Top 100 college football games of 2012 countdown: 40 through 11

Robert Laberge

The rest of the Top 100 countdown: 100 through 71 | 70 through 41 | The Top 10

40. Wisconsin 16, Utah State 14 (September 15). Another one from the "If we knew then..." category. We didn't know that Utah State would win nine of 10 games to finish the regular season, and we didn't know would lose five more games by just a total of 22 points (three in overtime) and win the Big Ten anyway. All we knew at the time was that this was a really close game, and that USU's John Thompson missed a 37-yard field goal, wide right, with six seconds left. If he makes that field goal, it is quite likely that Utah State, not Northern Illinois, ends up a mid-major in a BCS bowl.

39. Missouri 51, Tennessee 48 (4OT) (November 10). For Missouri, this game was a lifeline. For Tennessee, it was dagger. For everybody else, it was about as much of a back-and-forth affair as you could hope to watch. Tennessee took a 21-7 lead into halftime, one that probably should have been a lot larger if not for quite a few missed UT opportunities. But Missouri was able to hang around just long enough to figure things out offensively. With 56 seconds left, down 28-21 and facing fourth-and-12 from the Tennessee 25-yard line, banged up quarterback James Franklin hobbled left and found star freshman Dorial Green-Beckham near the front corner of the end zone for a touchdown, and the game headed to overtime.

The teams traded touchdowns for three overtime periods, but in the fourth, facing a fourth-and-3 from the Missouri 18 and fearing what might happen if they only kicked a field goal, the Vols went for the first down and didn't get it. Three plays later, Missouri's Andrew Baggett banged in a 35-yarder for the program's first SEC road win. It wasn't always pretty, but it was consistently gripping.

38. Oregon 62, USC 51 (November 3). Never engage in a land war in Asia, and never get into a track meet with Oregon. USC's Matt Barkley completed 35 of 54 passes for 484 yards (18 for 319 to Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor), and the Trojans scored 21 points in the second quarter, 14 in the third and 13 in the fourth. But they simply couldn't keep up. Oregon's Marcus Mariota completed 20 of 23 passes for 304 yards, Kenjon Barner ran for 321 yards and five scores, and eventually the Trojans blinked.

37. Ohio 24, Penn State 14 (September 1). Third-and-7 for Ohio from the Penn State 43. Ohio quarterback Tyler Tettleton bobbles the snap, makes a panicked throw off of his back foot under emerging pressure, and it is batted away from a defender ... and into the arms of an Ohio receiver, who races into the end zone. When this happens to you, it is probably good to go ahead and start coming to grips with the fact that fate apparently wants you to lose today.

36. Texas Tech 56, TCU 53 (3OT) (October 20). Was this that overtime game where Texas Tech lost a late lead and fell in overtime? No, not that one. Was this that overtime game where the Red Raiders saw a 10-point lead over lowly Kansas vanish at the end of regulation and had to pull things out in a second overtime? No, this was the first Tech overtime game of the season. The best one. The one where TCU lost a 17-7 lead in the second quarter, Tech lost a 36-26 lead at the end of regulation (sense a trend?), the teams traded touchdowns for two OTs, TCU settled for a field goal in the third, and Tech quarterback Seth Doege found Alex Torres for the game winner. The one where Doege threw seven touchdown passes, and where the lightbulb came on for TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin. That one.

35. Notre Dame 30, Oklahoma 13 (October 27). Are you in the market for a perfect play-action bomb at the most opportune possible time, the fourth quarter of a tie game, on the road, in a battle of Top 10 teams? Because, if so, I have the game for you.

34. Virginia 17, Penn State 16 (September 8). After the worst, most devastating offseason imaginable, Penn State's season started in incredibly frustrating fashion. The Nittany Lions fell to Ohio with help from some unlucky bounces, and they lost by one to what turned out to be a pretty bad Virginia team thanks to four missed field goals, including a 20-yarder late in the third quarter and a 42-yarder as time expired. This back-and-forth battle was full of flaws, but it included four lead changes and a late, nearly seven-minute touchdown drive by Virginia to take the lead with just 1:28 left.

