finished the 2006 campaign 12-1 and was ranked No. 2 in both polls.
The Wolverines followed up the big loss to their hated foes with another to USC in the Rose Bowl by a score of 32-18. Michigan finished the season 11-2 and was ranked No. 8 in the AP and No. 9 in the Coaches Poll.
3. Miami (Fla.) vs. Nebraska, 1984 Orange Bowl
In an epic battle pitting No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 4 Miami for all of the marbles, the 1984 Orange Bowl stands firmly as one of the greatest postseason clashes in college football history.
Top ranked Nebraska was 12-0 and had dominated its way to a Big Eight title that included a 44-6 beatdown of Penn State in the opener, an 84-13 shellacking of Minnesota in Week 3, a not-so-narrow 63-7 win over Syracuse in Week 5 and a string of conference romps that included one 69-19 win over Colorado, a 72-29 defeat of Iowa State and a 67-13 victory over Kansas.
Miami came into the game flying somewhat under the radar with a 10-1 record that included a Week 1 loss (28-3) to Florida followed by 10 consecutive victories that, though in most cases were decisive, were not anywhere near as convincing as Nebraska’s.
What was somewhat misleading about the “untouchable” Huskers was that they had only played one ranked team all season, which should have made Miami’s 17-0 start and then their 31-17 lead after three periods more understandable.
But Nebraska stormed back by epic proportions in the final quarter and scored with seven minutes remaining on the clock to take the margin down to a mere seven points.
The ending of the game was nothing short of spellbinding as the Cornhuskers once again rallied and scored a 24-yard TD on a long 4th-and-8, with under a minute to play in the game.
The TD resulted in a 31-30 Miami advantage and set up Nebraska coach Tom Osborne’s infamous (yet ballsy) decision to go for a two-point conversion and the win.
The Huskers failed to convert, and suddenly, against all odds, underdog Miami had beaten Nebraska 31-30 and captured its first national championship in school history.
2. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, 1971
photo from sportige.com
In what many folks consider as the actual “Game of the Century,” the 1971 matchup pitting No. 1 Nebraska vs. No. 2 Oklahoma was one for the ages.
Nebraska strode confidently into the Thanksgiving Day showdown 10-0 and had, thus far in the season, outscored its opponents 389-64. In fact, the last time that Huskers had suffered a football defeat was when they lost to Missouri on Oct. 11, 1969.
The Sooners were also riding high at 9-0 and had not dropped a game since they lost to, you guessed it, Nebraska 28-21 a year earlier in Lincoln.
The 1971 team, betwixt the two historic rivals, was set in Norman and featured all the twists and turns you would expect out of what some still tout as the “game to end all games.”
The Huskers opened up the scoring with an electrifying 72-yard punt return by Johnny Rodgers, who would go on to win Nebraska’s first Heisman in 1972.
The score stood at 7-3 in favor of Nebraska at the end of the first quarter, but by halftime it was the Sooners who capitalized on a two TD second quarter and owned the lead by a 17-14 margin.
After a Nebraska dominated third, the scoreboard read Cornhuskers 28, Sooners 24—setting up an unforgettable and legendary final stanza.
With just over seven minutes left in the game, Oklahoma managed to take the lead back 31-28 but could not hold off the Huskers, who managed one final thrilling drive that finally ended in the Sooner end zone with just over a minute left on the game clock.
Nebraska won the game 35-31 and after triumphing in the final game of the regular season at Hawaii (45-3) and man-handling Alabama 38-6 in the Orange Bowl, was awarded its second consecutive national title.
Oklahoma, on the other hand, went on to wallop Oklahoma State the next week 58-14 and then smashed Auburn 40-22 in the Sugar Bowl.
At 11-1 the Sooners finished No. 2 in the AP poll behind 13-0 Nebraska.
The game was so moving that it compelled Louisville Courier Journal sportswriter Dave Kindred to claim, “They can quit playing now. They’ve played the perfect game.”
1. Texas vs. USC, 2006 Rose Bowl
Harry How/Getty Images
The 2006 Rose Bowl stands arguably as the best national championship game of the BCS era and the fiercest title contest battle in memory and, as a bonus, it featured perhaps the most awe-inspiring single play in televised championship play history.
Undefeated Texas came into the ’06 “Granddaddy of them all” sporting a 12-0 record in which they outscored their opponents 611-175.
The Trojans, on the other hand, were similarly 12-0 and had outscored their 2005 foes by a margin of 600-256.
And, while this game was hyped with all the pomp and circumstance that a planned meeting for all the marbles always is, anyone who watched this one got way more than he or she bargained for.
Though the most memorable part of the game was obviously Vince Young’s wild eight-yard TD run to seal a Longhorn victory and title, the entire game was epic as well.
After USC took an early TD lead in the first quarter, Texas reeled off 16 unanswered second quarter points followed by a Trojan field goal that left the score at halftime 16-10 in favor of the Longhorns.
The third stanza featured a TD teeter-totter that kicked off with a USC score, which was matched with a Texas TD and finally ended with a Trojan end zone trip, making the score 24-23 USC with 15 minutes left in the contest.
In the first half of the final quarter, USC trumped Texas with two TDs against a single Longhorn field goal and gave the Trojans a precarious, though sizeable, 38-26 advantage with approximately six minutes left to play.
That’s when Texas magically (and I say that as a Texas Tech fan) rode into the championship sunset with two thrilling Vince Young scrambling runs for TDs.
The first came on a 17-yard gem from Young with four minutes left to play, and then the second and most jaw dropping, came with just 19 ticks on the clock.
The Longhorns won 41-38, and you’d be hard pressed to find a true college football fan, whether from L.A., College Station, Norman or Lubbock, who was not duly impressed.