25 Greatest Games in History of College Football
Here's a reminder, as if you needed one: College football is unpredictable. That makes this sport, however bass-ackwards it may be at times with the way it's operated, so much fun.
Right now, we're missing out on the fun. Week 1 of the 2015 season is still more than three full months away. It's times like these that we feed the itch by looking back at some of the best moments from the game.
Or, in this case, the games themselves. That's how this topic was born. Ranking all-time games is always a challenge, but we feel we have a healthy mixture of older and newer games, shootouts and defensive struggles, nail-biters, comebacks and improbable finishes. From regular-season games to national championships, everything was under consideration.
Here are, according to us, the best games in the history of college football—which will undoubtedly be universally agreed upon by everyone, right? Right.
25. Ohio State 42, Michigan 39
Nov. 18, 2006
It seems so long ago now—but not 10 years ago—that Ohio State and Michigan were battling for a spot in the national championship.
In fact, there was a case being made that, even with Ohio State's win, a rematch in the national championship game would pit the two best teams in the country against each other. (This, of course, wasn't true. Ohio State would get blown out by Florida in the national championship and Michigan would lose to USC in the Rose Bowl.)
The game had high stakes, too. It was the first time in the rivalry's history that the two teams were ranked No. 1 and No. 2. The Buckeyes jumped out to an early lead and held off Michigan throughout the second half.
24. Baylor 61, TCU 58
Oct. 11, 2014
Baylor-TCU has an underrated and rich history as far as rivalry games go. The series has taken a more dramatic and nationally relevant turn in recent years, however. There was the 50-48 shootout in Waco in 2011 that introduced Bears quarterback Robert Griffin III as a legit Heisman candidate (he would go on to win the award that year).
But even that game couldn't top what happened three years later.
Down 58-37 with just less than 12 minutes to play, Baylor fired off 21 unanswered points in the span of about seven minutes to tie the game. With time expiring, Bears kicker Chris Callahan hit a 28-yard field goal to complete the come-from-behind victory.
Adding to the drama was that Baylor and TCU were named co-champions of the Big 12, but neither was selected to the first playoff field.
23. Colorado 33, Missouri 31
Oct. 6, 1990
Many of the games on this countdown get recognition for what was at stake. Usually, national championships or major bowl victories were on the line. The ending between Colorado and Missouri in 1990 gets on this list, however, because of an officiating blunder.
And thus the "The Fifth Down Game" was born.
Down 31-27 to Missouri, Colorado faced a 1st-and-goal in the final minute of the game. After spiking the ball and a failed rushing attempt, the Buffs called their final timeout. However, the chain crew did not change the down, and the officials didn't notice. After another failed run and a second spike—which should have resulted in a turnover on downs—Colorado completed a quarterback sneak for a touchdown.
Even the matter of whether he crossed the goal line or not was controversial. In any case, the Buffs got an extra down and were awarded the touchdown, coming away with a 33-31 win.
22. Florida State 18, Nebraska 16
Jan. 1, 1994
Amazingly, neither Tom Osborne nor Bobby Bowden had a national championship ring when Nebraska and Florida State met for the national championship in the Orange Bowl in 1994. Bowden came away the victor, but it was a nail-biter all the way to the end.
Huskers kicker Byron Bennett hit a field goal to give his team a 16-15 lead with just over a minute remaining in the game. However, the ensuing kickoff went out of bounds, giving the Seminoles good field position. FSU's Scott Bentley then hit a field goal with 21 seconds left, giving his team an 18-16 lead.
Nebraska actually had the chance to kick another game-winning field goal, but Bennett's 45-yard attempt sailed wide left as time expired.
21. Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Nov. 16, 2013
Sometimes, you need a miracle. Auburn got a couple of those during its run to the BCS championship game in 2013. One of them came against Georgia in mid-November, one game before the miraculous "Kick-Six" (more on that later).
Down one point with less than a minute to and facing a 4th-and-18, Auburn quarterback (and former Georgia defensive back) Nick Marshall threw a Hail Mary pass to Ricardo Louis. The ball was actually overthrown, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The ball was tipped and fell right into the waiting hands of Louis, who sprinted the rest of the way for a 73-yard touchdown.
