Certainly a bold topic to tackle, determining the greatest college football games ever played can be an intimidating task if only because of sheer numbers. According to James Howell's historical database, even if you count only teams ever considered major programs, there have been well over 60,000 games played in the sport's history. So it's only reasonable to lay some ground rules for games that will be considered for this list. The easiest rule, and not by coincidence the one that immediately eliminates the largest number of games and makes the list entirely manageable, is to limit the research to matchups of great teams.
What makes a great team? I went with the criterion of any matchup of two teams that both rank in the top 200 of my historical rankings. At first this may seem somewhat strict as there have been 137 seasons of college football. Fortunately there are several years where 4 teams qualify and one (1973) where the top 6 all finished in the current top 200. Limiting it to the top 100 had left me with only 21 games to analyze, but extending it to the top 200 gave a total of 68 matchups. So the first factor put into the calculation was a Power Score for each game based on the two teams' ratings. The game with the highest Power Score was assigned a value of 20 and every other game was scaled from there. The second factor that I think can be generally agreed upon as a good metric for a game's greatness is the competitiveness of the game itself. Also based on a twenty point scale each game was assigned a Game Score. Obviously closer final scores were awarded more points. Also, and somewhat debatable in its use, was a bonus for a higher scoring game. This was only 1/4 as important as the final margin.
After those two factors came others that many of you will certainly disagree with. Fortunately for me, I'm the one that compiled this list. Big games in college football seem even bigger the later in the season they are. If Texas had beaten Ohio State in November of 2005 it simply would have been a bigger game than it was in September. So each game was assigned a score based on the number of games each team played after the matchup under consideration. The Date Score started at 10 if it was the last game for both teams and went down by one, but not below zero, for every game each team played afterward. The final factor I used required quite a bit of subjective input. The Championship Bonus given to each game was from 0 to 10 in increments of 2.5 based on its title implications. A game was only given a 10 if it was the final game between the two teams that finished #1 and #2 in the final ratings even after the game was considered. Essentially these were season-ending national championship games between the unquestioned top two teams in the nation. I also considered a 2.5 bonus for neutral site and bowl games because of the special nature of those matchups. But I ultimately decided that the home/visitor nature of college football has its own charm. It's hard to argue that the Texas/Ohio State game mentioned above should be downgraded because it was at Ohio Stadium.
In the end the totals were very close across the board. The Championship Bonus ended up having a larger impact than I had imagined so while the pool of elite matchups was decided objectively my ad hoc input for that factor tipped the scales in some cases. Without further adieu:
(Information in parentheses are Power Score, Game Score, Date Score, Championship Bonus - Total Score)
#5 - January 2nd, 1987 - Penn State 14, Miami 10 @ The Fiesta Bowl
(12.44, 15.40, 10, 10 - 47.84)
Penn State 14, Miami 10 @ The Fiesta Bowl
Hyped in the media as a battle of good versus evil, this famous matchup made the Fiesta Bowl and still boasts the highest television share of any game in college football history. Pregame festivities seemed designed to further maximize the hype as Penn State's players showed up at functions in suit and tie while Miami's players arrived in combat fatigues. The game itself was moved from New Year's Day to January 2nd to capitalize on its status as the National Championship Game. Miami came in having outscored their opposition 420-136 on their way to an 11-0 record. Penn State was also 11-0 but had faced a handful of close calls while outscoring opponents 326-123 on the year.
Despite outgaining Penn State 445 yards to 162, the Hurricanes were undone by seven turnovers. However it was the Hurricanes who drew first blood thanks to a Penn State fumble that Miami recovered on the Nittany Lion 23. Four plays later Miami led 7-0. Penn State answered with their only good drive of the game, a 74-yard march that ended in a 4-yard touchdown run by John Shaffer who had coughed the ball up earlier. The score remained 7-7 until the second half.
