As much as I like to impugn the honor of college football, the game still has a soft spot in my heart, largely due to its ability to give us games like the following on any given autumn Saturday. The first full decade of the BCS served up its share of duds, but those were almost certainly outweighed by title games that will never be forgotten. It’s also worth noting that the sport that proclaims to have the most meaningful regular season did earn the most regular-season games in its top ten.
Final cuts to this list—which comprises many unforgettable finishes and frantic final quarters, not to mention some outright barnburners—include Stanford’s upset of USC at the Coliseum, Texas and Michigan’s classic 2005 Rose Bowl, Matt Ryan’s last-second heroics to keep BC unbeaten at Virginia Tech in 2007, and a personal favorite: Rutgers’ 18-point comeback and upset of Louisville in Piscataway in 2006.
And if you don’t know what No. 1 is…come on.
10. 2002 Regular Season: Miami 28, Florida State 27
The Aughts’ best installment of one of the ‘90s best rivalries revived an old theme with a directional twist: After Wide Rights I, II, and III, Xavier Beitia’s last-second field goal attempt—the culmination of a roller-coaster fourth quarter that saw the Hurricanes (winners of 27 straight) overcome a 13-point deficit in about 30 seconds—sailed Wide Left.
It was the first of two stiff challenges Miami would face in its title defense that season; the other is a few scrolls down.
9. 2007 Regular Season: LSU 30, Auburn 24
Les Miles has spent much of the Aughts proving that dumb decisions—such as the moronic one he made at the end of this game (and perhaps, LSU’s decision to hire him)—occasionally work out. In the fourth of five consecutive classic games between the SEC’s two shades of tiger, No. 17 Auburn held a one-point edge on host and No. 4 LSU. With the Bayeux Bengals in field-goal range in the final minute, Miles ran the clock down and had Matt Flynn throw a deep ball to the corner of the end zone with under 10 seconds to go. Fortunately for LSU, Flynn’s pass was perfect, landing softly in the sliding grasp of Demetrius Byrd with a second left on the clock.
Miles’ decision remains one of the most perplexing in sports this decade—alongside the similar call he made against Ole Miss (which cost LSU the game) this year and Mack Brown made in the Big XII title game. Because of the risky call by the Mad Hatter, though, this is the most memorable game from college football’s best and most consistent rivalry in the Aughts.
8. 2001 GMAC Bowl: Marshall 64, East Carolina 61 (2OT)
Is it possible for a meaningless sporting event to be more exciting than this? Behind two defensive touchdowns and star quarterback David Garrard (who would one day lead the Jaguars to the playoffs), ECU built a 21-0 first-quarter lead and expanded it to 38-8 at halftime.* Behind two defensive touchdowns and star quarterback Byron Leftwich (who would one day lead the Jaguars to the playoffs), the Thundering Herd thundered back in the third quarter, outscoring the Pirates 28-3. ECU rebuilt a 51-42 lead in the fourth with two minutes to go, and recovered an onside kick after a Marshall field goal to all but seal the game. But Leftwich led the Herd on an 80-yard touchdown drive in the final 50 seconds (sans timeout), only for his team to miss the game-winning extra point with seven seconds left—the moment that transformed this game from incredible to epic. “What else can happen?” Steve Levy, in a rare football play-by-play role, asked with disbelief.
*That’s right: Marshall was so out of the game that it started going for two in the first half.
Each team scored a TD in the first overtime, and after holding ECU to a field goal in the second extra period, Marshall finally completed its comeback on an eight-yard, third-down strike from Leftwich to Denero Marriott.
As if the game weren’t good enough, Pirates’ head coach Steve Logan’s reactions throughout his team’s second-half collapse were hilarious.
7. 2000 Regular Season: Northwestern 54, Michigan 51
Back when I did my long drawn-out review of the 1999 NLCS, I spent some time talking about how important conclusions were and how a game’s ending could redefine what happened before.
