The play that won Alabama a national championship
2:39 | College Football
The play that won Alabama a national championship
SI Staff
Thursday January 14th, 2016

High stakes, exciting finishes and clutch performances can all contribute to a memorable game. Sometimes all three come together perfectly, as they did for our No. 1 game this year. But each on its own can help a matchup stand out amid a lengthy season. We looked back over the entire 2015 college football slate to praise and reflect on the best games of the season.

1. Alabama 45, Clemson 40

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A pair of Heisman Trophy finalists. A 37-point fourth quarter. One of the greatest onside kicks in college football history. Oh, and did we mention this matchup determined the national championship? Alabama’s epic title victory over Clemson evolved into an instant classic, one that saved us from a postseason defined by lifeless blowouts. — Zac Ellis

2. Michigan State 27, Michigan 23

Hope. Horror. Heartbreak. Those three words sum up one of the craziest endings of the 2015 season. Up 23–21 with 10 seconds to go—and after leading the Spartans all game—Michigan chose to punt on 4th-and-short. But the Wolverines botched the kick, and the Spartans’ Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the loose ball and raced to the end zone for the winning score. — Lindsay Schnell

3. Stanford 38, Notre Dame 36

How exciting was this matchup? Notre Dame scored touchdowns of 93, 73 and 62 yards, respectively, and took a one-point lead with 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter—and lost. Stanford kicker Conrad Ukropina drilled a 45-yard field goal as time expired to steal the win. It capped a magnificent effort from both sides, and one that had Ukropina mentioning fate. “We got the ball, drove down, and it was almost like it was meant to be,” he told reporters later.

While there were plenty of stars on this night, none shined brighter than Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan. On Senior Day, he went 17 of 21 passing for 269 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions—and tossed a 27-yard completion to receiver Devon Cajuste that set the stage for Ukropina’s heroics. — Ben Glicksman

4. TCU 55, Texas Tech 52

Injuries would eventually derail TCU’s campaign for the College Football Playoff, but the Horned Frogs looked doomed in an early-season game against Texas Tech… until a miracle struck. Down 52–48 in a rollicking affair that featured 1,357 total yards, TCU faced a fourth-and-goal at the five-yard-line. Quarterback Trevone Boykin appeared to overthrow Josh Doctson until running back Aaron Green sprinted behind Doctson, nabbed a deflection and got two feet inbounds to secure the touchdown, the win and—at that moment—TCU’s undefeated season. — Gabriel Baumgaertner

5. Clemson 24, Notre Dame 22

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Clemson solidified its status as a playoff contender by surviving Notre Dame—and hurricane-like elements—in a soggy Death Valley. The Fighting Irish whittled the Tigers’ 17-point, fourth-quarter lead to two on a Deshone Kizer touchdown pass with seven seconds to play. But defensive tackle Carlos Watkins stuffed Kizer on Notre Dame’s two-point conversion attempt, maintaining Clemson’s unblemished record.

As coach Dabo Swinney bellowed in his postgame interview, it was a “Bring your own guts” victory. — Ellis

6. Michigan State 17, Ohio State 14

The Spartans, playing without an injured Connor Cook, came into Columbus and took down the undefeated Buckeyes on a 41-yard field goal from Michael Geiger as time expired to end Ohio State’s 23-game winning streak. (Geiger’s boot and windmill celebration made him a celebrity around East Lansing.) The win put Sparty in prime position to win the Big Ten East (which it later did), while essentially knocking the Buckeyes from College Football Playoff contention. Michigan State also shut down star running back Ezekiel Elliott, who rushed only 12 times for 33 yards and voiced his unrest afterward with Urban Meyer and the coaching staff’s game plan. — Ryan Krasnoo

7. TCU 47, Oregon 41 (3OT)

The Alamo Bowl appeared destined to be another postseason blowout, with Oregon leading TCU 31–0 at the half. However, when Ducks quarterback Vernon Adams Jr. went out after a helmet-to-helmet hit, the Horned Frogs sprung to life. TCU ripped off 31 unanswered points in the second half—behind quarterback Bram Kohlhausen’s 396 total yards (351 passing, 45 rushing) and four touchdowns—before going on to win 47–41 in triple overtime.

