College football's top 10 games of the past 10 years

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Thursday June 8th, 2017

Hello from the off-season.

As we get into June, fall camp is only about two months away, meaning it’s time to start thinking, talking and writing about college football again after this post-spring ball break. To ease us in to next season, we at SI.com are beginning a weekly series of top 10 lists, which will run every Thursday from now until the Week 1, ranking everything from past events to the best players of 2017.

We’re kicking it off with a look back at the last decade and its 10 best games according to, well, me. I apologize in advance for omitting your favorite memory (or, going forward, your favorite quarterback, linebacker, mascot, etc.). Forgive me. I cannot please everyone. In fact, I may not please many. Regardless, and without further ado, let the (list of) games begin.

10. Houston 34, Louisville 31 on Sept. 12, 2015

In the past few college football seasons, you’d be hard-pressed to find two teams more fun than Houston in 2015 and Louisville in 2016. This game pitted Greg Ward at his best against Lamar Jackson coming into his own, and it offered a preview for what the 2016 Heisman winner might be able to do against a top opponent. It also planted the seed that, hey, maybe this Tom Herman guy might be a real force as a head coach.

The game was close throughout, and the biggest lead of the day came when Louisville went up 17-10 in the third quarter, a score that held for exactly one play; Houston’s Brandon Wilson returned the ensuing kickoff back for an 100-yard touchdown. From there, the teams traded scores, and Houston took the lead for good on a touchdown with 3:16 remaining in the game. Louisville had a chance to tie the game once again on a 53-yard field goal attempt, which Houston blocked, sealing the win.

9. Baylor 61, TCU 58 on Oct. 11, 2014

This offensive firestorm was one of the most exciting games of the 2014 season and served as a de-facto Big 12 championship game. In the end, the loss doomed TCU’s shot at a college football playoff berth, and a week later, the Big 12’s hope to be represented in the first playoff also died, when Baylor lost to West Virginia. Still, both teams held out hope when the selection committee met in December, but having no real championship game left them relegated to lesser bowls—and looking back in time at this game, which determined the conference’s fate.

At the time, TCU was ranked No. 9, Baylor No. 5. Both teams had high-flying offenses and hoped to be the Big 12’s consensus best team, but the close score did little to sway favor in either team’s direction. Nor did it instill confidence that any semblance of defense existed in the conference—but it sure was fun.

In the fourth quarter, TCU looked all but certain to win; with 11 minutes left in the game, the Horned Frogs led 58-37. From there, the Bears scored 24 unanswered points, culminating in a game-winning field goal as time expired, by a kicker who was just one of six on the season going into the game. TCU finished with 485 yards on offense, an astronomical total that still paled to Baylor’s 782.

8. East Carolina 51, Tulsa 49 on Sept. 5, 2010

Clearly, this one wasn’t about pedigree. That said, this season-opener in 2010 had more fourth-quarter lead changes (seven!) than any other game of the past decade. It kicked off a solid year for the Golden Hurricane, who despite losing went on to a 10-3 record; East Carolina finished the year 6-7. So instead of dwelling on the stakes of this one (there essentially weren’t any) or the star players (again, nope), let’s look at how it went down.

The biggest lead of the game came early, when East Carolina scored the first touchdown. By the end of the third quarter, Tulsa was up, 29-24, but 1:37 into the fourth quarter, that had changed. East Carolina scored a rushing touchdown to bring the game to 31-29. Then Tulsa scored on a 75-yard pass but failed at a two-point conversion, taking the lead, 35-31. Next up, a passing touchdown for the Pirates, then one for Tulsa, then another for East Carolina. That put the score at 45-42 in East Carolina’s favor with 6:05 remaining in the game. With 1:22 left, Tulsa scored on a short pass, going up 49-45. And then, with the clock ticking to zero, East Carolina scored again on a 33-yard pass, and even with a failed two-point conversion, it won as time expired.