There was no scoring in the third quarter, but Miami converted a field goal to take a 10-7 lead early in the fourth. After a fruitless Nittany Lion possession, Testaverde threw an interception to Shane Conlan, who returned it to Miami's 5 yard line. After a fumbled snap D.J. Dozier punched it in for the 14-10 Penn State lead. Miami turned it over again on their next possession via a fumble, but Penn State couldn't muster a drive so the Hurricanes took over for the last time with just over three minutes left on their own 23 yard line. Testaverde led Miami inside the Nittany Lion 5 yard line with 45 seconds remaining in the contest. On fourth-and-goal with 18 seconds left, Testaverde threw his fifth interception of the game to Pete Giftopoulos, sealing Penn State's championship. All things considered, I'm not sure that this game can be argued as having been well-played by both sides, but it was certainly a very influential matchup and belongs on a list of great college games.
#4 - November 30th, 1905 - Chicago 2, Michigan 0 @ Chicago
(12.10, 16.00, 10, 10 - 48.10)
Chicago 2, Michigan 0 @ Chicago
Well, this one will require the greatest amount of explanation and support. Doubt the greatness of this game if you wish. Yes it was over 100 years ago and the original teddy bear was in the White House. But despite the fact that the sport was quite different from the one played today, this was a huge game not just in retrospect. In fact, it had the ultimate impact on one participant's life. Michigan and Chicago presented the greatest rivalry in the west at the time. The game pitted Fielding Yost's "Point a Minute" juggernaut against Amos Alonzo Stagg's Maroons upon whom the "Monsters of the Midway" moniker was first bestowed. Michigan's last loss had occurred in the same location on 11/29/1900, five years and one day before this historical game. Since then Yost's self-described "beautiful machine" had gone 55-0-1 and had outscored opponents 2821-40, an average margin of 50-1. The only blemish was a 6-6 tie at Minnesota in 1903, a Minnesota squad that otherwise that year went 14-0 and outscored its opponents 612-6. Meanwhile Stagg's Maroons had experienced success during the intervening half-decade, but Michigan had handed them their only loss in both 1902 and 1904. The 1905 Michigan team was 12-0 and had outscored opponents 495-0 while Chicago was 10-0 and had posted a scoring advantage of 269-5. It's important to note, though, that Chicago had played only one game against a team not considered a major team while Michigan had played seven, although Chicago's non-major opponent had been a high school. Hard as it may be to believe, this game even had pregame hype as it was billed as a game for the "championship of the West." The University of Chicago expanded their capacity to 27,000 for the event but the demand far exceeded the supply. Well over 50,000 ticket requests were made and a local Chicago ticket sales location sold 1,500 tickets in the first hour. Walter Camp made the trip to see what was considered the largest football game ever played west of Philadelphia at the time. University of Chicago President William Rainey Harper demanded game updates though he was literally lying on his deathbed with the illness that would kill him not two months after the game.
Ah, but the game itself. How can a game with a final score of 2-0 be a great game? Well, contemporary accounts universally described the action as a battle between two machines. What had been a game dominated by freelancing individuals was now transformed into a battle of two cohesive units both focused purely on the success of the whole. There were 22 punts in the first half and at halftime both Yost and Stagg had the huge task of firing up their teams. In an act that predates the Gipper by fifteen years, President Harper dispatched his bedside nurse, Elizabeth Wallace, to exhort the players to win on his behalf. Stagg took the message from Wallace and fired up his troops by "pleading with them to win for the dying president's sake," although Wallace later recounted that the message was late and was given once the players were already back on the field. At one point in the second half Chicago was deep in their own territory and faced fourth down. Michigan's punt rush was too close for Chicago's punter to safely get the kick away, so he took off running. He gained a first down on the play and gave the Maroons some much-needed breathing room. After three more first downs the drive finally stalled. But now kicking from around midfield, the punt sailed into the endzone. William Dennison "Dennis" Clark caught the ball for Michigan and attempted a return against the advice of his teammates on the field. After crossing the goal line he was struck hard by two Chicago defenders and driven back into the endzone, where he was tackled for a safety (forward progress was not part of the rules then). After the safety the game remained a defensive struggle with a total of 267 yards gained for both teams. Chicago prevailed, ending Michigan's 5-year and 56-game unbeaten streak.