Well, here’s a perfect case in point. With 1:43 on the clock, the Wolverines and Wildcats had already staged an instant classic, with each team trading blows from the opening kickoff. But all the feel-good-isn’t-college-football-great warmth was threatened when, on a 4th-and-goal with his team down give, Damian Anderson—NU’s star running back who had rushed for over 250 yards—dropped a perfectly lofted pass from Zak Kustok in the end zone. It was the kind of heartbreaking moment that made you wish you hadn’t watched the game all afternoon. Even without a clear rooting interest, I couldn’t help but feel bad for Anderson.
But then, in that rare instance where two wrongs make a right, Anderson’s counterpart, Michigan running back Anthony Thomas, fumbled on the Wolverines’ ensuing possession (after securing a first down that essentially won the game), setting up Northwestern inside the Michigan 20. Kustok hooked up with Sam Simmons, giving the Wildcats a lead they survived when the Wolverines botched a game-tying 57-yard field-goal attempt on the final play.
“Football is how you respond,” Brent Musburger said. “And Northwestern responded.”
At the time, it was the greatest college football game I had ever witnessed—in large part due to its redemptive conclusion.
6. 2007 Regular Season: Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32
Quite possibly the greatest upset in college football history. Forget Boise State over Oklahoma or Stanford over USC. This was a 1-AA team going into the Big House and taking down the No. 5 team in the country.* This was such a jarring upset that Appalachian State earned votes in the AP Poll—the first FCS school to ever earn that honor. It was also the upset that kicked off the Year of the Upset—a season in college football that would see teams ranked in the top two lose an incredible 11 times (three times on the same weekend, which hadn’t happened in the previous decade).
*For the youngsters out there who don’t remember, Michigan was once a very good football team that routinely made bowl games.
By the way, the fact that it all worked out means we don’t have to second-guess Jerry Moore’s terrible decision to kick a field goal on first down with 30 seconds left or that linebacker’s equally terrible decision to scoop up the blocked field goal instead of just jumping on it (although it was a pretty sweet scoop).
5. 2008 Regular Season: Texas Tech 39, Texas 33
Texas Tech had made a nice habit in the Aughts of winning its first several games in dominant fashion before getting crushed by Texas or Oklahoma in its first real test. We had heard that 2008 would be different since the Red Raiders boasted their deepest receiving corps yet, headlined of course by Michael Crabtree. But still, it was hard to think that Tech, after all the years, would fulfill its side of the bargain.
Early on, the Red Raiders did that and more, storming to a 19-0 lead and a 22-6 halftime advantage. Colt McCoy and the second-ranked Longhorns fought their way back in the second half, finally taking a 33-32 lead on a touchdown with 89 seconds left. That set the stage for Graham Harrell to find Crabtree, who tiptoed the sideline while breaking through two tackles to score the game-winner with a single tick left.
It was the play that legitimated Crabtree as the star receiver we had heard he was and Texas Tech as a viable title contender in the Big XII. And for once in the conference, a game that lived up to the hype.
4. 2005 Regular Season: USC 35, Notre Dame 31
Personal anecdote: My roommate planned to get trashed at our own school’s tailgate the morning of this game, but he also wanted to be conscious in case it turned out to be as good as expected. So the day before, we went over all the possible scenarios that would require me to aggressively wake him from his drunken stupor for the fourth quarter. We went over possibilities like “the two teams combining for 100 points by halftime” and “Reggie Bush rushing for over 400 yards in a blowout.”
Suffice it to say, we prepared more than we needed to.
Another one of those top-ten matchups that lived up to the hype, this was already a classic by the time the final stanza started tied at 21. Three lead changes in the final 5:09, a huge fourth-down conversion, the most fortuitous fumble in football history (not by the Oakland Raiders), and a gutsy last-second decision by Matt Leinart at the Irish goal line (with a little help from a running back whose last name just happens to rhyme with “push”) cemented it as the Game of the Year—and the best regular-season contest of the decade.
3. 2002 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT)
The first great BCS title game didn’t portend that way: Miami had won 34 in a row by then, and Ohio State seemed to sneak by mediocre team after mediocre team in the Big Ten with a great defense, a solid running game, and the ultimate game manager in Craig Krenzel.
