Best Opening Weekend CFB Games Since 2010
In honor of the impending opening weekend of the 2020 college football season, we're taking a step back in time to relive the greatest Week 1 classic from each of the past 10 years.
Some years began much more memorably than others. For instance, the 2016 season had half a dozen Week 1 games I can vividly remember watching, but neither 2012 nor 2018 started out with anything resembling a bang.
Nevertheless, we're highlighting a few key contests from each season's box-office debut, if you will.
There's no particular formula for choosing a best game from a college football slate. Some were ranked vs. ranked classics. Others were unforgettable upsets. Some had dramatic finishes and a few were awesome simply because of an individual's Herculean effort. It's really just a question of which games most need to be discussed in any proper recap of that week.
Seasons are presented in chronological order.
2010: No. 3 Boise State vs. No. 10 Virginia Tech
Best Game: Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30
After punctuating an undefeated 2009 season with a Fiesta Bowl victory over BCS No. 4 TCU, Boise State finally got some legitimate love from the AP voters, debuting at No. 3 in the 2010 preseason poll. And the Broncos had to immediately prove they were worthy of such praise in a semi-road, Monday night game against Virginia Tech in Landover, Maryland.
They wasted little time in doing just that, jumping out to a 17-0 lead before the end of the first quarter. Tyrod Taylor and the Hokies fought back to take a 21-20 edge midway through the third quarter and still led by four points with less than two minutes remaining. But a 25-yard Mitch Burroughs punt return set the Broncos up near midfield for QB Kellen Moore to orchestrate a game-winning 56-yard touchdown drive.
Honorable Mention: Utah upsets No. 15 Pittsburgh 27-24 in overtime
Pittsburgh entered the decade in great shape. Led by head coach Dave Wannstedt, the Panthers went 9-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2009 before debuting at No. 15 in the AP poll to open the 2010 season. But despite erasing a 10-point deficit and tying the game in the final minute of regulation, they immediately lost in overtime at Utah in a Thursday night bonanza. They subsequently dropped out of the AP Top 25 altogether and have not been ranked in the Top 20 since.
Also considered: No. 21 LSU clips No. 18 North Carolina; No. 7 Oklahoma survives scare from Utah State; Ole Miss loses 2OT buy game to Jacksonville State
2011: No. 14 TCU at Baylor
Best Game: Baylor 50, TCU 48
Despite then playing in the Mountain West Conference, TCU entered the 2011 season regarded as one of the best programs in the nation. The Horned Frogs finished the 2008 season ranked No. 7 in the AP poll, finished the 2009 season at No. 6 and landed at No. 2 after going 13-0 with a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2010.
However, TCU had no answer for Robert Griffin III.
The Horned Frogs destroyed Griffin and the Bears by a 45-10 margin early in the 2010 season, but the soon-to-be Heisman legend of RGIII was born in a Friday night 2011 season opener in which he threw for 359 yards and five touchdowns.
Baylor led 47-23 at the end of the third quarter, followed by 25 unanswered points from TCU. But Aaron Jones kicked the game-winning field goal for the Bears with a little over 1 minute remaining.
Honorable Mention: No. 4 LSU knocks off No. 3 Oregon
A showdown between Top 5 teams is one heck of an honorable mention, and this was obviously the most highly anticipated game of the opening weekend. However, the game itself was kind of ugly, in part because each side was playing without one of its biggest stars. (LSU didn't have quarterback Justin Jefferson; Oregon didn't have defensive back and punt-returner extraordinaire Cliff Harris.)
The result was five turnovers, 17 penalties, no noteworthy individual performances and a game that LSU ended up winning 40-27 without much difficulty. The Ducks were the only team to score more than 21 points against that vaunted Tigers defense, though.
Also considered: No. 5 Boise State crushes No. 19 Georgia between the hedges; South Florida upsets No. 16 Notre Dame
2012: Georgia Tech at No. 16 Virginia Tech
Best Game: Virginia Tech 20, Georgia Tech 17 (OT)
One of the fun things about opening weekend of the (pre-pandemic) college football season is the option to have a couple of Sunday and/or Monday night games, since the NFL season doesn't start until the following week. And from 2010-18, Virginia Tech played in one of those atypical openers five times.
This one wasn't pretty, though. It was a close game throughout and the only football available to watch on Labor Day, so we all suffered through it together.