33. Alamo Bowl: Texas 31, Oregon State 27 (December 29). It was exhausting to watch. Texas trailed 3-0, 10-3, 20-10, and 27-17, creeping closer and falling behind again. Despite a magnificent performance by end Alex Okafor (he had 4.5 of Texas' 10 sacks), the Longhorns still trailed by three points late in the game, but senior receiver Marquise Goodwin made his second wonderful play, torching his defender on a stop-and-go route and catching a 36-yard touchdown pass from David Ash with 2:24 remaining. It felt weird and contradictory watching it -- those scrappy, come-from-behind Texas kids overcoming mighty Oregon State -- but it was really, really fun.

32. Nebraska 29, Northwestern 28 (October 20). Northwestern went 10-3 in 2012, but the season could have been so much more. The Wildcats lost a 28-17 lead to Penn State (the Nittany Lions scored 22 unanswered in the fourth quarter) and a 24-14 lead to Michigan (see below), and they held a 28-16 lead over Nebraska with just six minutes remaining before falling.

Taylor Martinez is never going to be considered a magnificent passer, but he has had his moments through the years. In engineering a late comeback in this one, Martinez completed 10 of 11 passes for 140 yards on two late touchdown drives, and he found Ben Cotton for a seven-yard touchdown with 2:08 remaining to complete the comeback. Northwestern got two more chances to come back, however. Jeff Budzien missed a 53-yard field goal with 1:10 left, then the Wildcats got the ball back with just eight seconds left and ran out of time. Great game.

31. Texas Bowl: Texas Tech 34, Minnesota 31 (December 28). The bowl system has plenty of flaws. Of course it does. But its ability to produce random, I-had-no-idea-this-was-coming great games is still pretty cool, no? A Texas Bowl that had no reason to be exciting -- Minnesota backed into bowl eligibility after losing six of eight to finish the regular season, and Texas Tech was playing with an interim coach -- was absolutely thrilling from start to finish. The game featured seven lead changes, solid offense, big defensive plays (including two great interceptions from Minnesota's Michael Carter) and drama to the end. Texas Tech tied the game with a 35-yard touchdown pass on third-and-4 with 1:10 left, but instead of taking the game into overtime, the Red Raiders won it in regulation. D.J. Johnson picked off a pass and unleashed a beautiful 39-yard return, and Tech's Ryan Bustin booted a 28-yard field goal to take the game as time expired.

30. Air Force 28, Wyoming 27 (October 13). Howdy Doody.


29. Stanford 21, USC 14 (September 15). Back in mid-September, USC was a national title contender and Stanford was still a team rebuilding after the loss of its star quarterback. So it felt like an upset to see the Cardinal take the lead on two quick touchdowns -- a 23-yard pass to running back Stepfan Taylor with 10 seconds left in the third quarter, and a 37-yard pass to tight end Zach Ertz with 10:20 left in the game -- and repeatedly light into USC quarterback Matt Barkley in the final minutes. Turns out, it wasn't. But this was still an exciting, intense game. And a young woman still verbally assaulted Lane Kiffin after it.

28. LSU 41, Ole Miss 35 (November 17). Big plays from the start? Check. Ole Miss scored on a 58-yard run and a 56-yard pass in the first quarter. Back and forth battle? Check. There were two lead changes in the second quarter, and the game was tied early in the fourth. Late fireworks? Check. LSU's Odell Beckham returned a punt 89 yards for a score with nine minutes left, then Jeremy Hill scored with 15 seconds left in regulation to avoid overtime. In the end, Ole Miss threw for 316 yards against the salty LSU defense, but turnovers and some late Beckham gave the Bayou Bengals the edge.

