The top-ranked Trojans led the No. 2 Badgers 42-14 in the fourth quarter on the way to an apparently easy win, but Wisconsin mounted one of the great rallies in Rose Bowl history to turn the game into a classic. Badgers quarterback Ron Vanderkelen threw for a Rose Bowl- and school-record 401 yards. Wide receiver (and future athletic director) Pat Richter caught 11 passes for 163 yards.
With 1:19 to play, Richter made his final grab, making a 19-yard touchdown catch to help pull the Badgers within five, but the onside kick was recovered by USC to snuff out the comeback attempt. The 79 combined points were a Rose Bowl record that stood for 28 years.
9: No. 2 Alabama 14, No. 1 Penn State 7 Jan. 1, 1979, Sugar Bowl
Legendary college football broadcaster Keith Jackson called it the greatest game he had ever seen. The No. 1 Nittany Lions were on a 19-game winning streak, thanks to a high-powered offense led by All-America quarterback Chuck Fusina and a defense that allowed 97 points all year. Alabama QB Jeff Rutledge started off the scoring with a perfect pass to Bruce Bolton for a 7-0 lead. But Fusina brought the Nittany Lions right back, tying the game on a touchdown pass to Scott Fitzgee.
The Tide got a spark as Lou Ilkner returned a punt 62 yards to the Penn State 11-yard line, leading to an 8-yard touchdown run by Major Ogilvy for a 14-7 lead. Midway through the fourth quarter, Penn State was within range to tie the game. Coach Joe Paterno went for it on fourth-and-goal from the 6-inch line. Mike Guman tried to dive up the middle, but ‘Bama linebacker Barry Krauss came up with the stuff — immortalized by an iconic Sports Illustrated cover — and the Tide had a goal-line stand for the ages.
The Associated Press named Alabama the national champion; Penn State’s loss allowed USC to win the UPI national title. Penn State finished fourth, and Paterno didn’t win a national title until the 1982 season.
8: No. 2 Miami 17, No. 1 Florida State 16 Nov. 16, 1991, regular season
The Hurricanes ruined Florida State’s national title hopes in three of the previous four years, and this was supposed to be the season that Bobby Bowden had the right team at the right time to put it all together. Miami turned the ball over three times in the first half, but its defense saved the day time and again as the Seminoles held only a 10-7 halftime lead. The linebacking trio of Jesse Armstead, Michael Barrow and Darren Smith kept the Seminoles from blowing open the game, and the Hurricanes were within six points in the fourth quarter.
Miami quarterback Gino Torretta connected with Horace Copeland on a fourth-and-6 pass to set up a Larry Jones touchdown, a Carlos Huerta extra point and a 17-16 lead. But Casey Weldon got the Seminoles to the Miami 18 in the final minute, and Gerry Thomas came on to an attempt a 34-yarder for the win. Florida State’s other kicker, Dan Mowrey, normally kicked the long field goals, but coach Bobby Bowden chose to go with the hot hand — or foot — in Thomas. Set up on the left hash mark, the ball went up, and Florida State started to celebrate, but the ball went wide right.
Had the game been played the year before, Florida State would’ve won as the width of the goal posts had been narrowed before the 1991 season. Miami went on to share the national championship with Washington, while Florida State lost the week after to Florida 14-9. The following year, Mowrey pushed a last-second game-tying field goal attempt wide right against the ‘Canes.
7: No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 1 Florida State 24 Nov. 13, 1993, regular season
All the pieces were in place for the Seminoles. They had beaten Miami; they had a superstar quarterback in Charlie Ward, who would go on to win the Heisman; and they had beaten five ranked opponents with relative ease. Both teams had 16-game winning streaks.
Notre Dame, behind Lee Becton’s 122 yards, dominated the Seminoles at times with its physical style, but Ward had an answer. With FSU trailing 31-17 and seemingly out of it with 1:39 to play, Ward hit Kez McCorvey on fourth-and-20 for a touchdown pass that first bounced off Irish safety Brian McGee. The Florida State defense then held, giving Ward one last shot. In three plays, Ward got the offense down to the Irish 14 with three seconds to play. With one final shot, Ward rolled out and threw to the end zone — not seeing a wide-open Matt Frier in the end zone — but his pass was batted down and the Irish came away with the thrilling win.
The following week, the Irish were shocked by Boston College and went on to finish the season second. FSU, meanwhile, won the rest of its games and beat Nebraska for the national title.
6: No. 1 Army 0, No. 2 Notre Dame 0 Nov. 9, 1946, regular season
It was supposed to be an offensive shootout in Yankee Stadium with both teams averaging more than 30 points per game. Instead, it became one of the most famous defensive standoffs in college football history.
Army marched six times inside the Irish 30-yard line, but Notre Dame held tough time and again. The Army defense was also up to the task, as QB/DB Arnold Tucker came up with three interceptions, including one that wiped out Notre Dame’s best scoring threat of the day.
Led by Mr. Inside, Doc Blanchard, and Mr. Outside, 1946 Heisman Trophy winner Glenn Davis, the Cadets went on to finish the season unbeaten to complete a three-year unbeaten streak (27-0-1). Notre Dame finished the season No. 1 in the AP poll. Army finished second.
College football’s 100-year anniversary had a showcase game that received unprecedented national hype when it was moved from Oct. 18 to Dec. 6 to give it more of a national audience. Texas had won 18 straight, and Arkansas came in on a 15-game roll. The game was given even a loftier status when President Richard Nixon, who had said he would anoint the winner of this game the national champion, dramatically arrived outside of the stadium by helicopter.