After three quarters, the Yellow Jackets and the Hokies were tied at 7-7. And one of the two touchdowns was a gift, as GT was set up at the VT 24 after a ball flew straight through the hands of freshman punter A.J. Hughes.
Out of nowhere, though, the offenses woke up. Virginia Tech took a 14-10 lead on a 75-yard touchdown drive, followed immediately by Georgia Tech marching 72 yards down the field. VT had less than a minute to get into field-goal range to tie the game, but it managed to do it and win in overtime thanks to an interception and a chip-shot field goal.
Honorable Mention: No. 2 Alabama manhandles No. 8 Michigan
Similar to the 2011 game between LSU and Oregon, this Alabama-Michigan game didn't live up to the hype. At least Oregon was able to hang with LSU for a few quarters. The Wolverines were hopelessly over-matched by the Crimson Tide from the outset, trailing 31-0 midway through the second quarter before finally getting the ball into Alabama territory for the first time.
The Crimson Tide began their second consecutive national championship campaign with a 41-14 blowout of a top-10 opponent.
Also considered: Le'Veon Bell carries 44 times for 210 yards as No. 13 Michigan State beats No. 24 Boise State; Northwestern overcomes Ryan Nassib's 482 passing yards for a last-minute 42-41 win at Syracuse
2013: No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson
Best Game: Clemson 38, Georgia 35
2013 is when Clemson crossed the bridge from "pretty good" to "serious national championship contender," and that began with this marquee win over Georgia.
Not only was it a key turning point for the program, but it was just an awesome game with back-and-forth haymakers.
Georgia's Todd Gurley II ran at will, averaging 12.8 yards per carry, though he only registered 12 carries because of an early quad injury. Clemson's Tajh Boyd was the bigger star, accounting for all five of Clemson's touchdowns (three passing, two rushing) without committing a single turnover.
In the first quarter, the teams scored three touchdowns in the span of three plays. Boyd ran one in from four yards out, then Gurley had a 75-yard touchdown run, followed by Boyd connecting with Sammy Watkins for a 77-yard score. Clemson was able to hang on by a field goal, in part because of a key goal-line stand late in the third quarter. There wasn't much defense in this game, but the Tigers picked the perfect spot to dig in their heels.
Honorable Mention: Fresno State outlasts Rutgers in overtime
Derek Carr's senior year at Fresno State was one for the ages. He became just the third (Joe Burrow expanded the club to four this past season) player in FBS history to throw for at least 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a single season. And he got that party started with 456 yards and five touchdowns in a 52-51 overtime win over Rutgers.
The Bulldogs survived when Rutgers—acknowledging that neither side could play defense—went for two instead of kicking the extra point and forcing a second OT. Otherwise, they might still be playing that game today.
Also considered: Ole Miss wins at Vanderbilt in a wild SEC opener; Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. propel No. 12 LSU to a win over No. 20 TCU; Eastern Washington stuns No. 25 Oregon State 49-46;
2014: No. 1 Florida State vs. Oklahoma State
Best Game: Florida State 37, Oklahoma State 31
En route to winning the BCS championship at the end of the 2013 season, Florida State destroyed just about everything in its path. The 'Noles entered the natty against Auburn with an average margin of victory of 42.3 points.
Famous Jameis Winston's encore was much more of a season-long nail-biter, beginning with this opener against Oklahoma State.
After jumping out to a 17-0 lead, the Seminoles let the Cowboys back in the game. The Pokes were unable to take the lead, but three times in the final 25 minutes, they possessed the ball trailing by either three or six points. There were many opportunities squandered.
The 'Noles carried a 13-0 record into the first-ever College Football Playoff, but seven of those 13 wins were by six points or fewer.
Honorable Mention: No. 13 LSU completes incredible comeback over No. 14 Wisconsin
The 2014 Wisconsin Badgers had an absurd one-two punch of Melvin Gordon and Corey Clement in the backfield. What they didn't have was a remotely reliable quarterback. And that doomed them in this opener against LSU.
Wisconsin scored a touchdown on the opening drive of the third quarter to take a 24-7 lead, but it all went downhill from there. LSU scored on four consecutive drives (two field goals and two touchdowns), and Wisconsin had three 3-and-outs and a pair of interceptions on its final five possessions, enabling the Tigers to claw back for a 28-24 victory.
Also considered: No. 12 Georgia re-pays No. 16 Clemson for 2013 opener, rolling 45-21; UCLA's defense scored three touchdowns in the second quarter of a 28-20 win over Virginia; "Kenny Football" throws for 511 yards and three touchdowns as Texas A&M smokes South Carolina 52-28.
