25 Most Important Games In College Football History
Identifying the greatest games in any sport provides endless material for arguments among fans. Is a brilliantly played but meaningless game more deserving than a championship-winning blowout? Herein, an attempt to catalog not just the great games in college football history, but the 25 that mattered most beyond just the game on the field.
25. 1991: Michigan 31, Ohio State 3
Obviously, this was far from the most competitive installment of this storied rivalry. 17th-ranked Ohio State was playing on the road against a 4th-ranked Michigan squad that had lost only to then-top-ranked Florida State.
The Buckeyes’ normally stout defense struggled to stop Elvis Grbac and the Wolverine offense, and Michigan held a 17-3 lead late in the first half. Then Timothy Williams lined up to punt another ball away. Waiting at his own 10-yard line was Heisman favorite Desmond Howard.
Howard would be pushed back to his own 7-yard line by the kick, then take it a Michigan record 93 yards for the TD. In the end zone, Howard celebrated with a pantomime stiff-arm, mimicking the famous pose of the Heisman Trophy he felt now belonged to him.
Howard’s hubris proved justified, as he would take home the hardware at season’s end. His celebration has been repeated by countless Heisman hopefuls in the years since.
24. 1982: Stanford 25, Cal 20
One of football’s most unforgettable finishes could easily have been remembered very differently. John Elway, who would become the master of the fourth-quarter comeback in the NFL, converted on 4th-and-17 to lead Stanford to a 35 yard field goal that gave them a 20-19 lead. All the Cardinal had to do was cover the ensuing kickoff, and they would have a thrilling, last second victory and become bowl-eligible.
Then Mark Harmon kicked off.
Five laterals and one bruised trombonist later, Kevin Moen was in the end zone, the Golden Bears had the victory, and The Play was headed to every highlight reel for the rest of eternity.
23. 1967 Sugar Bowl: Florida 27, Georgia Tech 12
This game has enormous significance in the history of Florida’s program, as it was their first-ever major bowl victory, and capped the Heisman-winning senior year of the legendary Steve Spurrier (pictured, though in a different game).
More important for this list, though, it made other teams and coaches pay attention to the Gators as no single game before it had. Florida’s 9-2 record owed much to Spurrier’s individual brilliance, but the Gators also benefited from a new drink devised by researchers at the school the previous summer.
The 1967 Sugar Bowl was the biggest single game in the introduction of Gatorade to the sports world, and for that alone, it earns its place on this list.
22. 1984: Boston College 47, Miami 45
CBS executives paid $80,000 to convince Rutgers to move the date of its game with Miami so that this matchup of high-powered offenses could be moved to the day after Thanksgiving for maximum ratings.
They got their money’s worth.
The Hurricanes, led by quarterback Bernie Kosar, and the Eagles, with QB Doug Flutie, marched up and down the field all day. When Miami running back Melvin Bratton powered in his fourth TD of the ballgame, the ‘Canes held a 45-41 lead with just 28 seconds on the clock.
Starting from his own 20-yard line, Flutie proceeded to earn the Heisman Trophy he would hoist at season’s end.
Flutie moved the Eagles to Miami’s 48-yard line with six seconds left, then lofted one of the most famous Hail Marys in football history to Gerald Phelan to win the game.
21. 1991: Miami 17, Florida State 16
Florida State-Miami was frequently the defining game of a season twenty years ago. Every year from 1987 through 1993, both teams were ranked in the Top 10 at the time of their meeting.
The 1991 edition featured the #2 Hurricanes visiting top-ranked Florida State, whose quarterback (Casey Weldon) was undefeated as a collegian. Weldon nearly kept that streak alive, marching the Seminoles to the Miami 17-yard line with 29 seconds to play. But Gerry Thomas’ field goal missed wide right, and Miami held on for the victory.
Wide Right I, as it became known, started a string of similar finishes between the two schools. Miami, meanwhile, would go on to earn a share of the 1991 national title (split with Washington).
20. 1980: Georgia 26, Florida 21
Herschel Walker, one of the college game’s all-time great runners, was in the midst of one of the best freshman seasons in history in 1980. His 72-yard TD opened the scoring, and he would finish with an astounding 37-carry, 238-yard performance. But Walker would not be the biggest hero for Georgia on this day.
