- From the epic ride of the 2005 USC team to Tennessee's haunting tie with Alabama in 1993, here's a look at the 10 most memorable vacated games in NCAA football history.
Forcing a school to vacate wins is entirely symbolic. There’s no way the NCAA can build a time machine and legislate the past, so they resort to the absurd, vaguely Orwellian practice of pretending the past never happened. This week, the NCAA announced that many of Ole Miss’s wins during the Hugh Freeze era have been vacated as part of ongoing punishments of Ole Miss football. Freeze himself, currently living his fever dream as the head coach of Liberty, probably isn’t losing too much sleep over it.
But the 2014 Ole Miss upset over Alabama, one of Mississippi’s great sporting moments, is no longer valid, and that’s sad. That got us thinking, what are the other great college football games that no longer exist in the official record? There have been enough major NCAA investigations to build quite the repository of ex post facto outcomes, from national championship games to Mississippi State’s 1976 38–0 win over Cal-Poly Pomona, which was retroactively changed to a stunning upset from the Division II Broncos.
Orwell once said “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play.” College football is certainly serious, and so we’ve compiled a toast to the cheaters, the 10 most memorable vacated games in NCAA football history.
10. 2005: USC 38, Arizona State 28
Yes, there are quite a few USC games on this list. The epic ride of the 2005 USC team faced its first significant hurdle in Tempe against No. 14 Arizona State. On a brutally hot day, the Sun Devils went up 21–3 at halftime against a depleted USC defense. The home team looked set to hand USC its first loss in two years. But Reggie Bush and LenDale White took over the game as the Trojans scored 21 unanswered points to take the lead. Arizona State fought back to go up 28–24, but USC’s high-powered offense scored twice more to win 38–28.
9. 2016: Ole Miss 29, Texas A&M 28
The end of the Hugh Freeze era was ugly, and it looked like things were about to get even worse as Texas A&M led Ole Miss 21–6 entering the fourth quarter in College Station. Then, Ole Miss outscored the Aggies 23–6 in the fourth quarter, winning the game on a Gary Wunderlich field goal with 37 seconds remaining.
8. 2013: Notre Dame 37, Arizona State 34
Arizona State returns to the article, this time with a loss to the 2013 Notre Dame team that went 9-4 and went to the Pinstripe Bowl. Notre Dame was unranked at this point and the game was played in Texas. Both teams went ballistic in the fourth quarter, combining for 34 points. Arizona State mounted a late comeback and picked up a pick six, but fell just short.
7. 2007: Alabama 41, Arkansas 38
Nick Saban’s third win as Alabama head coach no longer exists because of the Alabama textbook distribution scandal, but it had enormous implications for college football. Hosting a No. 16 Arkansas team that featured Darren McFadden, the Crimson Tide were unranked home underdogs. Alabama blew a 21–0 lead and required a stunning comeback drive from John Parker Wilson to win the game. I miss 2007.
Also, Saban was hosting the 2008 recruiting class that night, and who knows whether this win convinced guys like Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Courtney Upshaw to begin the Saban–Alabama Dynasty. At least we got to see Alabama lose to Louisiana-Monroe later that year. Of course, this Arkansas team links back to 2019, as it was then-Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt’s FOIA request for cell phone records that ended the Hugh Freeze era at Ole Miss (of course, a similar FOIA request for Nutt’s cell phone records helped lead to his firing at Arkansas).
6. 1993: Alabama 17, Tennessee 17
This is one of the most haunting moments in Tennessee football history. Despite committing five turnovers, No. 10 Tennessee found itself up 17–9 with 1:51 remaining. No. 2 Alabama famously engineered 83 yards in 83 seconds to score and then completed the two-point conversion. This was before college football overtime was in effect, so Tennessee left with one of the most painful ties in college football history.
Alabama was later forced to forfeit all games that Antonio Langham competed in, including this one.
5. 2005: USC vs. Fresno State
Welcome back to the Reggie Bush Show.
Although Bush’s improper benefits are the reason this game no longer exists, it will go down in history as one of the most dominant games by a running back ever. Bush ran for 294 yards on 23 carries, caught three passes for 68 yards and scored two touchdowns as USC roared back to top a very good Fresno State team. Fresno State went up 21–10 in the first half, but Bush was simply too good. The Bulldogs fought bravely and even had a chance to tie the game in the end, but it was not enough. Good thing it never happened.