2015: BYU at Nebraska
Best Game: BYU 33, Nebraska 28
From 1986-2014, Nebraska had won its season opener 29 consecutive times. By this point, it had been quite a while since their glory days under Tom Osborne, but at least the Cornhuskers could always count on a 1-0 start.
That is, until a religious university came to town and converted one of the most memorable Hail Marys in the history of college football.
It wasn't quite Doug Flutie to Gerard Phelan, but BYU's back-up quarterback Tanner Mangum finding Mitch Mathews for a 42-yard, game-winning touchdown with no time left on the clock was some sort of special.
Honorable Mention: Utah spoils Jim Harbaugh's return to college football
Given the roster situation he inherited from Brady Hoke, no one expected Jim Harbaugh to lead Michigan to a national championship right away. The Wolverines weren't even ranked to open the season. But we did think he'd be able to win his Maize & Blue debut against also unranked Utah.
As it turned out, both teams were much better than we thought. Michigan went 10-3 thanks to a stout defense, and Utah climbed to as high as No. 3 in the AP poll before also finishing 10-3. But the Utes were the better squad on this day, fueled to a 24-17 victory by a fourth-quarter pick six of Jake Rudock.
Also considered: No. 2 TCU barely survives 23-17 against unranked Minnesota; No. 1 Ohio State rallies from three-point halftime deficit to beat unranked Virginia Tech by 18.
2016: No. 10 Notre Dame at Texas
Best Game: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47 (2OT)
There were a ton of strong candidates from Week 1 of the 2016 season, but there's really no question that the best game was the one that began four consecutive seasons of people asking: Is Texas back?
Hosting No. 10 Notre Dame—which ended up having a horrific 4-8 season—the Longhorns built up a 31-14 lead midway through the third quarter before giving it all away. The Fighting Irish scored touchdowns on three of their next four possessions while the Longhorns suddenly forgot how to move the ball. They finally put together another scoring drive late in the fourth quarter to take a 37-35 lead, but the PAT was blocked and returned for two points, leading to overtime.
Shane Buechele did most of the passing for Texas this season, but it was rushing quarterback Tyrone Swoopes who led the Longhorns to victory, running one in from three yards out in the first overtime and scoring the game-winner from six yards out in the second overtime.
The dramatic victory immediately vaulted Texas to No. 11 in the AP poll, but it lost seven of its final 10 games and parted ways with Charlie Strong after a third failed season. But at least for one Sunday night, the Longhorns were on Cloud Nine.
Honorable Mention: Unranked Wisconsin shocks No. 5 LSU
With Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette leading the way, LSU was supposed to be one of the top candidates to reach the 2016 College Football Playoff. That dream was derailed in a hurry at the hands of Wisconsin's hard-nosed defense. Fournette was fine (176 yards from scrimmage), but what wasn't fine was the rest of the Tigers combining for 81 yards. Even with a Tre'Davious White pick six in the third quarter, LSU could only manage 14 points while allowing 16.
Also considered: No. 4 Florida State rallies from 28-6 deficit for 45-34 Monday night win over No. 11 Ole Miss; No. 15 Houston knocks off No. 3 Oklahoma 33-23; Appalachian State takes No. 9 Tennessee to overtime before coming up short; Nick Chubb rumbles for 222 yards as No. 18 Georgia defeats No. 22 North Carolina 33-24; No. 2 Clemson survives a brutal road opener against unranked Auburn; Alabama's Jalen Hurts era begins with a 52-6 shellacking of No. 20 USC.
2017: Texas A&M at UCLA
Best Game: UCLA 45, Texas A&M 44
For more than two hours, this Sunday night game between unranked opponents was unwatchably bad. In the process of falling behind 31-3, UCLA went nearly 24 minutes of game time without achieving a single first down while its defense was beyond helpless to contain A&M's backfield combo of Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford.
By late in the third quarter, the Aggies were up 44-10 and probably 99.9 percent of people at home had either turned off the game or fallen asleep on the couch.
But over the final 19 minutes, the Bruins channeled some sort of John Wooden-era men's basketball mojo and were unstoppable on offense and impenetrable on defense. Josh "Chosen" Rosen led UCLA to nearly 400 yards of total offense in five consecutive touchdown drives as the Bruins stormed back from a 34-point deficit for a 45-44 victory.