With 90 seconds left to play, Georgia trailed 21-20 and faced 3rd-and-11 from their own 7-yard line. Quarterback Buck Belue scrambled away from pressure, then found Lindsey Scott, who darted through the Gators secondary for a 92-yard TD to win the game.
Georgia radio announcer Larry Munson immortalized the play, now known as Run Lindsey Run, with his shouts of “Lindsey Scott! Lindsey Scott! Lindsey Scott!” as the Bulldogs piled on the wideout in the end zone.
Georgia rode the ensuing momentum all the way to a national title.
19. 1931: USC 16, Notre Dame 14
Notre Dame entered the day on a 26-game unbeaten streak. Legendary coach Knute Rockne had died in a plane crash in March, leaving Heartley Anderson to coach the defending national champion Irish, but the team had still won six games (plus one tie) to start the 1931 season. USC had begun their rivalry with Notre Dame just five years earlier, and had yet to win in South Bend.
With just six minutes remaining, Notre Dame seemed to have the game in hand, leading 14-0. But a frantic Trojan rally culminated in Johnny Baker’s 23-yard field goal with less than a minute remaining, giving USC the victory and sending them on their way to their second national championship.
18. 1978: Clemson 17, Ohio State 15
In a sport where coaching legends like Bear Bryant or Joe Paterno have largely been allowed to go out on their own terms, the 1978 Gator Bowl stands as a stark, regrettable contrast.
With his Buckeyes trailing 17-15 late in the fourth quarter, Hall-of-Fame-bound OSU head coach Woody Hayes saw his quarterback, Art Schlichter, throw a devastating interception into the hands of Tigers linebacker Charlie Bauman. Bauman returned the game-clinching pick as far as he could, then ran out of bounds near the Ohio State Bench.
He was greeted by Hayes, who punched him in the face.
The incident led to Hayes’ firing during the ensuing offseason, ending one of the great coaching careers in any sport.
17. 1969: Texas 15, Arkansas 14
One of many games dubbed the “game of the century,” this one had the added resonance of being played during the 100th year after college football’s first game. No. 1 Texas, whose then-innovative wishbone offense had dealt Arkansas its only loss the season before, hosted the second-ranked Razorbacks and their No. 1 scoring defense.
Entering the fourth quarter, that defense had locked down the Longhorns to the tune of a 14-0 Arkansas lead. Texas QB James Street scrambled for a 42-yard touchdown to open the quarter, then ran for the ensuing two-point conversion to make it a six-point game.
With 4:47 left on the clock and still down six, Street and the Longhorns faced 4th-and-3 at their own 43. TE Randy Peschel pulled down Street’s deep pass in double coverage, picking up 44 yards and setting up the winning TD. The Longhorns would go on to bring home the national championship at season’s end.
This game has also been heralded as the last major sporting event, in college football or elsewhere, played between two all-white teams.
16. 1966: Michigan State 10, Notre Dame 10
The top-ranked Irish came into this game (another “game of the century”) at 8-0 and the No. 2 Spartans at 9-0.
Incipient No. 1 draft pick Bubba Smith, the leader of the Spartans’ defense, knocked Notre Dame quarterback Terry Hanratty out of the game in the first quarter.The loss of Hanratty may actually have been a blessing in disguise for Notre Dame, as Michigan State was unprepared for the mobility of backup QB Coley O’Brien.
Even so, the defenses told the story, with a 32-yard touchdown thrown by O’Brien representing the one real mistake by either side. When the Irish got the ball with 1:10 remaining, head coach Ara Parseghian chose to play for the tie (for which many fans of both sides have never forgiven him), resulting in a less-than-ideal ending to a hard-fought game.
Parseghian's strategy was supported, though, by the final AP poll that gave the Irish the national championship, even with this tie on their record.
15. 2007 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (OT)
The Big 12-champion Sooners were widely expected to walk all over Boise State, but the Broncos served notice that BCS busters had to be taken seriously. Boise State QB Jared Zabransky opened the scoring with a 49 yard TD pass, and the shootout was on.
Still, the Sooners looked like they had gained control in the second half, scoring 25 consecutive points. The last seven, on an interception return for a touchdown by Marcus Walker, gave Oklahoma a 35-28 lead with just 1:02 to play. That was when the real fireworks started.