Auburn had a comfortable lead early in the fourth quarter but gave up 21 straight points to the Bulldogs. However, that slate was wiped clean with one of the more miraculous catches of the season.
20. Texas 15, Arkansas 14
Dec. 6, 1969
Ah, the good ol' Southwest Conference days. One of the original lost rivalries in conference realignment was Texas-Arkansas. In 1969, the two played in one of many games given the "Game of the Century" title.
The Razorbacks had a 14-0 lead heading into the fourth quarter. However, the Longhorns scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion (head coach Darrell Royal didn't want to go for the tie), making a 14-8 game. Facing a fourth down with less than five minutes to go, Texas opted to go for it, throwing a pass that would set up the game-winning score.
Afterward, President Richard Nixon declared Texas to be the national champion (back when national champions were declared before bowl season), much to the dismay of undefeated Penn State.
19. Florida State 24, Florida 21
Nov. 30, 1996
In addition to Miami, Florida and Florida State played in some high-stakes games throughout their history. In the 1990s, with Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden on the sidelines, few games were more intriguing.
Both teams entered their 1996 game undefeated with the Gators ranked No. 1 and the Seminoles No. 2. Though Florida State jumped out to an early lead, Florida crawled back behind the arm of eventual Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel.
Though Florida State hung on for a 24-21 win, the two teams would face each other again in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. The result was an easy 52-20 win for the Gators.
18. USC 34, Notre Dame 31
Oct. 15, 2005
Affectionately—or, perhaps, bitterly in South Bend, Indiana—referred to as the "Bush Push" game, Notre Dame and USC staged a classic during the Trojans' 2005 BCS championship game run.
With its 27-game win streak on the line, USC found itself down 31-28 to the Irish in a back-and-forth game. In fact, three touchdowns were scored in the final 5:04.
With only seconds remaining, Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart attempted to run the ball in himself for a game-winning touchdown. Though he came up short, head coach Pete Carroll managed to get seven seconds put back on the game clock. The very next play, instead of spiking the ball, Leinart squirmed his way into the end zone with a little help from Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush.
"I used all 200 pounds of my body to push Matt in," said Bush after the game, per the Associated Press.
17. Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
Nov. 25, 1971
A handful of games claim to be the "The Game of the Century," but one stands out above the rest: Nebraska vs. Oklahoma in 1971. In the old Big Eight days, this was a classic No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle that couldn't be missed.
Though the ending wasn't as dramatic as it could have been, the contest lived up to the billing. It was a close game between two storied programs. Easily, the defining moment was Johnny Rodgers' punt return for a 72-yard touchdown.
16. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32
Sept. 2, 2007
Sports Illustrated once called it the "greatest upset of them all," and, well, it's not wrong.
Yes, this was the beginning of the end of the Lloyd Carr era at Michigan. Yes, Appalachian was an excellent FCS team. Still, no one could have predicted what was going to transpire on that fateful September afternoon.
It was supposed to be an easy win for fifth-ranked Michigan and a money game for the Mountaineers. Instead, Appalachian State took a 28-17 halftime lead. A Michigan rally looked like it would end all chances of the Mountaineers coming away with the upset, but a blocked field goal in the final seconds completed one of the most improbable wins of all time.
15. Harvard 29, Yale 29
Nov. 23, 1968
There was a time when the Ivy League was at the center of the college football universe. In the core of that universe was Harvard-Yale. One of the most memorable games from that series ended in a tie of all things.
This is one of the few times where one team actually "won" a tie. Later, the draw between Harvard and Yale in 1968 would be known as "Harvard beats Yale 29-29."
That's because the Crimson would score 16 points in the final 42 seconds to avoid the loss to their longtime rival. Yale was on a 16-game winning streak and entered the game nationally ranked in the AP poll.
14. LSU 33, Kentucky 30
Nov. 9, 2002
Talk about a heartbreaker.
Down 30-27 to Kentucky on the road, LSU needed a miracle. The Tigers got one in the form of a Hail Mary—a deflected pass from quarterback Marcus Randall that was caught by Devery Henderson for a 74-yard score.