7. Texas A&M 52, Duke 48, Chick-fil-A Bowl on Dec. 31, 2013

This game is alternately titled “The Sun Sets on Johnny Football”—and really, there was no way to compile this list without an appearance from Johnny Manziel. In his final collegiate game, the last time he was relevant for any positive football-related news, the quarterback led Texas A&M in this shootout against a Duke team that had gone 10-2 in the regular season.

At halftime, the Aggies were down 38-17, but Manziel turned in a second-half performance that pushed his team to a 52-48 lead with 3:33 remaining. Duke had a chance to win the game on a late drive, but with 1:19 remaining, Blue Devils’ quarterback Anthony Boone was picked off, effectively ending the game.

On the day, Manziel went 30 of 38 for 382 yards and four touchdowns. He didn’t throw a single pick, and he rushed for 73 yards. No matter what’s happened to his life and career since that day, there’s no denying he was perhaps the most electric college football player of this decade.

6. Missouri 36, Kansas 28 on Nov. 24, 2007

Think this game is ranked too high? That it shouldn’t even be on the list? I will not hear your complaints. This round of the now-defunct Border War may be No. 6 in my rankings, but it’s No. 1 in my heart.

The nostalgia effect certainly comes into play here; Missouri-Kansas was one of the more fun rivalries in sports until a conference move and pettiness ended it after the 2011 game. (If you haven’t deduced by now, I attended Missouri and was raised a fan of its heartbreaking sports teams.) But even if you have no affinity for the rivalry itself—which draws upon real Civil War-era enmity—the drama of the 2007 game can’t be denied. For one, it was the game’s first year at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, a neutral site. Going into the matchup, Kansas was ranked No. 2 in the country, Missouri No. 3. LSU, the country’s top-ranked team, had lost the day before, meaning the winner of Missouri-Kansas would go on to the No. 1 ranking.

Although the final score wasn’t necessarily close, Kansas did score 21 fourth-quarter points, and with 12 seconds left, Jayhawks quarterback Todd Reesing had the ball deep in his own territory with a chance at a miracle. The Tigers ruined that dream with a Lorenzo Williams sack for a safety, earning themselves their first No. 1 ranking since 1960 and a trip to the Big 12 championship game. (Spoiler: They lost that game to Oklahoma, and in a twist of college football luck, Kansas was the team of the two to get a BCS bowl berth that year. Missouri went to the Cotton Bowl.)

5. TCU 47, Oregon 41 (3OT), Alamo Bowl on Jan. 2, 2016

Now we come to the best non-championship bowl game of the past 10 years. If you’re a fan of defense, this might not be the contest for you—although at the end of regulation it was a 31-31 affair, small potatoes for these two offenses. TCU, behind backup quarterback Bram Kohlhausen (how can you deny a quarterback who shares a name with the author of Dracula?), was held scoreless for the first half of the game before shutting out the Ducks in the second half. In that time, the Horned Frogs scored 31 points of their own, making for two lopsided halves—almost as if one team’s quarterback wouldn’t have dreamed he’d be playing two days before kickoff. (It also didn’t help that Oregon’s quarterback, Vernon Adams Jr., left the game with a concussion on a run play in the second quarter.)

Oregon fell behind going into the game’s final minutes but tied it on a field goal to send the thing to overtime. In the end, it took an option run by Kohlhausen to win the game for the Horned Frogs.

4. Clemson 35, Alabama 31, College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 9, 2017

I’ll clue you in now: We’re going to stumble upon a theme as this list progresses. It’s Alabama losses, and after this one, two more await. That’s not due to any undue hatred of the Crimson Tide. Instead, it’s in large part because the best games often involve a colossus falling, and Alabama in the last decade has been nothing if not a colossus. So here we are, at Alabama’s first inglorious appearance on this list.

There may be some recency bias involved, but last January’s national title game was one of the most riveting college games I can remember watching lately. The rematch element was fascinating, as was the pairing of a high-flying offense with a spectacular defense—but what made this game great was its fourth quarter.

