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Top-10 College Football Games in History

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MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 11: John Metchie III #8 of the Alabama Crimson Tide runs the ball against The Ohio State Buckeyes in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Hard Rock Stadium on January 11, 2021 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

10) Harvard 29, Yale 29

Nov. 23, 1968

An Ivy league game made my top 10? Yale had Calvin Hill, Brian Dowling and a 29-13 lead with 42 seconds left. Harvard had Tommy Lee Jones and a what-the-hell? attitude. The Crimson scored a touchdown and two-point conversion, recovered an onside kick, and got another TD. With no time left, Harvard got another two-pointer to forge a shocking tie, one celebrated with the immortal headline in the following day’s student newspaper, “Harvard Beats Yale 29-29.”

9) California 25, Stanford 20

Nov. 20, 1982 

If endings to games were all that mattered on this list, this game would most certainly be number one.  The “Big Game” might not fire the rivalry emotions like the Iron Bowl or Michigan-Ohio State, but on this day, it was as good as any. John Elway, later to be renowned for his great late drives, led the Cardinal to a seemingly game-winning field goal by kicker Mark Harmon. Stanford’s celebration was excessive enough, even by early-80s standards, to draw a penalty, giving Cal a smidgen of hope.

Then came all the laterals, the band out on the field, the long, long discussion, and then Joe Starkey’s voice-shattering call on KGO-AM …

“AND THE BEARS!! THE BEARS HAVE WON! The Bears have won! Oh, my God! The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-rending… exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football! California has won the Big Game over Stanford! Oh, excuse me for my voice, but I have never, never seen anything like it in the history of I have ever seen any game in my life! The Bears have won it! There will be no extra point!”

8) BYU 46, SMU 45

Dec. 19, 1980

The Holiday Bowl would gain a reputation for tremendous games thanks to this insane epic. The Pony Express backfield of Eric Dickerson and Craig James led the Mustangs to a 45-25 lead with 2:33 left. Enter BYU’s Jim McMahon. Two touchdown passes, an onside kick recovery and a blocked punt later, the Cougars had the ball, down six points. With time left for one play, McMahon heaved one to the end zone. Tight end Clay Brown skied to haul in the Hail Mary, and the PAT completed one of the most incredible comebacks of all time. On a personal note this game was played on my 12th birthday, but I never saw it live because living in a small town in the middle of nowhere (Indiana) meant no cable!

7) Georgia 26, Florida 21

Nov. 8, 1980

Fabulous freshman Herschel Walker was the key to the Bulldogs run to the national championship, but it never would have happened if not for Lindsay Scott. His 93-yard catch and run to beat hated rival Florida in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is the greatest play in Bulldog history. Folks in the Peach State have Larry Munson’s epic call memorized, stenciled on living room walls, engraved on tombstones, you name it…

“Gonna throw on the run-complete on the 25. To the 30, Lindsay Scott 35, 40, Lindsay Scott 45, 50, 45, 40-Run, Lindsay!–25, 20, 15, 10, 5, Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!!” This is a vastly overlooked game by people when they look at the greatest games ever, but it belongs on any top 10 list.

6) Notre Dame 35, Houston 34

Jan. 1, 1979 

Houston led 34-12, Texas was suffering through the frosty aftermath of a rare ice storm, and Joe Montana was sick to death. But the future Hall of Famer inhaled a bowl of chicken soup at halftime, and then led the greatest comeback in Cotton bowl history. Montana led the Irish to 23 points in a manic fourth quarter. Joe Cool hit Kris Haines with no time remaining to tie the game, and after a penalty, the PAT was true.

It was Montana’s final game for Notre Dame. Not a great draft prospect, most assumed this finale would be the lasting moment of his football career. They would be wrong, Montana made a career of this in the NFL and nobody saw it coming.

5) Boston College 47, Miami 45

Nov. 23, 1984

As a Thanksgiving weekend audience watched, Doug Flutie and Bernie Kosar traded haymakers all day, despite a heavy rainstorm that soaked the field. Melvin Bratton’s fourth TD of the game gave the Canes a late four-point lead, but then came “55 Flood Tip,” the fabled Hail Mary from Flutie to Gerard Phelan. The modern scourge of a defining “Heisman Moment” was born as Phelan cradled the pass like a “first-born,” as Phelan later said. Flutie’s incredible bomb into gale-force winds as time elapsed is arguably the most famous play in college pigskin history. Beyond the unbelievable ending the game was a constant back and forth battle between two great teams.

4) Ohio State 31, Miami 24

Jan. 3, 2003

The Hurricanes thought they had repeated as national champs. A roster stacked with future NFL stars celebrated with hugs and helmet tosses.

Then someone noticed the flag.

Great endings often come with controversy, and no game in recent memory is as etched in debate as this BCS title clash in the Arizona desert. Was it truly pass interference on Miami defensive back Glenn Sharpe? Was field judge Terry Porter blind, ignorant, or merely deliberate in calling the penalty so late? Would the game have even been in overtime had future pariah Maurice Clarett not stripped the ball from Sean Taylor after a third quarter interception? Either way an obvious blown call, led to an extension of an already hard hitting slug fest that wouldn’t be decided until multiple overtimes had been played.

All rhetorical questions, as it happens. What did happen is that OSU outlasted The U in a breathless double overtime thriller to win the crystal football.

3) Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42

Jan. 1, 2007

This game had absolutely everything you could possibly hope for in a football game. A hook-and-ladder TD in the dying seconds, a halfback-option pass in overtime, a Statue of Liberty two-point conversion to win the game — this Fiesta Bowl classic set the standard for strategies employed by heavy underdogs. Boise threw everything it had at the heavily favored Sooners (led by the indomitable Adrian Peterson), including a marriage proposal from running back Ian Johnson to his cheerleader girlfriend. Truly one of the most amazing football games from beginning to end that you will ever see at any level.

2) Texas 41, USC 38

Jan. 4, 2006

The Trojans entered this National Championship game having won 34 consecutive games. They played well enough to win number 35, except for a performance for the ages by Texas quarterback Vince Young. Young ran for 200 yards, including the game-winning score on fourth-and-five with 19 seconds left, and threw for 267 more, outplaying Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, the winners of the last two Heisman Trophies.

In a 32-point fourth quarter, it was a defensive play that turned the game. With a touch over two minutes left, Southern Cal turned to its ball peen hammer, LenDale White, to convert a fourth-and-two to ice the game. White scored three TDs and averaged six yards a carry on the night, but on his final tote he was brought down just short of the sticks. Young breezed down the field, and the Horns had a stunning national championship.

1) Miami 31, Nebraska 30

Jan. 1, 1984

Top-ranked Nebraska, led by Irving Fryar, Mike Rozier and Turner Gill, came into the game overwhelming favorites to beat Howard Schnellenberger’s Hurricanes, then in its early dynasty stage. But Miami, riding a huge home-field edge, raced to a big lead, only to have Nebraska inexorably reel them in, helped by a “fumblerooski” TD scored by Outland Trophy winner Dean Steinkuhler. Bernie Kosar responded by pushing the Canes back out to a 31-17 lead.

But the Huskers responded again, scoring on a fourth-and-eight option run to make the score 31-30 with 48 seconds left. A tie likely would allow Nebraska to win the title, but such a sullied victory didn’t sit well with Osborne. “We wanted a clear-cut national championship,” he said after the game. So he laid it all on the line with a Gill pass for two, which was batted down by Kenny Calhoun, giving The U its first title.

This game had multiple comebacks and a historic gutsy decision by Tom Osborne, which ended up helping his legend more than it hurt it.

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