10 Best Games of the 2021 College Football Regular Season

Morgan MoriartyFeatured Columnist IDecember 21, 2021

10 Best Games of the 2021 College Football Regular Season

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    It's pretty hard to believe that the 2021 college football season is almost already in the books. Although we still have numerous bowl games left, including the College Football Playoff semifinals, the regular season concluded seemingly ages ago on Nov. 27.

    Though there were several incredible games throughout the campaign, let's go ahead and try to rank the 10 best games of the 2021 regular season, including some honorable mentions since 10 isn't nearly enough.

    These games were selected based on a combination of memorable individual moments, the impact they had on the college football landscape at the time they were played and sheer entertainment value.

Honorable Mentions

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    I obviously couldn't include every spectacular regular-season game from 2021. Here are a few that are worth an honorable mention, in no particular order: 

    • Nov. 27: LSU 27, No. 15 Texas A&M 24
    • Sept. 11: No. 12 Oregon 35, No. 3 Ohio State 28
    • Sept. 25: NC State 27, No. 9 Clemson 21
    • Sept. 5: No. 9 Notre Dame 41, Florida State 38, OT 
    • Oct. 2: No. 7 Cincinnati 27 No. 9 Notre Dame 13
    • Oct. 9: No. 3 Iowa 23, No. 4 Penn State 20
    • Nov. 13: No. 6 Michigan 21, Penn State 17
    • Nov. 27: No. 7 Oklahoma State 37, No. 10 Oklahoma 33

    (Author's note: I subbed out Bedlam for Penn State-Illinois after my colleague, Kerry Miller, reminded me of the hilarious nine-OT game on Twitter, so I apologize to any Bedlam fans I might offend. Nine OTs needed to be remembered!)

10. Oct. 23: Illinois 20, No. 7 Penn State 18, 9OT

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    Yes, there probably is another worthy game to put here instead, but this game ended in absolute absurdity that it was too glorious to leave off this list.   

    Penn State entered with a 5-1 record and a true playoff contender. Instead, the Nittany Lions lost to a sub-.500 Illinois team at home on Homecoming Week. If that wasn't good enough, this game gave us college football's first look at nine overtimes.

    After finishing regulation tied at 10 apiece, both offenses made field goals in the first two overtimes periods to force a third overtime. Thanks to LSU and Texas A&M's seven-overtime game in 2018, by rule, teams had to then trade two-point conversion attempts to win the game. Unfortunately, this rule didn't account for the possibility of both offenses being so bad that neither team could find the end zone. 

    Incredibly, that's precisely what Illinois and Penn State proceeded to do. The game remained a 16-16 tie entering the eighth overtime when both offenses finally converted on their first two-point conversion.

    But finally, in the ninth OT, Illinois scored its conversion on a passing play, and their defense batted away Sean Clifford's throw on PSU's ensuing attempt to give Illinois the upset victory.

    Just beautiful.

9. Sept. 18: No.1 Alabama 31, No. 11 Florida 29

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    This Week 3 matchup turned out to be an instant classic, although it didn't feel like it would be one early on. That's because Alabama, a 14-point favorite, jumped out to a 21-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Gators managed to score a touchdown in the second quarter but missed the extra point to make it 21-9.

    In the second half, Florida came out and looked like an entirely different team. The Gators' offense opened with a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to trim the lead to five. Then both teams exchanged touchdowns on the next two possession, putting Florida down 28-23 heading into the fourth. 

    Florida's defense managed to hold Alabama to a field goal with 9:30 left in the fourth quarter with an impressive goal-line stand to give the Gators a chance. With 3:10 left in the game, Florida's Dameon Pierce scored a 17-yard rushing touchdown to make it 31-29.

    All Florida needed was a successful two-point conversion to tie it up. Jones handed it off to Pierce on the attempt and was immediately blown up. Former Gators head coach Dan Mullen said after the game that there was a missed assignment on the play.  

    Alabama's offense managed to run the clock down to seal the Tide victory. It's pretty remarkable how fast Florida's season went downhill thereafter—the Gators finished 6-6 and fired Mullen after losing in overtime to Missouri on Nov. 20. 

8. Nov. 13, 2021: Kansas 57, Texas 56, OT

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    Another incredible upset we saw this season came during Week 11, as Kansas did something for the first time in school history: beating Texas in Austin.

    Entering this matchup, Kansas was 3-16 all-time against the Longhorns. Two of those wins for the Jayhawks came long before Kansas and Texas joined the Big 12 in 1996—1901 and 1938. Kansas did upset Texas in 2016 during Charlie Strong's last season in Austin.

