Ranking the Best CFB National Championship Games Since 2000

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistJanuary 9, 2021

Ranking the Best CFB National Championship Games Since 2000

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    David Goldman/Associated Press

    If you're hoping a particular team wins the national championship, a nerve-wracking finish is usually unwelcome. For the rest of us, though, a thrilling end in the title game is an ideal way to close any college football season.

    Since 2000, the BCS and College Football Playoff have brought several down-to-the-wire championship games. Plus, a few others weren't decided until the fourth quarter.

    Which ones, exactly, are the best of that group?

    The list is focused on matchups that were competitive for the entire game. While the order is subjective, key factors are entertainment value (lead changes, for example) and an iconic play in either the fourth quarter or overtime that shaped the outcome.

    Note: The year listed in parentheses denotes the regular season of the game played, not the calendar date.

Missed the Cut

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press
    • Oklahoma 13, Florida State 2 (2000)
    • Miami 37, Nebraska 14 (2001)
    • LSU 21, Oklahoma 14 (2003)
    • USC 55, Oklahoma 19 (2004)
    • Florida 41, Ohio State 14 (2006)
    • LSU 38, Ohio State 24 (2007)
    • Alabama 37, Texas 21 (2009)
    • Alabama 21, LSU 0 (2011)
    • Alabama 42, Notre Dame 14 (2012)
    • Ohio State 42, Oregon 20 (2014)
    • Clemson 44, Alabama 16 (2018)
    • LSU 42, Clemson 25 (2019)    

8. Florida 24, Oklahoma 14 (2008)

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    Early in the fourth quarter, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford hit Jermaine Gresham for a game-tying touchdown. Florida, led by Tim Tebow, responded with a quick field goal but needed a turnover and late touchdown to seal the win.

    Oklahoma made it to midfield, but Florida safety Ahmad Black picked off Bradford. Tebow then engineered an 11-play drive that ended with a four-yard jump-pass touchdown to David Nelson.

    Florida took a 24-14 lead as 3:07 remained in regulation and immediately forced a turnover on downs.

    Compared to the following games, this championship didn't have a truly iconic moment. Among the rest, though, it's the only contest that included a tie in the fourth quarter.   

7. Auburn 22, Oregon 19 (2010)

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    Depending on your rooting interest, Michael Dyer either had an incredibly fortunate or discouraging escape.

    Oregon's touchdown and two-point conversion evened the score at 19 with 2:33 remaining in regulation. And after Cam Newton completed a 15-yard pass to start Auburn's drive, Dyer took a simple handoff that became a legendary moment.

    Eddie Pleasant appeared to tackle Dyer following a six-yard run, but Auburn's freshman landed on Pleasant and never touched the ground. Dyer jumped up, hesitated and sprinted down the sideline for a stunning 37-yard gain to Oregon's 23.

    Then in field-goal range, Auburn ran the clock down to two seconds. Wes Bynum converted a 19-yard kick to give Auburn a 22-19 victory and its first national title in 53 years.    

6. Florida State 34, Auburn 31 (2013)

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    Three seasons later, Auburn watched the other team celebrate.

    After improbable wins against Georgia (Miracle at Jordan-Hare) and Alabama (Kick Six), Auburn looked like a team of destiny. The Tigers bolted to a 21-3 lead against Jameis Winston and Florida State in the final BCS Championship Game.

    But the Seminoles came storming back, setting up a captivating fourth quarter. Auburn led 21-13, then 21-20 and 24-20. Following that field goal, FSU's Kermit Whitfield returned a kickoff for a score. Auburn countered on Tre Mason's go-ahead touchdown, taking a 31-27 edge with 1:19 to play.

    Winston completed four straight passes for 68 yards, moving FSU into prime scoring territory. The drive slowed because of an incompletion, a short pass and two penalties before the decisive play.

    Kelvin Benjamin leaped over Auburn cornerback Chris Davis to haul in a two-yard touchdown and secure a 34-31 victory.        

5. Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (2015)

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    During the first of three championship clashes between Alabama and Clemson in a four-year period, Alabama earned the win.

    Jake Coker threw for 335 yards, hitting O.J. Howard for 208 and two scores. Derrick Henry rushed for 158 yards and three touchdowns. But the Crimson Tide won because of special teams.

    With 10:34 to play in the fourth quarter, Adam Griffith buried a game-tying 34-yard field goal. On the ensuing kickoff, he lofted a brilliant onside kick that Marlon Humphrey caught. Coker and Howard soon connected for their second touchdown.

    Clemson answered with a field goal, but Kenyan Drake returned the ensuing kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. Alabama had flipped a 24-21 deficit to a 38-27 lead in 183 seconds.  

    The teams alternated touchdowns in the last 7:31, leading to final score of 45-40 in Alabama's favor.