What sparked the incredible comeback? Well, Horned Frogs coach Gary Patterson changed from his black shirt into a purple shirt at halftime. — Glicksman

8. Arkansas 53, Ole Miss 52 (OT)

This game was ultimately more pivotal for Alabama than either the Razorbacks or Rebels because Ole Miss would have won the SEC West had it won this game, likely denying the Crimson Tide a spot in the playoff. As for the teams in this game, a thrilling shootout between Brandon Allen and Chad Kelly led to overtime, where Ole Miss seemed certain to win when the Rebels wrapped up Hunter Henry on fourth-and-25. However, Henry’s blind backwards toss found Alex Collins who scampered to move the chains. After Arkansas scored, Ole Miss appeared victorious again when it sacked Allen on a two-point conversion try. But a facemask penalty gave the Razorbacks another shot, and Allen reached the end zone this time on a QB keeper. — Colin Becht

9. Ole Miss 43, Alabama 37

The 2015 iteration of “Let’s Get Weird,” Ole Miss-Alabama featured one of the most unlikely touchdowns of the season, one of the most vicious hits of the season and the Crimson Tide’s only loss of the season. For a moment we thought Chad Kelly would be the SEC’s breakout star and Ole Miss would be a national title contender, but then the Rebels proceeded to get blown out by Florida two weeks later. — BaumgaertnerBaumgaertner

10. Oregon 61, Arizona State 55 (3OT)3OT)

The Ducks edged Arizona State in a game in which the two teams combined for more than 1,200 yards of total offense, 15 touchdowns, three overtimes and a controversial conclusion. It’s safe to assume that anyone who elected to tune in for this Thursday night thriller was not disappointed. — Chris Johnson

11. Oklahoma 31, Tennessee 24 (2OT)

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Trailing 17–3 after the third quarter, Oklahoma looked headed to a frustrating loss and more uncertainty coming off its 8–5 2014 campaign. But Baker Mayfield came alive in the fourth, leading the Sooners to a comeback, two-overtime win over the Volunteers. In retrospect it was one of the more impactful games of the season—had Oklahoma finished with two regular-season losses (but still won the Big 12), there would’ve been serious playoff controversy. — Ben Estes

12. Houston 35, Memphis 34

Memphis appeared to be cruising to a critical victory in its pursuit of a New Year’s Six bowl bid when the Tigers led Houston 20–0 and star Cougars quarterback Greg Ward Jr. left with an ankle injury. Memphis’s 34–14 fourth-quarter lead also appeared pretty secure. Instead wide receiver-turned-backup quarterback Kyle Postma rallied Houston for a miraculous victory, running in the winning score himself with 1:27 remaining. — Becht

13. Miami 30, Duke 27

Between Duke’s seemingly game-winning touchdown, Miami’s epic eight-lateral return and the controversy over the botched officiating (not to mention the Hurricanes’ perfect Twitter response to that controversy), this ending had it all. — Krasnoo

14. Arkansas 54, Auburn 46 (4OT)

One of only two four-overtime games on this list, this contest saw these two teams go back and forth throughout regulation and the extra periods. After Brandon Allen connected with Drew Morgan to open the fourth overtime with a touchdown, the Razorbacks’ defense finally held, kicking off what became a season-saving four-game win streak for Arkansas. The Tigers’ loss was made even more agonizing by their eight dropped passes. — Estes

15. Michigan State 31, Oregon 28

A high-profile nonconference clash brimming with College Football Playoff implications lived up to the hype, even if Oregon ultimately didn’t factor into the national championship picture. Michigan State held off the Ducks in East Lansing after Vernon Adams overthrew a receiver near the end zone late in the fourth quarter. — Johnson

16. BYU 33, Nebraska 28

We had a few options for great BYU finishes, but we opted for the one that got it all started. The Cougars scored 17 straight points in the second quarter to take a 24–14 lead into halftime, but Nebraska responded with two third-quarter touchdowns to take the lead. Then backup quarterback Tanner Mangum, filling in for injured starter Taysom Hill, tossed a 42-yard bomb to Mitch Mathews on the final play of the game to give BYU the victory. — Nick Forrester