The thing was, Kentucky had already celebrated by dousing head coach Guy Morriss in a Gatorade bath. Following the touchdown, Wildcats fans rushed the field, thinking they had won—but they hadn't. The Bluegrass Miracle was official.
13. BYU 46, SMU 45
Dec. 19, 1980
There was a time when the Holiday Bowl was a huge game—and when BYU and SMU were national powers. All of those elements came together in a perfect storm-type of way in the 1980 edition of the Holiday Bowl, considered one of the best comebacks ever in college football.
The Mustangs had the backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James; the Cougars had quarterback Jim McMahon. With SMU up 45-25 with four minutes remaining, McMahon led the Cougars to 21 straight points thanks to three touchdown passes, one onside kick and a blocked punt.
To this day, it's one of the most improbable comebacks ever in college football.
12. Florida 31, Florida State 31
Nov. 26, 1994
Yep, we have more Sunshine State rivalry goodness on this top-25 countdown. This time, it's the 1994 edition of the game between Florida and Florida State, known as "The Choke at Doak."
FSU overcame a 31-3 deficit with a 28-point fourth-quarter rally to tie Florida, which at the time tied the NCAA record for biggest comeback. Like the 1996 meeting, the two sides would meet in a rematch in the Sugar Bowl. Though FSU couldn't complete the comeback for a win in the regular season, it picked up where it left off in the bowl game. The Seminoles beat the Gators in New Orleans 23-17.
11. Colorado 27, Michigan 26
Sept. 24, 1994
You can't ask for much more than two Associated Press Top 10 teams squaring off in an early-season game, especially when said game comes down to the final play.
One of the more memorable endings of the past 25 years came in Ann Arbor between Michigan and Colorado—back when both programs were near the top of the college football world.
Down 26-21 in the final seconds, Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart launched a 64-yard Hail Mary pass, which landed in the hands of Buffs receiver Michael Westbrook after being tipped. The play would later be known as "The Miracle at Michigan."
10. Miami (Fla.) 17, Florida State 16
Nov. 16, 1991
In the 1990s, perhaps no rivalry had more fuel than Miami's battles with Florida State. Though they weren't ACC foes yet, the Florida schools were at the top of the college football world.
One of the most memorable games in the series was the initial "wide right" in which Seminoles kicker Gerry Thomas missed a would-be game-winning field goal.
Little did fans know "Wide Right" would actually be "Wide Right I," with other editions coming later. There would also be a "Wide Left," only adding to Florida State's misery against the Hurricanes.
9. Alabama 14, Penn State 7
Jan. 1, 1979
One of the best goal-line stands in the history of college football came on one of the biggest stages.
The 1979 Sugar Bowl between Alabama and Penn State, the top two teams in the country, was a defensive struggle. Appropriately, the Tide won the game on a heroic goal-line stand against the Nittany Lions' rushing attack.
Legendary play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson had the famous call, via ESPN.com: "Fourth down and a foot separating top-ranked Penn State from a possible national championship. Fusina hands to Guman. He didn't make it! He didn't make it! What an unbelievable goal-line stand by Alabama!"
Two storied programs, one defining series. The '79 Sugar Bowl is considered one of the best bowl games of all time.
8. Notre Dame 35, Houston 34
Jan. 2, 1979
We're a little behind the times news-wise, but we think this Joe Montana guy from Notre Dame could be pretty good in the NFL.
Need proof? Head back in time to the 1979 Cotton Bowl between Notre Dame and Houston. The Cougars led 34-12 during an icy Dallas day in early January. The comeback was even more impressive given that Montana was suffering from the flu. However, a little chicken soup at halftime was apparently all he needed. (The game was later dubbed "The Chicken Soup Game".) Montana helped lead Notre Dame to 23 fourth-quarter points to come away with the 35-34 win.
7. Cal 25, Stanford 20
Nov. 20, 1982
As far as improbable finishes go, the ol' five-lateral play is up there among the best. That's why The Big Game between Cal and Stanford in 1982 is one of the greatest games in college football history.
At the very least, it has one of the most iconic finishes.
Down a point with only seconds remaining, Cal returned a squib kick for a touchdown, evading tacklers and Stanford band members alike. You're also not going to find a more memorable call than Joe Starkey yelling "Oh, the band is out on the field!"