27. Washington 17, Stanford 13 (September 29). Just two weeks after playing a perfect defensive game against USC and rising sharply in the rankings, Stanford was downed by iffy offense and one perfectly called, perfectly executed drive.

26. UL-Monroe 34, Arkansas 31 (OT) (September 8). The underdog masterpiece.

On Saturday night, Berry painted his masterpiece. ULM went for it on fourth down an incredible seven times and converted an even more incredible six of them. In the second half, the Warhawks converted on fourth-and-10 (19-yard run by Browning), fourth-and-11 (the aforementioned pass to Maye), fourth-and-goal (1-yard touchdown pass), fourth-and-10 (23-yard touchdown pass to Brent Leonard with 47 seconds remaining) and fourth-and-1 (game-winning 16-yard touchdown run by Browning). That's not supposed to happen. If the teams lined up and played again this coming Saturday, it almost certainly wouldn't happen again. But Berry knew it was the only way ULM was going to win this game, and unlike so many college coaches, he said "Screw it," and rolled the dice.

Within reason, ULM's game plan was beautifully aggressive. Attack Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson (and when Wilson gets hurt, attack his backup, too) as much as possible, even if it means you risk some long gains. Sticking to your strengths ("We can't run the ball? Fine. We'll have our quarterback throw it 67 times, then rip off some perfect scrambles when the defensive line over-pursues."), we'll be preternaturally aggressive in our play-calling, pursuing fourth-down conversions every time we think we have a chance to score. Arkansas will either stiffen or blink.

25. Utah 24, BYU 21 (September 15). WE WIN! Rush the field! What's that? Game's not actually over yet?

Okay, now we win! Rush the ... seriously? Game's still not over?

Now? Now can we rush the field? RUSH THE FIELD!!!

24. Toledo 52, Eastern Michigan 47 (October 13). There were 578 yards, 55 points and a kick return touchdown ... in the third quarter. This game killed MACtion. There could be no more silliness. This game used it all.

23. Kansas State 24, Oklahoma 19 (September 22). Kansas State eventually won the Big 12 title because of this victory, and it was the most Kansas State win of the last two years. Oklahoma outgained the Wildcats by 24 yards, OU quarterback Landry Jones completed 28 of 43 passes for 298 yards, and the Sooners' offense made more trips inside KSU's 40 than KSU made into OU's. But it didn't matter because of two fumbles (one happened at the OU 1 and was recovered for a touchdown, the other happened at KSU's 6 and prevented a score) and perfect game management from the KSU running game. The Wildcats converted seven of 14 first downs and controlled the ball for over 10 minutes in the fourth quarter.

22. N.C. State 17, Florida State 16 (October 6). Against a team that lost to Tennessee, Miami, North Carolina, Virginia (by 27) and Vanderbilt, Florida State built a 16-0 halftime lead, made six trips inside N.C. State's 40, outgained the Wolfpack ... and lost.

Here's your regular reminder that college football doesn't always have to make sense.

21. Chick-Fil-A Bowl: Clemson 25, LSU 24 (December 31). You are a man, Tajh Boyd.

Three-and-outs are always a problem in football; punt too quickly, too often, and eventually your defense might wear down. But against Clemson, this is not dangerous, it's deadly. LSU indeed ran just 48 plays on Monday night; Clemson ran 100 of them. And eventually, LSU showed the slightest of cracks. After averaging just 4.1 yards per play and scoring 15 points in its first 13 drives, Clemson averaged 5.8 and scored 10 points in its final two.

LSU is too deep and too athletic to completely fall apart. But Tajh Boyd and the Clemson offense were both relentless and scrappy, repeatedly bailing themselves out with third-down conversions (8-for-18 on the day), then coming through in an incredible way late. Down 24-16 and facing a third-and-11 with under four minutes remaining, Boyd found Brandon Ford along the sideline for 20 yards; Clemson scored a touchdown two plays later. And down 24-22 and facing a fourth-and-16 with 1:22 left, Boyd threw just about the best pass you'll ever see, connecting with DeAndre Hopkins for 26 yards against nearly perfect bracket coverage. A minute later, Chandler Catanzaro was booting a perfect 37-yard field goal, and Clemson was storming the field with its biggest win in a long, long time.