17. Mississippi State 51, Arkansas 50

Was this an SEC game or the Big 12? The two teams combined for 101 points, 1,110 yards of total offense and 13 touchdowns in a game decided by Cole Hedlund’s blocked 29-yard field-goal attempt. With 39 seconds left, Mississippi State’s Beniquez Brown ended Arkansas’s hopes and spoiled a career night for quarterback Brandon Allen, who tied an SEC record with seven touchdown passes. The Bulldogs were buoyed by Dak Prescott’s 508 yards and five touchdowns. —Krasnoo

18. Oklahoma State 35, Iowa State 31

Four years after Iowa State ruined Oklahoma State’s dream season, the Cowboys nearly saw history repeat itself, trailing the lowly Cyclones by 10 entering the fourth quarter. The Cowboys were able to rally back—aided on their game-winning drive by their own false start, which wiped out a critical third-down incompletion—and avoid the upset, keeping their playoff hopes alive. — Estes

19. Duke 45, Virginia Tech 43 (4OT)

The normally defensive led Blue Devils got four touchdown passes from quarterback Thomas Sirk before he ran for the game-winning two-point conversion to defeat Virginia Tech in the longest game in ACC history. The Hokies scored the first touchdown in the fourth overtime, but with the rules mandating that teams go for 2-point conversions after two overtimes, Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Brewer attempted to sneak a pass into Isaiah Ford that was knocked away by Duke’s Deondre Singleton. — Forrester

20. Oregon 38, Stanford 36

It was the game that reminded everyone why the Ducks were so excited about FCS transfer quarterback Vernon Adams and the game that kicked the Pac-12 out of the playoff. Adams completed 10 of 12 passes for 205 yards with two touchdowns, Heisman runner-up Christian McCaffrey totaled 147 rushing yards and the Ducks’ defense made a big stop on the final play of the game, stuffing the Cardinal’s two-point conversion attempt. — Schnell

21. Ohio State 34, Indiana 27

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The defending national champion Buckeyes escaped Bloomington with a win thanks to a Heisman-like effort from Ezekiel Elliott, who ran 23 times for 274 yards with three touchdowns. Elliott seemingly put the game away with his third touchdown to give Ohio State a 34–20 lead in the fourth quarter, but Indiana backup quarterback Zander Diamont responded with a 79-yard touchdown run on the first play of the ensuing drive. The Hoosiers got the ball back with the chance to tie it, and Diamont drove to the Ohio State six-yard line. But his pass to the back corner of the end zone was batted away by Ohio State’s Eli Apple as time expired. — Forrester

22. Oklahoma 30, TCU 29

Despite playing without quarterback Trevone Boykin and wide receiver Josh Doctson, the Horned Frogs almost threw a wrench into Oklahoma’s eventually run to the College Football Playoff. Trailing 30–13, TCU backup Bram Kohlhausen led a furious fourth-quarter comeback, but by safety Steven Parker batted down Kohlhausen’s potential game-winning two-point conversion try with 51 seconds remaining. — Scooby Axson

23. Michigan State 16, Iowa 13

In this de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal slugfest, Michigan State capped off its second Big Ten title in three years using a 22-play, 82-yard drive that drained nine minutes off the clock before L.J. Scott spun and reached into the end zone from a yard out with 27 seconds left. — Axson

24. Notre Dame 34, Virginia 27

Virginia seemed poised for the monumental upset when the Cavaliers pulled ahead of Notre Dame 27–26 with just under two minutes remaining in their Week 2 matchup. But Fighting Irish backup quarterback DeShone Kizer, who stepped in after starter Malik Zaire left the game with a broken ankle, hit Will Fuller for a 39-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining to give the Irish the 34-27 win. The play left one Virginia fan particularly devastated. — Forrester

25. LSU 35, Florida 28

In one of the few offensive outbursts for either team (especially Florida) this season, LSU caught the Gators napping in vintage Les Miles fashion to break a 28–28 tie in the 4th quarter. Kicker Trent Domingue's 16-yard touchdown scamper on a fake field goal was the Tigers’ only score of the second half. — Axson

Honorable Mention: Cal-Texas, Michigan-Minnesota, Notre Dame-Temple, Rutgers-Indiana, West Virginia-Arizona State, Duke-Indiana

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