10 Nebraska 27, Northwestern 24 (November 2)
It takes a Hail Mary to turn a mostly forgettable game into a top-10 contest in one play. A loser of four straight, Northwestern rallied with a solid performance in Lincoln, surging to a 21-7 lead, watching it evaporate, then taking the lead again with a short field goal with 1:20 remaining. But then Ron Kellogg III said a prayer.
9 No. 3 Ohio State 42, Michigan 41 (November 30)
It might have ranked a bit higher had Ohio State gone on to make (or win) the BCS title game, but the Buckeyes' final win of the season was thrilling nonetheless. In front of 113,511 and in one of college football's great rivalry games, a fading Michigan rallied for one last burst, and a Buckeye team on the cusp of the national title held on for dear life.
Michigan's second play from scrimmage after forcing an Ohio State punt was an 84-yard completion from Devin Gardner to Jeremy Gallon. To say the least, that set the tone. Michigan led, 7-0, but Ohio State responded with a 53-yard touchdown pass from Braxton Miller to Devin Smith. Michigan answered, but Miller rushed 53 yards for another touchdown. As would be the case all game, Michigan answered again, this time with a 17-yard touchdown catch by Gallon.
The offenses cooled off a bit, but two Ohio State touchdowns in quick succession in the third quarter gave the Buckeyes a 35-21 lead heading into the final 15 minutes. The Buckeyes would give away 13 points of it. Drew Dileo caught an 11-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, and Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde lost a fumble. Gardner's third touchdown pass of the game, this time to Jake Butt, made it 35-35.
Miller, Hyde, and the Ohio State run game immediately crafted an answer; the Buckeyes rushed six straight times for 65 yards and took a 42-35 lead with 2:20 left, but Gardner was on fire. He drove Michigan to the Ohio State 33 before taking a bad sack with 50 seconds left. But on third-and-eight, he connected with Fitzgerald Toussaint for 29 yards, and after a spike, he hit Devin Funchess for what could have been the game-tying touchdown with 32 seconds left.
Michigan coach Brady Hoke wasn't interested in a tie and overtime, however. He elected to go for two points and the win, but Gardner, playing on a broken left foot for much of the game, was picked off. Ohio State recovered the ensuing onside kick and survived.
This was only the second best game of November 30.
8 UCF 38, No. 8 Louisville 35 (October 18)
It quite possibly cost Louisville a shot in the national title game. We don't know how the BCS standings would have shaken down between an undefeated Louisville with a wretched strength of schedule and a one-loss Auburn with a great one --Remember that argument between Auburn and Ohio State before Ohio State lost to Michigan State? It would have been even worse than that -- but this was Louisville's stiffest test of the regular season, and after about 40 minutes, it looked like the Cardinals would pass with flying colors.
Despite some early offensive issues, Louisville led George O'Leary's Knights by a 14-7 margin at halftime. Then Louisville's Dominique Brown scored on a 20-yard run. Then UCF punter Caleb Houston mishandled a snap, and Louisville's James Quick snatched it up one-handed and took it 30 yards for a touchdown. Game over!
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Bortles chose that Friday night to create quite a Draft résumé. He found Breshad Perriman for 32 yards to set up a short touchdown. Then, after a Senorise Perry fumble, Storm Johnson rumbled 20 yards on a perfect screen pass. Louisville punted again, and two plays later, William Stanback rumbled right for a 12-yard touchdown. Just seven minutes after Louisville went up three touchdowns, the game was tied.
Midway through the fourth quarter, UCF took the lead on a 34-yard Shawn Moffitt field goal, but Louisville finally responded. The Cardinals drove 88 yards in nine plays, and Brown scored on a 15-yard run to put Louisville up four with 3:00 left. Too much time. Josh Reese caught passes of 28 and 14 yards from Bortles, and with 27 seconds left, UCF faced a third-and-goal from the Louisville two.
7 No. 21 South Carolina 27, No. 5 Missouri 24 (October 26)
As the game worked its way into the second overtime, I was strangely relaxed. Or at least, I wasn't a quivering mess on the floor of my section. Losses happen, and this one never quite felt like it was in the bag. Missouri forced a 40-yard field goal, and even though Carolina's Elliott Fry made it, it still meant Missouri had a chance to close the game. And on the first play of Mizzou's possession, Marcus Murphy broke off left tackle for 17 yards…
…and, from my perch in the 61st row, there was a single instant, a split second in time, in which it looked like Murphy was going to stay upright after a defender tried to bring him down by the ankles. I didn't see that there was another defender there to secure the tackle. I just saw daylight and touchdown and victory and holy shit, we survived.