20. Georgia 17, Florida 9 (October 27). Honestly? I had no idea what to do with this game. It was incredibly intense, physical and important. It won the SEC East for Georgia, eventually gave the Bulldogs a shot at the national title and prevented Florida from getting the same, and the result was oh, so close to going the other way. But it was also one of the season's ugliest, least redeemable games, featuring nine turnovers (six from Florida) and fewer than 600 total yards. The combination of drama and Jarvis Jones (12.5 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries) gets this game a spot in the Top 20, but you could make the case for it both being in the Top 5 and not being included on this list at all.

19. Michigan 38, Northwestern 31 (OT) (November 10). Perhaps the toughest of Northwestern's three tough losses, this game had the twists of a three-act play. Michigan took an early 14-7 lead, but Northwestern seized total control of the game, building a 24-14 advantage late in the third quarter. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner caught fire, completing eight of 10 passes for 140 yards and engineering two touchdown drives to give the Wolverines the lead. Northwestern responded with two quarterbacks making big plays (Kain Colter rushed for 15 yards to the Michigan 40, then Trevor Siemian completed passes of 21 and 15 yards, the second for a touchdown), seizing the lead again with 3:59 left. Northwestern picked Gardner off and ran off almost all of the rest of the clock before punting ... and then Gardner and Roy Roundtree did this.

Michigan kicked the game-tying field goal with two seconds left and won in overtime.

18. Washington State 31, Washington 28 (OT) (November 23). Bench crowd surfing and an evening to remember.

17. Texas A&M 59, Louisiana Tech 57 (October 13). Texas A&M finished fifth in the AP polls; it was the Aggies' best finish since they went 9-0-1 with Bear Bryant in 1956. They were potentially one of the two or three best teams in the country after November. But on October 13, they were still a crazy, flawed and insanely fun team, capable of building a 27-0 lead in just 22 minutes, maintaining a 46-23 lead late in the third quarter, allowing three touchdowns in six minutes to relinquish most of said lead, and winning anyway. Johnny Manziel threw for 395 yards, rushed for almost 200, threw a devastating pick six early in the fourth quarter, then put the game away with a 72-yard touchdown run. Or not. Tech would score twice in about 90 seconds, and the Aggies only won when they stopped a two-point conversion at the end. Bananas.

16. Navy 17, Army 13 (December 8). You ache for Army quarterback Trent Steelman.

15. Notre Dame 20, Stanford 13 (OT) (October 13). Are we sure Stepfan Taylor's elbow wasn't down?

14. West Virginia 48, Texas 45 (October 6).
13. Oklahoma 50, West Virginia 49 (November 17)
12. Oklahoma 51, Oklahoma State 48 (OT) (November 24).
11. TCU 39, West Virginia 38 (2OT) (November 3).

After a while, it becomes impossible to differentiate between this superfecta of incredible Big 12 games, all of which involved either West Virginia or Oklahoma. You had WVU's Andrew Buie rushing for 207 yards versus Texas and surviving three second-half lead changes to pull away. You had TCU's Josh Boyce catching a stunning 94-yard touchdown (two minutes after Tavon Austin's amazing 76-yard punt return) to force overtime versus WVU, then catching the game-winning two-point conversion pass. You had WVU's Tavon Austin rushing for 344 yards versus Oklahoma but succumbing to Landry Jones' 554 passing yards and a fourth-and-3 touchdown with 24 seconds left. And you had Oklahoma overcoming a 38-27 deficit versus Oklahoma State to tie the game with four seconds left and win in overtime. The TCU-WVU finish was the most incredible of the bunch, but barely.

The rest of the Top 100 countdown: 100 through 71 | 70 through 41 | The Top 10

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