    Before this game, Kansas had never defeated Texas on the road. However, all that changed on Nov. 13. Kansas entered this game just 1-8 on the season, with its lone win coming over FCS South Dakota in Week 1. Texas, meanwhile, was riding a four-game losing skid.

    It felt like Kansas might run away with this one easily, as the Jayhawks went to the locker room with a 35-14 lead. But the Longhorns scored three touchdowns in the third quarter to make it a 42-35 game heading into the fourth.

    Kansas scored a touchdown with 8:47 left in regulation to go up again two scores, but Texas put together two scoring drives in the final five minutes to tie it up at 49 and force overtime.

    Texas struck first in OT with an eight-yard touchdown pass from Casey Thompson to Marcus Washington. Kansas subsequently scored on a two-yard touchdown run, but instead of going for the tie to force a second-OT, the Jayhawks went for two and the win.

    Kansas called walk-on fullback Jared Casey's number to catch the two-point conversion. He did, sealing the upset victory for the Jayhawks and becoming an overnight hero in Lawrence. A video of Casey's parents watching the last play of the game went viral on Twitter, and Casey even got an NIL deal with Applebee's as a result of the win.

7. Oct. 17: No. 13 Ole Miss 31, Tennessee 26

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    While this game was a pretty entertaining one on the field, the chaos that happened at the end of the game—complete with golf balls being thrown onto the field—makes it worthy of being on this list. 

    Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin returned to Knoxville for the first time as a head coach since he left the Tennessee head coaching job after just one season for USC in 2009. He had returned there with Alabama as an offensive coordinator, but this game was different. 

    This game was close throughout, too. Ole Miss went to the locker room with a 24-12 lead, but Tennessee scored two second-half touchdowns to make it 31-26 in the fourth. The game's final minute is where things went a bit haywire. 

    Vols quarterback Hendon Hooker found Jacob Warren on 4th-and-24. Warren fell clearly short of the first down marker, but Vols fans inside the stadium saw the replay on the jumbotron and thought otherwise. When the officials announced a turnover on downs, the fans became so upset that they started throwing objects onto the field. 

    In the nearly a 20-minute delay, fans threw water bottles, empty beer cans, golf balls—one which Kiffin proudly picked up—and even a mustard bottle. No, literally, a whole dang bottle of mustard was seen on the field

    The situation was so bad that Ole Miss players and coaches moved away from their bench area, and Tennessee's band and cheerleaders got off the field. Even the Vols' student section was escorted out of the stadium. 

    Finally, the game resumed, and the ending was pretty entertaining amidst the drama. Tennessee's defense forced an Ole Miss three-and-out and got a 40-yard punt return from Velus Jones Jr. to start at the Ole Miss 47.

    The Vols managed to get down to the Rebel's 21-yard line, but Tennessee's final play was stopped short well short of the end zone, sealing the Rebels' 31-26 victory. 

    "I don't know if I'm more excited that we found a way to win or that I didn't get hit with the golf balls that they were throwing at me," Kiffin said on SEC Network after the game as he held up the golf ball he caught. 

    "I still have my souvenir golf ball," Kiffin said. "I also got hit with bottles with some brown stuff in them. I don't think those fans would waste moonshine. You've got one of the most passionate fan bases in America. A call didn't go their way."

    Tennessee ended up getting fined $250,000 for the whole ordeal. Not only was this an entertaining game from start to finish, but the chaotic delay, complete with golf balls and mustard bottles, makes this game more than worthy of this list. 

6. Oct. 9: Texas A&M 41, No. 1 Alabama 38

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    One of the biggest upsets of the 2021 season wasn't enough to knock the Tide out of the playoff, but this game was a blast.

    Alabama was 5-0, while the Aggies had started 0-2 in SEC play with consecutive losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State. Bama was an 18.5-point favorite coming into this one, in fact. But early on, this one was going all Texas A&M's way. The Aggies went to the locker room with a 24-10 lead.

    The Tide came out fighting in the second half, though. Bama scored a touchdown on a blocked punt with 8:18 in the third quarter to make it a one-score game at 24-17. Texas A&M countered on the ensuing Bama kickoff and returned it 96 yards. Alabama pulled within a score again on a 29-yard touchdown pass from Bryce Young to Jameson Williams with 5:30 left in the third.

    In the fourth quarter, it certainly felt like all the momentum was swinging Alabama's way. The Tide had three scoring drives, including a Young touchdown pass to Williams that gave the Tide, complete with a successful two-point conversion from Young, a 38-31 lead. Meanwhile, the Aggie offense had three punts off drives that resulted in a combined 18 yards.