A hook-and-ladder trick pass by Zabransky on 4th-and-18 tied the game with seven seconds to play and forced overtime. After Sooners star Adrian Peterson dashed through the Broncos defense for a 25-yard TD, a halfback option pass by Vinny Perretta gave Boise State the answering TD.
For a capper, the Broncos went for the win with a two-point conversion, running a Statue of Liberty play to Ian Johnson to complete one of the most exciting bowl wins ever achieved.
14. 1912: Carlisle 27, Army 6
Carlisle was a small technical school for Native Americans that covered grades K-college. Pop Warner, one of the great innovators in football history, had arrived to coach the football team (nicknamed the Indians) in 1899. He discovered that Carlisle’s team, often including high schoolers as well as college players, was generally at a severe disadvantage in size and strength.
Warner compensated by inventing a new kind of football strategy, one that depended on speed. His single- and double-wing formations and screen passes spread the field out, aiming to run around defenders rather than overpower them with multiple blockers on inside runs.
The strategy reached its high point when Carlisle added to its roster one of the twentieth century’s greatest athletes, Jim Thorpe. In the 1912 showdown with Army, Thorpe was unstoppable. After a penalty nullified a 92-yard touchdown run, Thorpe responded by running 97 yards for a TD. Thrashing one of the natiion’s perennial top teams, the Indians showed the country the future of football.
A good indicator of how far ahead of their time the Indians were: the 27 points they scored were the most allowed in a single game by Army in its history.
13. 1979 Sugar Bowl: Alabama 14, Penn State 7
A clear-cut national championship game in the days before the BCS, this Sugar Bowl pitted the top-ranked Nittany Lions against second-ranked ‘Bama, and Joe Paterno against Bear Bryant.
With both defenses at the top of their games, big plays would be crucial in the outcome. ‘Bama got a 30-yard run from Tony Nathan to set up their first TD and a 62-yard punt return by Lou Ikner to set up their second. Penn State safety Pete Harris set up their only TD with a key interception.
But the game came down to control of one yard of turf.
Late in the fourth quarter, another takeaway by the Penn State defense set the Nittany Lions up at the Alabama 19-yard line. Two plays later, Scott Fitzkee nearly tied the game with a sideline reception, but was thrown out of bounds by Don McNeal at the Alabama 1-yard line. On 3rd-and-goal, Matt Suhey was stopped about a foot short.
On 4th-and-goal, Mike Guman got the call, but Barry Krauss stood him up on a hit hard enough that Krauss’ helmet broke.
Krauss took the game MVP award for his trouble. The Tide took Bear Bryant’s sixth and final national title.
12. 1924: Illinois 39, Michigan 14
Entering their 1924 meeting with the Illini, the Michigan Wolverines hadn’t lost in more than two years. In the entire 1923 season, they had allowed 12 points.
But Illinois had Red Grange (pictured).
The Galloping Ghost (who earned the nickname largely from his exploits in this game) scored four touchdowns on Michigan…in the first quarter. (Grange would account for all six Illinois TDs on the day.) Grange would become one of the first great national sports heroes. His individual celebrity helped legitimize the fledgling NFL when he joined the Chicago Bears in 1925.
11. 2000 Sugar Bowl: Florida State 46, Virginia Tech 29
In a prototypical individual-vs.-team matchup, the question coming into this game was whether the Hokies’ electrifying quarterback, Michael Vick, was good enough to outplay an obviously deeper, and top-ranked, Seminoles squad.
Vick threw for 225 yards and a TD and led all rushers with 97 yards. It wasn’t nearly enough.
FSU WR Peter Warrick earned MVP honors with six catches for 163 yards and two scores, plus a game-breaking 59-yard punt return for a third TD. QB Chris Weinke finished with 329 yards passing and four touchdowns. The Seminoles just had too many weapons for Virginia Tech to handle.
With the win, Florida State became the first team in history to start the season ranked No. 1 and stay there all the way through to a national championship.
10. 1987 Fiesta Bowl: Penn State 14, Miami 7
The rise of the Miami juggernaut during the 1980s defined that decade. Coach Jimmy Johnson’s Hurricanes aroused equal parts hatred and admiration for their arrogance/self-confidence. Their famous arrival in Arizona for this game, exiting the team plane in military fatigues, stoked the fires that much higher.
Penn State, meanwhile, stood in stark contrast, with their anonymous jerseys and their unassuming coach, Joe Paterno.