The afterparty at the University of Chicago was huge. A Maroon halfback, having lost sight in one of his eyes during the contest, had penned a song that was belted out by the crowd in attendance. The jubilation in Chicago was matched by the depression in Ann Arbor. Newspaper accounts and public opinion put the blame for the loss squarely on Clark's shoulders. He was said to have beaten his own team and even Walter Camp declared the move as a "rank blunder" when describing the game. Clark withdrew from the team and contemplated suicide beginning shortly after the game. In 1924 Yost met Clark in Oregon and recalled that Clark still despaired about the mistake nearly two decades later. Yost said that he tried to console Clark but that it couldn't be done. In 1932 Clark shot himself through the heart. His suicide note to his wife and three children was reported to have hoped that his "final play" would help make up for his error in the game.
(Thank you to this source for pregame, attendance, and postgame effects information)
#3 - January 3rd, 2003 - Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT) @ The Fiesta Bowl
(10.14, 18.00, 10, 10 - 48.14)
Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT) @ The Fiesta Bowl
Once again Miami and the Fiesta Bowl appear on the list and once again the Hurricanes were heavy favorites coming in, this time by 11-1/2 points. They were on a 34-game winning streak and their previous team in 2001 was one of the better teams in the history of the sport. Ohio State had spent much of the season escaping by the skin of their teeth, including a fourth down touchdown pass against Purdue late in the season. They would escape once again but not without controversy.
Miami jumped to a 7-0 lead in the first quarter and the lead held until late in the half. But two Buckeye touchdowns in the last three minutes of the half gave Ohio State the 14-7 advantage heading into the locker room. More good fortune came their way in the third quarter as a Craig Krenzel interception was subsequently fumbled by Sean Taylor. After Maurice Clarrett recovered, a field goal stretched the lead to 17-7. Miami answered with a touchdown and it was 17-14 after three quarters. The teams traded missed field goals early in the fourth. Miami drove deep into Buckeye territory on a completion to Roscoe Parrish but Parrish fumbled the ball away. After one first down the first major controversy arose. On third down Craig Krenzel hooked up with Chris Gamble. The referees ruled Gamble out of bounds and the Buckeyes were forced to punt. Replays showed, however, that Gamble was held near the line of scrimmage and more importantly that he had landed inbounds. This would have been a first down and Ohio State could have run out the clock. Unfortunately the play clock had reached zero before the snap. Ohio State punted the ball away. Parrish redeemed himself with a 50 yard return to the Buckeye 26 yard line. Unable to gain a first down they were forced to attempt the field goal with no time left and Sievers converted. Ohio State won the overtime toss and started on defense. Miami scored a touchdown to make it 24-17 and then the real fun started.
Ohio State converted a 4th and 14 to gain a first down at the Miami 12. Three plays later they faced a 4th and 3 on the 5 yard line. Krenzel threw a pass to Gamble in the right corner of the endzone. Glenn Sharpe knocked the pass down and the Hurricanes began to celebrate. What they didn't know was that field judge Terry Porter had flagged Sharpe for pass interference. Television angles shown on the broadcast were unable to confirm the penalty and the controversy began. Ohio State took advantage and tied the game. Clarrett scored a rushing touchdown on the first possession of the second overtime to make it 31-24. Eventually the Hurricanes received a pass interference call that gave them a first and goal from the two. They were unable to score from there and the Buckeyes were crowned champions. The controversial pass interference call was later supported by additional angles and pictures. It was officially ruled the correct call by the National Association of Sports Officials and was listed in Referee Magazine as one of "The 18 Best Calls in Officiating History."