Arkansas had a 14-0 lead, and control of the game, going into the fourth quarter. Texas had to get creative, so to shake things up, it broke away from its run-oriented attack. First, Texas quarterback James Street began the comeback by running for a 42-yard touchdown and converting a two-point conversion. After a few defensive stops, the Longhorns still needed to rally, but Arkansas kept stuffing the run to force a decisive fourth-and-3 play. With everyone expecting a run, Street connected with Randy Peschel for a 44-yard play, famously known as the 53 veer pass. The Longhorns punched it in as Jim Bertelson scored on a 2-yard run to tie the game, and the conversion from Happy Feller gave them a 15-14 lead with just under four minutes to play.
The Longhorns sealed the game on an interception with just more than a minute to play. Texas went on to win the Cotton Bowl over Notre Dame and finished the season No. 1.
4: No. 1 Notre Dame 10, No. 2 Michigan State 10 Nov. 19, 1966, regular season
In a strange game that was equal parts thrilling and disappointing, Notre Dame star quarterback Terry Hanrattay was knocked out after getting crushed in the first quarter by Spartans defensive lineman Bubba Smith. Starting Irish running back Nick Eddy was out entirely after hurting his shoulder getting off the train in East Lansing. Even without their stars, the Irish found themselves tied 10-10 with the ball on their 30-yard line with time to go for the touchdown, or at least a game-winning field goal. But in one of the most controversial coaching moves in college football history, Notre Dame coach Ara Parseghian elected to run the clock out and take the tie.
Ranked No. 1, the Irish hope was to get out with a tie and still end up winning the national title. The aftermath was a backlash against the Irish as fan disappointment turned into contempt for playing it so safe. But Parseghian ended up making the right move. After throttling USC 51-0, Notre Dame won the national championship. Michigan State ended up second.
Famously called the “Game of the Century,” No. 1 Nebraska, the defending national champion and owner of a 29-game winning streak, was on a collision course all year with No. 2 Oklahoma, with the showdown coming on Thanksgiving day with an estimated 55 million homes watching. Oklahoma stalled on its opening drive, punting away to eventual Heisman winner Johnny Rodgers, who fielded it on his own 28, broke free through seven Sooners would-be tacklers, came up with a brilliant juke, a sensational cutback and was gone for an electrifying touchdown that became the signature moment in a game full of signature moments.
In the second half, the Oklahoma wishbone attack worked, but three fumbles killed promising drives. Nebraska took advantage with quarterback Jerry Tagge using the option and a few clutch passes to Rodgers, to set up fullback Jeff Kinney for short scores on the way to a 28-17 lead.
Oklahoma rallied as Jack Mildren ran a mix of the option with a few chain-moving passes, and a trick play on a halfback option, for a 31-28 lead with just over seven minutes to play. With 74 yards to go, Tagge connected on a few key third-down passes, scrambled at times using the option, and gave it to Rodgers, who dipped and dived his way on two straight running plays to get down to the 15. It was then up to Kinney, who powered the ball four straight times before finishing with his fourth touchdown run of the game and a 35-31 lead.
The Huskers went on to the Orange Bowl and a 38-6 blowout of undefeated Alabama to win their second straight national title.
In one of the greatest games of all time, with the teams cranking out 1,130 yards of total offense, Texas came back from down 12 in the final 6:42 as Vince Young ran for an 8-yard touchdown run on fourth down in the final moments to cap off an epic win. Young completed 30 of 40 passes for 267 yards and ran 19 times for 200 yards and three touchdowns, but it was his dramatic play in the comeback that made the game such a classic.
The Trojans appeared to have the game well in hand, after Reggie Bush dived for a 26-yard touchdown and Dwayne Jarrett caught a 22-yard touchdown pass to take the lead. They had the chance to put the game away late and run out the clock, but LenDale White was stuffed on a fourth-and-1.
Young then led the Longhorns on a 10-play, 56-yard drive, culminating in a game-winning scramble for a score. USC had one final chance, but the drive stalled and Texas coach Mack Brown had his first national championship.
1: No. 2 Ohio State 31, No. 1 Miami 24, 2 OT Jan. 3, 2003, Fiesta Bowl
Ohio State had struggled through the regular season in tight game after tight game, but it was still 13-0 going into the Fiesta Bowl against what was widely thought to be an unbeatable Miami team.
Both teams moved the ball in the first half, but both missed on several opportunities until Maurice Clarett gave Ohio State a 14-7 halftime lead on his first touchdown run of the game.
Running back Willis McGahee led the Hurricanes’ comeback, quickly and decisively blowing past the tiring Buckeyes front seven. Just as he was taking over the game, he suffered a gruesome knee injury and was done for the game. Todd Sievers then barely missed a 54-yard field-goal attempt that would have tied up the game. Ohio State couldn’t find a way to run out the clock, however, allowing QB Ken Dorsey one last drive for a national title, set up by a tremendous punt return by Roscoe Parrish. Dorsey got the Canes close, but they had to settle for a Sievers field goal and overtime.
In the first OT, the Canes scored on a 7-yard touchdown pass to Kellen Winslow, and the defense appeared to have come up the national championship stop when Glenn Sharpe broke up a pass in the end zone on fourth down. Miami started to celebrate, but a late flag came out. Sharpe was nailed for a controversial pass interference penalty, and the game was still alive. The Buckeyes took advantage as Craig Krenzel punched it in for 1-yard TD run, and they took the 31-24 lead on a Clarett 5-yard touchdown run on their next possession in the second overtime. The defense held, and Ohio State came away with an improbable national title.