4. 2004: USC 55, Oklahoma 19
This game was not exciting in the slightest, but it features the only championship in the BCS/Playoff era to have been vacated, so it makes the list. This was the peak of Pete Carroll’s USC teams. Clemson’s 44–16 win over Alabama last month was humiliating, right? Well, USC went up 38–10 on Oklahoma by halftime. It was an utterly dominant display from an all-time great football team. Matt Leinart’s five touchdown passes made him the darling quarterback for NFL draft scouts everywhere, Reggie Bush and LenDale White tore it up, and the Trojans’ defense completely shut down Bob Stoops’s offense.
3. 2009: Georgia Tech 39, Clemson 34
Years before Clemson was an unstoppable machine, there was perpetually disappointing Clemson. Both teams had overachieved and Clemson had already lost to Georgia Tech earlier in the year. After a back-and-forth first half, Georgia Tech went wild in the third quarter, scoring on a 70-yard Demaryius Thomas touchdown and taking a 33–20 lead. But Clemson rallied and took a 34–33 lead with a long C.J. Spiller run and an Andre Ellington touchdown. Then in classic Clemson fashion, the Yellow Jackets put together an 86-yard drive and took a 39–34 lead with 1:20 left. The Tigers turned the ball over on downs on its next drive and Georgia Tech won its first outright ACC title since 1990.
Except this feel-good story doesn’t exist because of $312 worth of clothing! It never happened. Right? Right.
2. 2014: Ole Miss 23, Alabama 17
Cathartic does not really begin to describe this game. Ole Miss had lost 10 straight games to Alabama heading into this one (including two vacated, contentious Alabama wins in 2006 and 2007). The Saban Era had made the rivalry a moot point; the last game saw Alabama gleefully shut out Ole Miss 25–0.
With Mississippi ranked No. 11 and Alabama at No. 3, College GameDay came to Oxford. Katy Perry made a legendary celebrity guest appearance and called the Rebels’ win:
However, the festive atmosphere quickly drained in the first half as Alabama did Alabama things and took a 14–3 lead. But that was it for the Bama offense. Ole Miss chipped away at the Crimson Tide's vaunted defense and took a late lead on a Jaylen Walton touchdown reception. Blake Sims was picked off on the ensuing drive and that was all for Alabama. Delirious Rebels fans tore down the goalposts and dragged them around town during a massive party.
Thankfully, the Ole Miss win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2015, an even more outlandish game, has not been retracted.
1. 2005: USC 34, Notre Dame 31
The early days of the Charlie Weis years looked so good. These were the days when Weis was bragging about his “decided schematic advantage” and could legitimately claim to be building something. But in the end, his teams never produced a more memorable game than when No. 1 USC, then on a 27-game winning streak, rolled through South Bend. Notre Dame was confident in the way only Notre Dame could be. The Fighting Irish had a massive televised pep rally featuring Joe Montana and other notable speakers waxing lyrically about how great they were. They brought out the green jerseys, even after Weis denied it was happening.
If you haven’t noticed by now, 2005 was a bumpy year for USC before the infamous loss to Texas in the title game. After surviving Arizona State, USC took apart Arizona before traveling across the country for this game. Although the two previous meetings weren’t close, a road game against a top-10 opponent was never going to be easy for USC.
It was a game of momentum-changing plays. Brady Quinn’s early pick gave USC a quick advantage, but in the second quarter, Leinart threw a costly interception in the end zone. Notre Dame cashed in with a touchdown pass to Jeff Samardzija and a punt-return score. Bush scored on a 45-yard touchdown run in the third quarter and USC forced a critical fumble on the ensuing possession. Notre Dame went up 24–21 but missed a field goal that would've extended its lead to six. Both quarterbacks, destined to be NFL busts, produced magical drives with under five minutes left.
Then there’s the last drive, one of the most famous drives in the century thus far. College football’s ability to make regular season games give us life-changing storylines and plots never ceases to amaze. So yes, enjoy watching history unfold in this YouTube video from 2005.
There’s the Leinart to Dwayne Jarrett completion on fourth-and-9, the Brandon Carroll phantom timeout call and then the infamous and controversial “Bush Push” that gave USC a 34–31 win. It’s college football at its finest.
And it also no longer counts in any capacity, according to the NCAA. The 2005 national title game only escapes this fate because USC lost. Clearly, the mass vacation of games over the years has not led to any slowdown in teams breaking NCAA regulations. The practice neither works as a deterrent nor achieves anything substantial other than to extend this very helpful list at College Football Reference.