#2 - November 25th, 1971 - Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31 @ Oklahoma
(20.00, 17.40, 6, 7.5 - 50.90)
Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31 @ Oklahoma
As demonstrated by the numbers above, this was the greatest matchup in terms of team strength in the history of college football according to the ratings. The only thing keeping this out of the top spot is the fact that it wasn't the last game of the year and it wasn't the national championship game as Nebraska faced undefeated Alabama in the Orange Bowl. That matchup, though, would end in a blowout. This game was a classic in every sense of the word and is considered by many to be the greatest game ever played.
Both Nebraska and Oklahoma had absolutely steamrolled through opponents on their way to this battle. Oklahoma stood at 9-0 having outscored its opponents 405-146. Nebraska was 10-0 with a scoring mark of 389-64. Each had another game left before the end of the regular season but there was no doubt this game would decide not only the Big 8 championship but also half the national championship matchup. Alabama waited in the wings if they could defeat Auburn. Nebraska caught lightning first in the form of Johnny Rodgers' punt return for a touchdown. Oklahoma responded with a field goal but a Greg Pruitt fumble enabled the Cornhuskers to stretch the lead to 14-3. Jack Mildren then led the Sooners on an 80 yard touchdown drive to pull Oklahoma to within four at 14-10. Right before halftime Oklahoma struck on a 24-yard touchdown pass from Mildren to Jon Harrison. The 17-14 halftime score marked the first time all season Nebraska had trailed.
Nebraska outscored Oklahoma 14-7 in the third quarter to take a four point lead into the fourth. A fumble by 'Husker QB Jerry Tagge led to a 68-yard Oklahoma scoring drive and Nebraska trailed 31-28 after another Mildren touchdown pass. Nebraska took over with just over seven minutes remaining on their own 26 yard line. Five-and-a-half minutes later a 2-yard touchdown run game Nebraska the lead and the victory 35-31. Nebraska and Oklahoma finished up the regular season by whipping Hawaii and Oklahoma State, respectively. Alabama had handled their business with Auburn. The bowl games pitted Nebraska against Alabama for the championship and Oklahoma against Auburn in a battle of conference runners-up. Oklahoma easily dispatched Auburn 40-22 and Nebraska completed their dominant season with a 38-6 pasting of the Crimson Tide. 1971 Nebraska ranks as the greatest team of all time in my ratings and 1971 Oklahoma is #5 despite the loss. The two teams' dominance that season was that great. Alabama had likewise steamrolled every team they had faced until they ran into Nebraska. They are #19 all time despite the blowout loss. Poor Colorado from that year faced what score as two of the five best college football teams of all time on the road in a three week span. They left with 45-17 and 31-7 spankings. They finished #3 in the final AP Poll.
#1 - January 4th, 2006 - Texas 41, Southern Cal 38 @ The Rose Bowl
(13.33, 18.20, 10, 10 - 51.53)
Texas 41, Southern Cal 38 @ The Rose Bowl
Did you expect some other game in the top spot? I would say this game has been beaten to death on Longhorn-related message board, blogs, and websites over the last 20 months. The only problem is that I don't think this game can ever possibly be beaten to death. By now we all know the story. Southern Cal came into the game on a 34-game winning streak and the Trojans were the defending BCS champions. They were going for three AP national titles in a row against the Longhorns. They came into the game 12-0 having outscored their opponents 600-256. Their offense was highly acclaimed and the pregame hype was magnified by ESPN's series pitting them in fantasy matchups against history's greatest teams. Unfortunately for them real life had pitted them against the 2005 Texas Longhorns. Texas also came into the game at 12-0 and had scored 611 points to their opponents' 175 over the course of the season. While USC held the top spot in both human polls the majority of computer rankings (and nearly all that incorporated margin of victory) gave the nod to Texas heading into the game. This was also the first BCS title game matchup where the two participants had occupied the top two positions in every weekly BCS standings published throughout the year. Texas briefly held the top spot in those rankings for one week but Southern Cal held the lead for the rest, including the final regular season edition. To add to the drama Reggie Bush had stolen, I mean won, the Heisman Trophy a month earlier from, I mean over, Vince Young. That gave USC two Heisman winners in their backfield, the only time this has ever happened.