Going into the game’s final 15 minutes, Alabama led, 24-14. A 10-point lead with that little time left (and that defense) seemed promising for the Crimson Tide, which then proceeded to give up two straight touchdowns, one on a pass from Deshaun Watson to Mike Williams, the other on a Wayne Gallman run. Alabama responded with a 68-yard O.J. Howard reception for a touchdown—which Clemson answered with yet another touchdown. That came with six seconds remaining, and the Tigers turned to an onside kick the ball and recovery to end the affair, giving one-time Alabama receiver and assistant Dabo Swinney the win of all wins over his former team.

3. Auburn 28, Alabama 27 on Nov. 26, 2010

This game gave viewers a glimpse of Cam Newton at his collegiate peak, as the Auburn quarterback brought his team from a 24-0 second-quarter deficit to a victory. Newton was responsible for each of the Tigers’ four touchdowns, throwing for three and running for the fourth. On the day, he threw for 216 yards, rushed for 39 and did not throw a pick.

The game also saw Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy throw for 377 yards, a career high, before he left with a concussion. It featured another Heisman winner besides Newton (who would receive the trophy the next month) in Mark Ingram, who committed a costly fumble for the Crimson Tide.

Ultimately, the Iron Bowl in 2010 went a long way in swinging sentiment toward Newton and Auburn, both of which were before the game thought to be questionable contenders for the Heisman and a national title, respectively. In the end, Auburn did win it all, and its quarterback received football’s highest honor.

2. Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 on Sept. 2, 2007

Ranking Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan No. 2 on this list took a ton of internal debate. I think there’s certainly an argument that this is the best game of the past decade, but ultimately, I gave the spot to a game with higher stakes. However, that’s in no way to knock what happened 10 years ago this September. (For more on the game, check out Andy Staples’s oral history.

The background: Michigan was ranked No. 5 to open the 2007 season, and Appalachian State, which at the time played in the Southern Conference, was widely projected as the best FCS team. Due to the perceived discrepancy between the two programs, Vegas didn’t even offer a betting line on the game, but at the end of the first half, the Mountaineers held a 28-17 lead. Michigan came back, eventually going up 32-31 in the fourth quarter, but Appalachian State scored again on a 24-yard field goal with 26 seconds remaining. Still, Michigan had a chance, and a 46-yard pass by Chad Henne set the Wolverines up for what should have been a doable 37-yard field goal to win the game. Instead, Corey Lynch blocked the attempt, winning the game for Appalachian State.

After the upset, the Associated Press revised the standards for its poll, allowing FCS teams to be ranked. The Mountaineers got 19 points, good for No. 33, in the next week’s voting, and they won the FCS Championship that winter. Michigan went on to finish the season ranked No. 18 after beating Florida in the Citrus Bowl.

1. Auburn 34, Alabama 28 on Nov. 30, 2013

… Otherwise known as the Kick Six. This was the 2013 Iron Bowl, the winner of which would go on to play Missouri in that year’s SEC Championship Game, the winner of which would have a good shot at appearing in the national title game. Basically, this game punched Auburn’s ticket to Pasadena, and it came down to one miraculous play: Chris Davis’s catch of a missed field goal and subsequent touchdown return as time expired.

The game up until that final second had been a back-and-forth affair. The largest lead, when Alabama was up 21-7 in the second quarter, lasted barely more than two minutes, and from there, the teams essentially traded scores. For much of the fourth quarter Alabama held a 28-21 lead; only with 32 seconds left did Auburn tie the game. The subsequent kick left Alabama on its own 29-yard line, but two T.J. Yeldon rushes later, the Crimson Tide were in range for a long field goal.

However, Alabama’s kicker, Cade Foster, had already missed two field goals that night and had another blocked. So Nick Saban elected to go with his backup, freshman Adam Griffith, who had attempted just two field goals that season. Still, for a team as well-oiled as Saban’s, the worst-case scenario seemed like overtime.

You know what happened next. Davis dropped back in the end zone, fielded the kick that landed short and to the right of the uprights, and ran. He hugged the Auburn sideline until he was close to the 50-yard line, at which point he broke toward the center of the field, unquestionably headed to the end zone.

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