    But A&M didn't go away quietly. TAMU quarterback Zach Calzada led a six-play, 65-yard touchdown drive, capped off by a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ainias Smith that tied it up at 38 with three minutes left in the game. Texas A&M's defense then forced a Bama three-and-out.

    Although Calzada took a shot on his touchdown pass that put him in the injury tent after the score, the QB came out and played hero on the Aggies' last possession. He completed two big pass plays and ran for an 11-yard run.

    Calzada's 12-yard pass to Smith put the Aggies at the Alabama 30 to set up the game-winning field goal. After a couple of Isaiah Spiller runs and a defensive pass interference further shortened the field, Aggie kicker Seth Small nailed the 28-yard field goal to complete the upset.

    The victory marked the first time Tide head coach Nick Saban had lost to a former assistant coach in Jimbo Fisher. Although TAMU ended up finishing the season 8-4, the upset over the top-ranked Tide makes the season a pretty successful one.

5. Oct. 30: No. 8 Michigan State 37, No. 6 Michigan 33

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    The team that gave Michigan its only loss of the 2021 season, Michigan State, did so in pretty stunning fashion. This game had plenty of Big Ten East and playoff implications at stake, and it didn't disappoint.

    It looked like for most of this game that Michigan would win this one pretty handily. The Wolverines had a 23-14 lead at halftime, and a Cade McNamara 19-yard touchdown pass to Mike Sainristil made it 30-14 with 6:47 left in the third.

    But Michigan State's offense came alive late in the second half. A Kenneth Walker III touchdown run with 3:58 left in the third and a successful two-point conversion made it a 30-22 game. Sparty's defense then forced a Michigan punt for just the second time of the day to give MSU the ball back with 14:46 left in the fourth.

    Sparty opened the fourth quarter with a brilliant nine-play, 86 yard touchdown drive capped off by Walker's 58-yard score to tie it at 30. Even more impressive, they took just two minutes and 17 seconds off the clock.

    Michigan State held Michigan to a field goal on its next drive. Although MSU had a three-and-out on its ensuing possession, their defense forced a Michigan fumble on first down to get the ball back on the Wolverines' 45.

    Michigan State capitalized on the turnover with yet another Walker touchdown to take a 37-33 with 5:08 to go. With 1:43 left, Michigan managed to drive down to MSU's 31-yard line. But on 4th and 3, McNamara's pass fell incomplete, giving Sparty the ball back with 1:43 left. It wasn't over just yet, though.

    Michigan's defense forced a quick three-and-out, and the Wolverines got the ball back with 1:15 left. Michigan even got a first down following a roughing the passer penalty on MSU's Anthony Andrel that put the Wolverines on their own 48.

    But McNamara was then picked off to give Michigan State the incredible comeback victory.

4. Oct. 9: No. 17 Ole Miss 52, No. 13 Arkansas 51

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    Although this game saw Arkansas lead 7-0 in the first quarter to make it feel like it might be a low-scoring affair, that was hardly the case. This game featured 103 total points and 1,287 total yards of offense in a shootout that was exciting from start to finish. Ole Miss led 21-14 at halftime, but the drama started in the second half. 

    The third quarter saw five-of-six drives end in a score. Both offenses scored a touchdown at the end of the quarter to enter the fourth tied at 31. 

    The fourth quarter didn't exactly slow down, either. Within the first six minutes of the quarter, Arkansas had a touchdown drive sandwiched between the two Rebels scores. 

    Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson ran in a 10-yard touchdown to make it 45-45, and Ole Miss got the ball back with only 1:22 left. 

    Analytics tell you to drive down the field and kick a game-winning field goal, right? Wrong, because the answer to any question in this game was to create chaos.

    On second down, Rebels quarterback Matt Corral found a wide-open Braylon Sanders on second down for a 68-yard touchdown. Rebels head coach Lane Kiffin was so excited that he launched his clipboard while celebrating the score.

    That gave Ole Miss a 52-45 lead with 1:07 left in the game, which was plenty of time for Arkansas' offense. The Razorbacks put together a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive culminating in a touchdown pass from Jefferson to Warren Thompson.

    Instead of kicking the extra point to tie it, Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman opted to go for two. Jefferson overthrew Treylon Burks to give Ole Miss a thrilling one-point victory.

3. Nov. 27: No. 3 Alabama 24, Auburn 22, 4OT

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    The 2021 edition of the Iron Bowl rivalry was a thriller, and it gave us the first-ever game in this series that went to overtime. Alabama came into this one as 20.5-point favorites, but Auburn gave the sense it could pull off the upset.