Miami’s athletic defense dominated. On the other side, the ‘Canes high-powered offense (led by Heisman-winning QB Vinny Testaverde and WR Michael Irvin) racked up 445 total yards, but also turned it over repeatedly against the Nittany Lions' shifting defensive looks.
Shane Conlan returned his second INT of the game to the Miami 5-yard line, setting up the go-ahead touchdown with eight minutes to play. Then, with seven seconds remaining for a 4th-and-goal try, Testaverde threw his fifth pick of the day, to Pete Giftopolous, and Penn State held on for the national title.
Technically, this game was the Sunkist Fiesta Bowl, also making it the first-ever corporate sponsorship of a bowl game.
9. 1997 Sugar Bowl: Florida 52, Florida State 20
For any two teams in college football to play each other twice in a season is rare enough. For the rematch to be played with a national title at stake makes this one of the most remarkable meetings in the history of the sport.
During the 1996 regular season, No. 2 Florida State had knocked off No. 1 Florida in Tallahassee behind a fearsome pass rush that notched six sacks and two roughing-the-passer penalties. By the time they met again in the Sugar Bowl, the Seminoles held the No. 1 ranking while the Gators were ranked third.
However, a loss by No. 2 Arizona State the night before left the door open for either team to earn a national title with a Sugar Bowl win.
For the bowl game, Gators coach Steve Spurrier installed a shotgun-heavy game plan to give his Heisman-winning QB, Danny Wuerffel, more time to get the ball away. Wuerffel responded with three TDs (plus one rushing), as the Gators rolled to their first national title in school history.
8. 2009 SEC Championship Game: Alabama 32, Florida 13
Florida, winners of two of the previous three national titles, entered the game ranked No. 1 and led by 2007 Heisman winner QB Tim Tebow. Second-ranked Alabama countered with Heisman hopeful RB Mark Ingram and a QB, Greg McElroy, who hadn’t lost as a starter dating back through his high school days.
The previous season, the Gators had come from behind to knock off an unbeaten ‘Bama squad in this game en route to the national championship. This time, both teams came in without a loss.
Florida would leave with a convincing one.
The Tide offense dominated Florida, with Ingram rushing for 113 yards and three TDs and Alabama holding the ball for 40 minutes. McElroy’s 239 yards passing earned him the game’s MVP. Alabama would go on to win the national championship, while Tebow would have to settle for two titles in his four seasons in a Gator uniform.
7. 2003 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT)
Miami entered this game on a remarkable 34-game winning streak, and loaded with talent. The next two NFL drafts would see a combined 10 players from this Miami roster taken in the first round. But Ohio State came to play, and the teams were deadlocked at 17 at the end of regulation.
In the first overtime, Miami scored a touchdown on its possession, forcing Ohio State to match it. Facing 4th-and-3, Buckeye QB Craig Krenzel tried to connect with Chris Gamble in the end zone, but Gamble couldn’t hang on. But, a very late (and endlessly disputed) pass interference call on Glenn Sharpe kept the Buckeyes alive.
With four more downs, Ohio State was able to punch in a Krenzel scoring run to send the game to a second OT. From there, a Maurice Clarett TD run gave the Buckeyes the lead, and when Miami tried to answer, Ken Dorsey’s 4th-and-goal pass fell incomplete to give Ohio State the national title.
6. 1969: Michigan 24, Ohio State 12
Top-ranked Ohio State was the reigning national champion and had won their first eight games by margins of at least 27 points. The media were calling the Buckeyes “the greatest college football team of all time.”
No. 12 Michigan came in as huge underdogs, especially after losing 50-14 in Columbus the year before. Regardless, new head coach Bo Schembechler knew he could get his team ready for the game against his former mentor, Woody Hayes.
Late in the second quarter, Ohio State trailed 14-12. Michigan’s Barry Pierson set up a third Wolverines score with a long punt return, and Ted Killian tacked on a field goal before the half for a 24-12 lead.
Hayes famously said that "only three things can happen when you pass, and two of them are bad." In this game, he found himself proven right. Buckeye QB Rex Kern threw four interceptions, while backup Ron Maciejowski added two more, and the Wolverines held on for the upset win.
The ensuing Ten-Year War between Schembechler’s Wolverines and Hayes’ Buckeyes would be the greatest era in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries.