6. Boston College 47, Miami (Fla.) 45
Nov. 23, 1984
The term "Heisman moment" may have been born on this late November night in the Orange Bowl. Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie, the 1984 recipient of the award, cemented his place in college football history with his Hail Mary against Miami (Fla.) in an all-time classic.
With six seconds remaining, Flutie took the snap, scrambled backward and launched the ball about 64 yards into the hands of Gerard Phelan. And, just like that "Hail Flutie" was born.
5. Ohio State 31, Miami (Fla.) 24
Jan. 3, 2003
No pass interference call in recent memory was more controversial than the one called in the 2003 BCS national championship between Miami (Fla.) and Ohio State.
The Hurricanes led 24-17 in overtime, and the Buckeyes faced a game-defining 4th-and-3. Ohio State's pass was broken up by Canes defensive back Glenn Sharpe. Game over.
Except it wasn't over. A late flag fell on the field while Miami players celebrated. Pass interference on Sharpe. Two plays later, running back Maurice Clarett ran in for a touchdown. Ohio State would win the national championship over the star-studded Hurricanes in the next overtime series.
4. Miami (Fla.) 31, Nebraska 30
Jan. 1, 1984
The 1984 Orange Bowl between Miami (Fla.) and Nebraska will forever be known as the game where Cornhuskers coach Tom Osborne decided to go for two points instead of a tie—and failed.
The Huskers had many great teams during Osborne's tenure, but the 1983-84 team was one of his best. Among the players on the roster were Turner Gill, Irving Fryar and Mike Rozier. Miami was just starting its football dynasty with Howard Schnellenberger.
Nebraska fell behind early but kept battling back throughout the game. A touchdown in the final minute of the game pulled the Huskers to within one point. But instead of going for the tie, Osborne opted to go for two. He wanted the win outright. However, Gill's pass was batted down in the end zone, and the Hurricanes' dynasty was officially underway.
3. Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42
Jan. 1, 2007
The 2007 Fiesta Bowl was one for all the little guys in college football.
Undefeated Boise State couldn't get any respect in the BCS polls, so it had to earn it in the Fiesta Bowl against college football titan Oklahoma.
After jumping out to an early lead, the Broncos watched their 18-point lead slip away in the second half. The Cinderella story appeared to be over when Boise quarterback Jared Zabransky threw a pick-six with one minute remaining, giving the Sooners a 35-28 lead.
That's when the magic happened, though. Boise State would call three of the more memorable plays in college football back-to-back-to-back: The hook-and-ladder in the final moments of regulation, the halfback-option pass and the Statue of Liberty in overtime.
To top it all off, Broncos running back Ian Johnson proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend in the moments after the win.
You couldn't have scripted it any better.
2. Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Nov. 30, 2013
Auburn's luck almost knew no bounds in 2013—and that's not meant in a negative way. A team can be both good and have things fall into place. The Tigers were just more dramatic about it all.
No moment was more dramatic for Auburn during its '13 national championship game run than the Iron Bowl against Alabama in what is now known as the "Kick-Six" game. Down 21-7 at one point in the second quarter, Auburn made a thrilling comeback and eventually traded touchdowns with the Tide to lock things in at 28 with less than one minute remaining.
Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon took what looked like the final play of regulation out of bounds, but head coach Nick Saban pushed to have one second on the clock so that he could attempt a game-winning field goal. He got his wish but not the result he wanted. Adam Griffith's 57-yard field goal fell short and into the arms of Auburn's Chris Davis, who was waiting in the end zone. Davis returned the kick 100-plus yards the other way to give Auburn the amazing 34-28 win.
1. Texas 41, USC 38
Jan. 4, 2006
Not all national championship games in the BCS era were created equally. In terms of star power on the field and finish, the 2005-06 national championship between Texas and USC is easily one of the best games of the BCS era, if not the best.
The Trojans were riding a 34-game winning streak and were led by Heisman winners Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart. This was the height of the USC dynasty.
However, Longhorns quarterback Vince Young had other plans. With 467 total yards of offense, he also scored the go-ahead touchdown on 4th-and-5 with just 19 seconds remaining.
From start to finish, and with the Rose Bowl setting, this is one of those classic games that will be remembered forever.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.