4. Clemson 35, Alabama 31 (2016)

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    Clemson soon had its revenge, though. The next year, Deshaun Watson sparked a fourth-quarter comeback against the Tide.

    Alabama held a 24-14 entering the fourth quarter, but Mike Williams caught a touchdown pass from Watson a minute into the frame. After the teams combined for five straight punts, Clemson had possession with 6:33 to play. Watson swiftly led an 88-yard scoring drive; Wayne Gallman powered in a one-yard run to help the Tigers to a 28-24 edge.

    Jalen Hurts, however, pushed the Tide down the field and scampered 30 yards for their own go-ahead touchdown.

    Clemson trailed 31-28 with 2:07 on the clock. Eight plays later, the Tigers had two yards to go but only six seconds remaining. The decision was simple: Trust Watson to throw a quick pass that, at worst, would leave enough time for a field-goal try—or play for overtime by attempting a short field goal. Dabo Swinney called for option No. 1.

    Using a clever pickAlabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey initiated contact with Artavis ScottClemson created space for Hunter Renfrow, and Watson connected with him for a two-yard score.

    Clemson burned the final second on the clock by recovering a surprise onside kick and having Watson take a knee.

3. Ohio State 31, Miami 24, 2OT (2002)

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    The 2002 season's championship included by far the most controversial play of any recent title game. Top-ranked Miami appeared to win its second straight title, but a late flag provided a second chance for Ohio Stateand the Buckeyes didn't waste it.

    Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey found Kellen Winslow for a touchdown to begin overtime. On the ensuing possession, Ohio State converted on 4th-and-14 only to face 4th-and-3 at the 5-yard line.

    Craig Krenzel whipped a pass toward Chris Gamble, who couldn't bring in the ball as Glenn Sharpe defended him. But as Miami erupted in celebration, Terry Porter dropped a flag for pass interference. Right or wrong, the penalty extended the game.

    Ohio State's Maurice Clarett scored a five-yard rushing touchdown, and the Buckeyes kept Miami off the board in the second overtime—stopping four plays from inside the 2-yard line—to earn the 31-24 victory.

2. Alabama 26, Georgia 23, OT (2017)

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    Prior to smashing program records, Tua Tagovailoa became a legend when he replaced Jalen Hurts at halftime of the 2017 championship game against Georgia.

    Georgia led 13-0 at the break and took a 20-7 edge midway through the third quarter. From then on, Tagovailoa led three scoring drivesincluding a seven-yard pass to Calvin Ridley that helped tie the game late in the fourthwhile the defense shut down UGA.

    Andy Pappanastos missed a potential game-winning 36-yard field goal as time expired, sending the game to overtime. And Georgia's Rodrigo Blankenship hammered a 51-yard field goal to open the extra session.

    For a moment, it seemed Tagovailoa had made a freshman mistake at the worst time. On the Tide's first play, he took a 16-yard sack instead of throwing the ball away. Alabama was backed up to the 41-yard line with a kicker who had connected on only five of his 10 attempts from 40 to 49 yards that season.

    Tagovailoa and DeVonta Smith flipped the narrative on the next snap, connecting for a long touchdown.

    "I could not believe it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There's lots of highs and lows. Last year we lost on the last play of the game, and this year we won on the last play of the game."

1. Texas 41, USC 38 (2005)

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    If it's not the most iconic play in college football history, Vince Young's touchdown run to beat USC is awfully close.

    The 2005 season wrapped up with a stellar game, pitting defending champion USC opposite Texas and its historic offense. Both teams were 12-0. Perhaps it was only fitting the first 45 minutes featured four lead changes and the top-ranked Trojans entered the fourth quarter clinging to a 24-23 lead.

    They had every opportunity to win.

    Reggie Bush's 26-yard touchdown run helped USC to a 31-23 lead with 11:10 to play. And after the defense held the Longhorns to a field goal, Matt Leinart threw a 22-yard score to Dwayne Jarrett for a 38-26 advantage. Only 6:42 separated USC from a second straight BCS title (and third straight AP title).

    Young answered with a 17-yard scamper to make it 38-33, and Texas forced a turnover on downs, stopping LenDale White on 4th-and-2 at the Longhorns' 44-yard line with 2:09 to play. The offense had to cover 56 yards, and it picked up 48 in nine plays.

    Keith Jackson, take it away.

    "Fourth-and-5, the national championship on the line right here," he said. With 26 seconds to play, Young took the snap, looked left. No one was open, so he scrambled right. "He's going for the corner...he's got it!"

    USC got to the Texas 43 with Bush's 26-yard catch and run. But Leinart wasted the final play, throwing an incompletion to the sideline 25 yards short of the end zone as time expired.