That was the moment I was still reliving on the car ride home and into Sunday morning. Not the missed field goal that ensued. Not the fourth-and-15 conversion. Nothing else. Just that single flash in which I instinctively allowed myself to believe Missouri had won. "YYYYYYYEAAAAHH--AWWWWWWWWW."
Those are just the worst. The most painful losses are the ones that not only taunt you with what-ifs, but also convince you beyond a shadow of a doubt, even for just a tenth of a second, that your team won the game. [...]
We show off our scars to each other as a form of brotherhood. Pain unites us. Pain is all that is guaranteed when we become fans. Hell, even Alabama fans can regale you with stories of pain, and they've collectively suffered less than any fanbase. We've all been there. And if you don't feel enough pain after a loss, that might be a sign that your team is losing too much. That this Missouri loss felt so bad is a morbid sign of progress, confirmation that the Tigers are back on the right track after last year's trip-ups. If the loss had moved Missouri to 3-5 instead of 7-1, the feeling would have been one more of anger or resignation. This was pure, soul-crushing heart break. The best kind.
6 Rose Bowl: No. 4 Michigan State 24, No. 5 Stanford 20 (January 1)
It was just so pretty. Grass a shade of green that the Rose Bowl should trademark. The setting sun. The fact that the weather in Pasadena is always perfect, and the weather wherever you were was probably awful. A setting like the Rose Bowl can make a good game great and a great game transcendent. Throw in two hungry, strong teams and a game that was explosive early and tense as hell late, and you've got the 2014 Rose Bowl.
This was supposed to be two stones pounded against each other for 60 minutes, defense-heavy teams that would hope to score on an accident. That was the expectation, the stereotype, and Stanford blew it out of the water on the game's second play. Kevin Hogan connected with Michael Rector on a 43-yard bomb to set up a mean Tyler Gaffney run, and Stanford was up, 7-0.
It was 10-0 at the end of the first quarter, but Michigan State was starting to figure things out. The Spartans capped a 75-yard touchdown drive with a short touchdown run by Jeremy Langford, and the score remained that way until late in the first half, when MSU Connor Cook, so good in the season's stretch run, got pressured and panicked.
That could have turned the game drastically in Stanford's favor, but Cook responded, completing four of six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown on the following drive. A short touchdown made the game 17-14 at half, and State immediately tied the game on the first drive after halftime.
And when Cook, 22-for-36 for 332 yards for the game, found Lipped for a 25-yard score early in the fourth quarter, it set the table for a hell of a finish. Stanford kicked a field goal to get to within 24-20, State punted, and Stanford got one last chance. No dice. State stuffed fullback Ryan Hewitt on fourth-and-one and took its first Rose Bowl title in 26 years.
5 No. 1 Alabama 49, No. 6 Texas A&M 42 (September 14)
And now to the SEC portion of the countdown. The SEC might not have been the best in the country this year (the Pac-12 had a pretty good claim to make), and it saw its seven-year national title streak barely come to an end. But when it came to week-to-week drama, it held the crown.
The hype surrounding this game began in mid-November 2012, when A&M won in Tuscaloosa. It continued to build as Johnny Manziel became the story du jour for every day of the offseason. And in the middle of the third Saturday of the season, Alabama-A&M II lived up to all of the hype, even if the teams wouldn't for the rest of the year.
It began perfectly for A&M. Aiming to exploit weakness in Alabama's corps of cornerbacks (as they would all night), Manziel and Mike Evans hooked up for passes of 32 and 35 yards on A&M's opening drive, setting up a short touchdown. Alabama went three-and-out, and Manziel found Evans for 34 yards to set up another short touchdown. Seven minutes in, it was 14-0.
Nine minutes later, it was tied. McCarron threw touchdown passes of 22 yards to Kevin Norwood and 44 yards to DeAndrew White. A third scoring strike following an interception -- 51 yards to Kenny Bell -- totally turned the tide, so to speak.
It was 28-14 Alabama at halftime, and the Tide quickly went up even more when Vinnie Sunseri picked off a Manziel pass at the Alabama 27 and weaved 73 yards for a touchdown. They led by three touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, but Manziel didn't stop attacking. A four-play, 80-yard drive cut the lead to 14, and following a T.J. Yeldon fumble at the A&M one, Manziel and Evans connected for a thrilling, 95-yard touchdown strike.
In the blink of an eye, it was a seven-point game again.