Southern Cal received the opening kickoff but failed to gain a first down. Aaron Ross fumbled the ensuing punt, though, and USC took over near midfield. They took advantage for the game's first score on a LenDale White touchdown run. That marked the only scoring of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter Bush appeared to have a huge gain for the Trojans off a short pass from Matt Leinart but he attempted a lateral to a teammate that Michael Huff recovered for Texas. It may have actually been an illegal forward pass, but later replays and photographs show that Huff may have tipped the ball on its way out of Bush's hands. Either way Texas took over and drove down the field before stalling and settling for a field goal to make it 7-3 USC. Leinart immediately led the Trojans back into Texas territory and appeared to have a wide open Steve Smith for a touchdown before Michael Griffin came across from his safety position to haul the ball in. The officials ruled it an incomplete pass on the field but the replay evidence was clear and Texas was awarded possession and a touchback. Texas drove down the field and scored on a play where Vince Young pitched the ball to Selvin Young down the field. Replays appear to show that the quarterback's knee was down before he pitched it, which would have ended the play. However, the first down line to gain had already been passed, so it would have been first and ten for Texas at the Southern Cal 11 yard line. David Pino missed the extra point and Texas led 9-7. Texas stopped the Trojans on their next possession and took over near midfield once again after a poor punt. Ramonce Taylor scored on a 30-yard touchdown run behind a great block from Limas Sweed and Texas led 16-7. USC marched down the field to the Texas 13 yard line with only 40 seconds left in the half, but Frank Okam drove them back with two sacks of Leinart and the Trojans settled for a Mario Danelo field goal to make it 16-10 Texas at the half.
Coach Pete Carroll was able to regroup the USC defense at halftime and they forced a Texas punt on the first series of the second half. The Trojan offense was just as ready for the second half and quickly drove 62 yards to give Southern Cal a 17-16 lead. Texas answered right back as Vince Young scored his first rushing touchdown of the game and the extra point put the Longhorns back in front 23-17. Once again USC delivered a touchdown drive, this time in response, as LenDale White scored his third rushing touchdown of the game to make it 24-23 in favor of Southern Cal. Texas' bid at an answer stalled at the Trojan 14 yard line and the third quarter ended with Texas lining up for a 31-yard field goal and the lead.
Pino missed the kick, however, and USC took over at their own 21 yard line. It took them only 9 plays to cover the distance of the field as Bush scored from 26 yards out to extend the lead to eight points at 31-23. Once more the Longhorns drove inside the USC 20 only to be stopped short, this time as Vince Young fumbled on third down. Kasey Studdard jumped on the ball to enable a Pino field goal that this time was good and brought Texas closer and made it 31-26. Like clockwork the Trojans' offense answered, aided in part by a roughing the passer penalty against Texas linebacker Robert Killebrew. The 22-yard touchdown pass from Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett also resulted in a broken arm for starting Texas cornerback Tarrell Brown. Down 38-26 with 6:42 left on the clock and with a teammate down, things looked bleak for Texas. USC had score four touchdowns on their four second half possessions and didn't seem tested on any of them. Starting on their own 31 yard line, the Longhorns scored in just two minutes and thirty-nine seconds behind Vince Young to pull within five points at 38-33 with under four minutes left to play. Southern Cal took over needing only to gain two or maybe three first downs to run out the clock. They gained the first on an excellent sideline catch by Jarrett. On the next series of downs the Trojans gained three yards on a running play but then threw an incomplete pass that stopped the clock. On 3rd-and-7 White appeared headed to a first down but fumbled as he was hit just short. The Trojans were fortunate that Smith was in position