It was the defense that did the job on this night for the Buckeyes, forcing five Hurricane turnovers—although one is credited to running back Maurice Clarett.* Ohio State’s three scoring drives in regulation totaled 32 yards,** but that was enough for the Buckeyes to build a 17-7 third-quarter lead. Miami cut it to three, lost Willis McGahee on the second-most gruesome injury of the Aughts (see? Shaun Livingston did win something!), and then tied it as time expired on Todd Sievers’ 40-yard field goal (capping a four-play, one-yard drive).
*Remember Maurice Clarett?
**That’s my college football stat of the decade.
At that point, you couldn’t help but feel that the Hurricanes had managed to weather the storm, just as they had in an earlier game on this list. And we all felt that way for sure when Krenzel’s fourth-down pass in overtime fell harmlessly to the ground to end the game. Terry Porter’s dubious-to-begin-with-but-extremely-dubious-in-its-tardiness flag for pass interference kept the Buckeyes alive. They took advantage then, scored again to start double overtime, then put together an underrated goal-line stand to end the ‘Canes stranglehold on the title.
This was the first time the BCS ever really felt right.
2. 2006 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (OT)
Things we forget about this game: 1. Oklahoma had a kind of down year; 2. Boise State dominated for pretty much the whole night; 3. Adrian Peterson played in it! 4. It took Oklahoma about nine tries to get the two-point conversion that tied the game with under two minutes to go. 5. Jared Zabransky’s pick-six with just over a minute left was the worst throw ever by a quarterback subsequently featured on the cover of a major video game.
Things we remember: Everything that happened after that interception.
It really seems like it’s straight out of an episode of Friday Night Lights. The 4th-and-18 conversion on a hook-and-ladder? Absolutely insane; it’s easily the play of the decade in college football. Nothing else is even close.
Deciding on a fourth down to have your RB/WR throw the ball? Also insane, but in a more literal, less colloquial sense.
And to top it off with a Statue of Liberty? I don’t know anyone with cojones large enough to make those calls in a pickup football game. That Chris Petersen did it on that stage, with his program’s legitimacy on the line is nothing short of unbelievable.*
*Side argument for another time: In an odd sort of way, it almost seems like Petersen’s trick play calling undercut that legitimacy. In other words, people tend to remember that game as the one with all the trick plays and not the one Boise State dominated for much of the night. They think the Broncos could only win running those kinds of plays, which isn’t true.
Oh, and don’t forget Ian Johnson’s proposal. The perfect ending to a surreal night in Glendale.
1. 2006 Rose Bowl: Texas 41, USC 38
Before the opening kickoff, the 2006 Rose Bowl was already the perfect nexus of all the elements that make sports great: Here you had, clearly and uncontroversially, the two best teams in the nation, with three of the decade’s transcendent players, waging battle in the sport’s most storied venue (with, I might add, its most venerated announcer on the microphone).
It seemed impossible for the game to live up to its potential.
And then it exceeded it. Back and forth we went, the undefeated Longhorns—fresh off a 70-3 trouncing of Colorado in the Big XII title game—and the invincible Trojans—with another 34-game winning streak*—exchanging the lead four times in the first three quarters before USC appeared to seize control in the fourth. Up 12 with under five minutes to go, Southern Cal was on its way to another national title.**
*Not the number to have, apparently, before a title game.
**Second or third in a row, depending on your perspective.
But Vince Young wasn’t done. After his 17-yard dash cut the USC lead to five, the Trojans elected to go for it on 4th-and-2 from the Texas 45 with 2:09 left. It was the right decision, largely because Vince Young was in the midst of arguably the greatest single performance of any athlete in the Aughts (Young finished with 267 yards passing and 200 rushing). The Longhorns stuffed LenDale White (Reggie Bush’s not being on the field was not the right decision), and Young went back to work, capping off the drive, the game, the season, and Keith Jackson’s announcing career with a fourth-down scramble to the corner.
“Fourth and five, the national championship on the line, right here,” Jackson said. “He’s going for the cornerrrrrr…he’s got it! Vince…Young…scores!” It’s probably my favorite call of the decade on one of its defining plays.
Does it get any better?