    The Tigers went to the locker room with a 7-0 lead thanks to a T.J. Finley 15-yard touchdown pass to Kobe Hudson midway through the second quarter. Auburn's defense completely shut down the Tide's offense in the first half, too. In fact, Alabama didn't have a single first-half drive that went more than six plays long or gained more than 34 yards.

    Early in the third quarter, Auburn added to its lead with a 33-yard field goal to make it a two-score margin. Tide QB Bryce Young threw just his fourth interception of the season with 10:28 left in the third quarter.

    Late in the game, though, the Tide finally started to get some momentum. With 11:50 left, Alabama's Josh Jobe intercepted Finley to give the Tide the ball back on their own 42. Bama managed to drive down to Auburn's 12 that set up a 30-yard field goal by Will Reichard to make it a one-score game with 8:44 to go.

    Alabama's defense forced back-to-back Auburn punts, and Bama finally found the end zone on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Young to Ja'Corey Brooks on third down to tie things up with 24 seconds left.

    Both teams traded touchdowns and field goals in the first and second overtimes, respectively, forcing a third overtime. There, Auburn and Alabama converted their two-point attempts, bringing us to a wild, fourth overtime.

    Auburn's two-point conversion was broken up by Tide DB Kool-Aid McKinstry. On Alabama's attempt, Young found John Metchie III, who took it into the end zone to give Alabama an unforgettable victory.

2. Oct. 9: No. 6 Oklahoma 55, No. 21 Texas 48

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    This year's Red River Rivalry was absolutely phenomenal, featuring a come-from-behind Sooner victory led by a backup quarterback in Caleb Williams.

    Starting QB Spencer Rattler struggled in the first half, and Oklahoma went down 28-7 at the end of the first quarter as the offense couldn't really get anything going. Rattler even threw an interception in OU's third drive of the game. Following Rattler fumbled in the second quarter, which allowed Texas to capitalize and take a 35-17 lead, Williams was put in the game.

    Williams led the Sooners to a field-goal scoring drive, but OU still trailed 38-20 at halftime. Williams' best football came in the second half, though.

    After opening the second half with a field goal, Oklahoma's defense held Texas to a field goal. Williams then threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to receiver Marvin Mims with 1:02 left in the third quarter to make it 41-30 Texas heading into the fourth.

    Williams then had four more scoring drives in the fourth quarter, including a 52-yard bomb to Mims that tied the game at 41 with 7:25 left. On the ensuing kickoff, Texas' Xavier Worthy fumbled on the return to give Oklahoma the ball back on the Longhorns' 18. Sooners RB Kennedy Brooks ran it in for a touchdown on first down to give Oklahoma a 48-41 lead.

    Yet Texas refused to go away. After a Longhorns turnover on downs followed by an Oklahoma punt, Texas QB Casey Thompson found Worthy for a 31-yard TD pass to make it 48 all.

    But with three seconds left in the game, Brooks broke free for a 33-yard touchdown to give Oklahoma an unforgettable 55-48 victory.

    Williams finished his Red River Rivalry debut with 212 passing yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. He had 88 yards and a touchdown on the ground, too. Meanwhile, Brooks had 217 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries.

1. Nov. 27: No. 5 Michigan 45, No. 2 Ohio State 27

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    The 2021 edition of The Game was a thriller, especially given that these two didn't play each other in 2020 because of the pandemic.

    The game had crucial implications, too, as if this rivalry needed any more juice. Whoever one had a clear shot at making it into the playoff, while the loser would earn its second loss of the season, effectively eliminating them from national championship contention.

    Not to mention, Michigan had never beaten Ohio State under head coach Jim Harbaugh, and it had been 10 years since a Wolverines' win in the series.

    This one felt like it might stay close throughout at halftime, as Michigan had just a 14-13 lead. But in the second half, the Wolverines proved why this 2021 team was different than all the ones Harbaugh had in the past. Michigan dominated in the second half, answering any Ohio State score with a counterpunch of its own to put the game further out of the Buckeyes' reach.

    Michigan scored two touchdowns in the third quarter off runs from running back Hassan Haskins to take a 28-13 lead entering the fourth quarter.

    Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson scored a one-yard touchdown run to make it 28-20 to cap off a 17-play, 82-yard scoring drive, but Michigan's offense continued to cut through their opponent's defense with ease. Haskins had another rushing touchdown to put Michigan up 35-20 with 9:14 left.

    OSU scored a touchdown with 4:45 left to pull within eight, but Michigan countered with, you guessed it, Haskins' fifth rushing touchdown to all but seal the deal.