Honorable Mention: Caylin Newton and Howard stun UNLV 43-40
FCS school Howard was a 45-point road underdog against UNLV, but Cam Newton's younger brother, Caylin, led the Bison to perhaps the biggest upset in college football history. Newton ran for 190 yards and two touchdowns, including what proved to be the game-winner midway through the fourth quarter. The game certainly wasn't on the national radar, but Howard will always be remembered as one of biggest underdogs to win outright.
Also considered: No. 1 Alabama defeats No. 3 Florida State 24-7 and knocks FSU QB Deondre Francois out for the year; No. 23 Texas loses Tom Herman's debut 51-41 to unranked Maryland; No. 11 Michigan rallies from early deficit to easily defeat No. 17 Florida by 16; No. 2 Ohio State gets early scare from Indiana, but wins by four touchdowns; TaQuon Marshall's five rushing touchdowns not enough for Georgia Tech in 42-41 2OT loss to No. 25 Tennessee; Liberty shocks Baylor 48-45
2018: No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn
Best Game: Auburn 21, Washington 16
The most highly anticipated game of the opening week of the regular season rarely ends up actually being one of the best ones, but this top-10 showdown defied the odds.
It wasn't pretty. There were three missed field goals, two failed two-point conversion attempts and the only skill-position player to put up moderately impressive numbers was Washington's Aaron Fuller (seven receptions for 135 yards). But it was the type of game where you could cut the tension with a knife, as each team was well aware of how much was at stake, even in a Week 1 contest.
It was Auburn's red-zone defense that won the game. Washington got down inside the Auburn 15 on six separate drives, resulting in one touchdown, three field goals, a missed field goal and a back-breaking fumble late in the third quarter. Hard to win when you average 2.7 points per red-zone trip, and Auburn capitalized in the end.
Honorable Mention: No. 12 Notre Dame clips No. 14 Michigan 24-17
Auburn and Washington generated the most buzz, but this ended up being the much more important game, as neither the Wolverines nor the Fighting Irish would suffer another loss until after Thanksgiving.
Michigan dug itself an early hole, repeatedly failing to get stops on 3rd & long and allowing Notre Dame to score touchdowns on three of its first four possessions. But the Wolverines defense came to play after that, relenting just one field goal the rest of the way. But Shea Patterson couldn't quite solve Notre Dame's defense well enough to pull off the comeback.
Also considered: No. 25 LSU blows out No. 8 Miami; No. 23 Texas loses to unranked Maryland for second consecutive year; Appalachian State takes No. 10 Penn State to overtime before falling short; Purdue's Rondale Moore racks up 313 all-purpose yards in his true-freshman debut, but Northwestern prevails 31-27
2019: No. 11 Oregon vs. No. 16 Auburn
Best Game: Auburn 27, Oregon 21
For the second consecutive year, Auburn opened the regular season against the best team the Pac-12 had to offer, and the Tigers did so with a fourth-quarter comeback.
This one was considerably more unlikely, though, because Oregon simply owned this game for the first 40 minutes. It was 21-6 late in the third quarter—it felt like the margin was more like 30 or 40 points—when Auburn finally figured out how to move the ball.
Eli Stove had two big plays on the first touchdown drive, JaTarvious Whitlow had nearly 50 rushing yards on the second touchdown drive. And the game-winning drive was the Bo Nix show. Auburn's true freshman quarterback looked helpless for much of the first three quarters, but he scrambled for a fourth-down conversion before hitting Seth Williams on back-to-back passes to put Auburn ahead 27-21 with less than 10 seconds remaining.
Honorable Mention: North Carolina pulls off fourth-quarter comeback in Mack Brown's comeback
Mack Brown's return to the sideline was fraught with photo finishes. Each of UNC's first five games was decided by six points or fewer, including the 21-20 loss to Clemson. Then—after a one-game break from dramatic endings—came the six-overtime game against Virginia Tech, followed by three more games decided by one possession.
It all started in the Belk Kickoff against South Carolina, though, in which true freshman Sam Howell threw two fourth-quarter touchdowns in a come-from-behind 24-20 win over the Gamecocks.
Also considered: Jalen Hurts explodes for six touchdowns and more than 500 yards in Oklahoma debut; Georgia State stuns Tennessee in Knoxville; No. 8 Florida racks up 10 sacks in back-and-forth win over Miami.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.