for the recovery and it was now fourth down with two full yards needed for the first down. Texas called a timeout to stop the clock and both teams assessed the situation. Carroll elected to leave Bush on the sideline as White had been a lock in short yardage situations all night long and was also less of a threat to lose yardage. However, Rodrique Wright collapsed the line for Texas and White was stopped short of the first down, partially by Huff. Texas took over on downs with 2:09 to play. ABC's broadcast flashed to a Southern Cal fan in the stands with a look of pure dread on his face. The look can only be described as the look of a fan whose team has just given Vince Young the ball with two minutes left and down only five points in the national championship game. The momentum was completely on the Longhorns' side and broadcaster Keith Jackson made note of it, describing as "beleaguered" the Trojan defense. Texas started with a screen pass to Taylor that was stopped for a loss by a great play from Frostee Rucker. After an incompletion the Longhorns faced third-and-12 as Quan Cosby hauled in a pass from Young. Darnell Bing was guilty of a facemask infraction on the play that gave Texas a first down. Young twice connected with Brian Carter in moving the ball down to USC's 13 yard line. Once again the Trojans stiffened in the red zone and soon Texas was faced with a fourth-and-5 from the Southern Cal 8 yard line. Young converted on his third rushing touchdown of the day and also ran in the two point conversion after Carroll called USC's last timeout. Trailing 41-38 with little time left, Leinart tossed a screen to Bush who took the ball all the way to the Texas 43 with eight seconds left. The final play resulted in an incompletion, though, and Texas claimed the national title.
The game was immediately considered a classic event by both the media and the sports public. Vince Young's performance was called the greatest performance in the history of college football by Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso following the game. If you disagree with the placement of this game at #1, tough.
The Rest of the Top Ten:
#6 - January 2nd, 1984 - Miami 31, Nebraska 30
#7 - November 19, 1892 - Yale 6, Harvard 0
#8 - January 1st, 1988 - Miami 20, Oklahoma 14
#9 - November 20, 1909 - Yale 8, Harvard 0
#10 - December 31, 1973 - Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
Some Other Top Tens -
Top Ten Using Only Team Strength And Game Score:
#1 - November 25th, 1971 - Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
#2 - October 15th, 1988 - Notre Dame 31, Miami 30
#3 - October 3rd, 1987 - Miami 26, Florida State 25
#4 - January 4th, 2006 - Texas 41, Southern Cal 38
#5 - November 30, 1996 - Florida State 24, Florida 21
#6 - September 10, 2005 - Texas 25, Ohio State 22
#7 - December 31, 1973 - Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
#8 - January 2nd, 1984 - Miami 31, Nebraska 30
#9 - November 16, 1991 - Miami 17, Florida State 16
#10 - October 20, 1934 - Minnesota 13, Pittsburgh 7
Top Ten with Championship Bonus but not Date Score:
#1 - November 25th, 1971 - Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
#2 - January 4th, 2006 - Texas 41, Southern Cal 38
#3 - October 15th, 1988 - Notre Dame 31, Miami 30
#4 - October 3rd, 1987 - Miami 26, Florida State 25
#5 - January 3rd, 2003 - Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT)
#6 - November 30th, 1905 - Chicago 2, Michigan 0
#7 - January 2nd, 1987 - Penn State 14, Miami 10
#8 - January 2nd, 1984 - Miami 31, Nebraska 30
#9 - October 20, 1934 - Minnesota 13, Pittsburgh 7
#10 - November 19, 1892 - Yale 6, Harvard 0
Top Ten with Original Factors Plus Neutral Site/Bowl Game Bonus:
#1 - January 4th, 2006 - Texas 41, Southern Cal 38
#2 - November 25th, 1971 - Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31
#3 - January 3rd, 2003 - Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT)
#4 - January 2nd, 1987 - Penn State 14, Miami 10
#5 - January 2nd, 1984 - Miami 31, Nebraska 30
#6 - November 19, 1892 - Yale 6, Harvard 0
#7 - November 30th, 1905 - Chicago 2, Michigan 0
#8 - January 1st, 1988 - Miami 20, Oklahoma 14
#9 - December 31, 1973 - Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
#10 - January 1st, 1979 - Alabama 17, Penn State 10