5. 1946: Army 0, Notre Dame 0
On paper, this one should have been a much higher-scoring affair. The defending national champions from Army were again ranked No.1 thanks to their unstoppable backfield. Arnold Tucker was a top-notch quarterback, but took a back seat to defending Heisman Trophy winner Doc Blanchard (No. 35) at fullback and his running mate, halfback Glenn Davis (No. 41, on his way to the 1946 Heisman).
On the other side was No. 2 Notre Dame and QB Johnny Lujack, already flashing the talent that would bring him the 1947 Heisman Trophy.
In those days of two-way play, though, offensive stars were also defensive stars, and they proved it in this game. Army’s best scoring chance came when Tucker intercepted a Lujack pass. A few plays later, Blanchard broke free to the outside with one man to beat, but Lujack’s last-chance tackle saved the touchdown.
The Irish went on to win the national title, though both teams finished with this tie as the only blemish on their records. It was the only game Davis and Blanchard failed to win in their three seasons together.
With Notre Dame end Leon Hart (1949) added to Davis, Blanchard and Lujack, the game was also the only one in history in which four eventual Heisman winners played on the same field.
4. 2006 Rose Bowl: Texas 41, USC 38
This national championship showdown wasn’t hurting for star power. On one side, USC brought a 34-game winning streak and the last two Heisman winners, QB Matt Leinart and RB Reggie Bush. Texas, winners of 19 straight, countered with Heisman finalist Vince Young at quarterback.
After a see-saw offensive struggle, USC held a 38-33 lead with four minutes to play. A clutch stop by Texas’ defense on fourth and two gave Young the ball on his own 44 with 2:09 on the clock. From there, Young engineered a show-stopping final drive, capped by his own nine-yard TD run on 4th-and-5 to win the game and the national title.
Young ultimately accounted for a ridiculous 467 yards of total offense (200 of them rushing).
3. 1957: Notre Dame 7, Oklahoma 0
Coach Bud Wilkinson’s Sooners entered this game with a staggering 47-game winning streak. In more than half a century, the closest anyone has come to equaling that mark was 35 games, a full season short.
The previous season, Oklahoma had slaughtered the Irish 40-0 in South Bend. The rematch in Norman was dominated by Notre Dame ball control, with fullback Nick Pietrosante and halfback Dick Lynch leading the Irish to 169 rushing yards while the defense allowed only 98 to the Sooners. Lynch scampered around the right side for a three-yard TD with four minutes remaining to provide the game’s only score.
A last-ditch Sooner drive got as close as the Irish 24-yard line before safety Bob Williams (also the starting QB for the Irish) intercepted Dale Sherrod in the end zone to seal the victory.
2. 1963: Navy 21, Army 15
QB Roger Staubach, on his way to a Heisman Trophy, would carry this Navy team to a final ranking of No. 2, missing the national title only when top-ranked Texas beat them in the Cotton Bowl. Army put up a valiant fourth-quarter comeback effort, but when QB Rollie Stichweh couldn’t call an audible over the raucous Philadelphia crowd, time ran out on the Cadets at the Navy 1-yard line.
As big as the game in the stadium was, it was only part of the story. Hanging over every play was the memory of President Kennedy, whose assassination weeks earlier had initially sparked the academies to cancel the game. The game was rescheduled only because the widowed Jacqueline Kennedy publicly requested it, calling it a “fitting tribute” to her late husband.
On top of all that, the game also saw the first-ever use of instant replay on live TV. Stichweh’s fourth-quarter touchdown run, which cut the Navy lead to 6, was shown a second time as announcer Lindsey Nelson warned viewers, “Ladies and gentlemen, Army did not score again.”
1. 1971: Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
The preferred “game of the century” for fans of offensive football, this matchup pitted top-ranked, defending champion Nebraska against their second-ranked archrivals in Norman. Both teams had beaten all their previous opponents by average margins of about 30 points.
Something had to give, and ultimately, it was the Sooners defense. Cornhuskers QB Jerry Tagge engineered a 12-play, 74-yard drive capped by Jeff Kinney’s two-yard TD run with 1:38 to play, and the run-oriented Oklahoma offense didn’t have enough time to answer, leaving Nebraska the victors by a 35-31 margin.
The enduring image of the game, though, will always be Johnny Rodgers, widely considered the greatest player in Nebraska history and one of the best in college football history, weaving through the Sooner coverage team for a 72-yard TD to open the scoring.