Alabama chomped 5:36 off of the clock with a scoring drive of its own, and while A&M scored again, there were only 15 seconds left when they did. Alabama recovered the onside kick and somehow survived despite allowing 628 total yards and 279 yards on seven Evans receptions. McCarron played one of his best games ever -- 20-for-29 for 334 yards and four touchdowns -- and Alabama needed every bit of it to take the win.
4 Chick-fil-A Bowl: No. 21 Texas A&M 52, No. 24 Duke 48 (December 31)
Manziel's final game in an A&M uniform was perhaps his most Manzellian. A&M had hit a skid, dropping road contests to LSU and Missouri to fall to 8-4 overall. The Aggies were relegated to the Chick-fil-A Bowl, where they faced a hungry Duke team led by David Cutcliffe. In a game that saw Duke's Anthony Boone match him nearly throw for throw, Manziel did just enough. Eventually.
From the start, it looked like your classic only-one-team-wants-to-be-here bowl. On A&M's first drive, Mike Evans threw a massive fit and drew a personal foul after what he thought was a bad pass interference no-call, and A&M missed a field goal. Duke responded with an easy, 63-yard scoring drive, and after an A&M field goal, the Blue Devils drove 79 yards in five plays for another score. They blocked a punt and scored three plays later, and seconds into the second quarter, they led 21-3.
The teams would trade scores as Manziel tried desperately to rally his teammates (offense and defense) on the sideline, but Duke played the end of the first half as perfectly as you possibly can. The Blue Devils capped an 11-play scoring drive with a 25-yard Josh Snead run to go up 35-17 with 2:31 left, and instead of giving the ball back to Manziel, they attempted a surprise onside kick. It worked, and Duke added a field goal to go into the break up 38-17. They would also get the ball back to start the second half.
In all, Manziel wouldn't touch the ball from 6:45 left in the second quarter to 11:58 left in the third, but when he did, the game was on. A&M stopped Duke on fourth-and-one from the Aggie 35, and Manziel found Travis Labhart for a 19-yard score. 38-24.
I'm sorry. "Manziel found Travis Labhart for a 19-yard score" doesn't really cut it as an effective summary of the play. He Manziel'd it up.
Duke drove again but missed a field goal, and Tra Carson raced 21 yards for a touchdown. 38-31. Duke responded with a field goal, but when Manziel scored on a three-yard touchdown run to make it 41-38, a completed comeback felt inevitable.
But Duke responded with a touchdown of its own -- Boone connected with tight end David Reeves, who tiptoed down the sideline for a 21-yard score -- and went back up 10 with 6:48 left. A&M responded in three plays to make it 48-45, but Duke had a chance to put the game away with another long drive.
Instead, A&M's Toney Hurd Jr., a stick of dynamite for most of the second half, stepped in front of a Boone pass and took it 55 yards for a touchdown. A&M led for the first time all night, and though Duke would drive once again, Boone panicked in the face of a blitz and fired a misguided pass into the arms of A&M's Nate Askew.
Manziel's final snaps as an Aggie were in victory formation.
3 BCS Championship: No. 1 Florida State 34, No. 2 Auburn 31 (January 6)
The final BCS Championship was one of the best in the 16-year history of the game, and it put a tidy, cute bow on what truly was a thrilling college football season.
You'll notice that this is Florida State's first appearance on this list. The Seminoles were easily the country's best team in 2013, too good for the schedule they faced. In their 13-game regular season, they only once won by fewer than 27 points (they beat Boston College, 48-34, on September 28, and even that outcome felt inevitable by the third quarter), they mauled Clemson by 37 in Clemson, and in a three-game span in November, they outscored Wake Forest, Syracuse, and Idaho by a combined 198-20 margin. The schedule was light, and the Seminoles were so effective that title game hype centered around whether they'd been tested.
FSU was tested in the national title game. And the Seminoles responded. After a while.
This game almost looked like the fifth quarter of the SEC Championship game. Auburn confused Florida State on both sides of the ball, finding extreme offensive success with play-action and steady doses of Tre Mason and drastically confusing Jameis Winston and the FSU offense on the other side of the ball. FSU got a field goal on its first drive but gained just 19 yards in its next 14 plays; meanwhile, Nick Marshall threw two early touchdown passes -- one on a perfect screen to Mason, another on a perfect play-action strike to Melvin Ray, and following a Winston fumble, Marshall ran left for four yards and a touchdown that gave Auburn a stunning 21-3 lead.
Desperate for any sort of life, FSU attempted a fake punt after once again going three-and-out on its following drive. It worked just enough -- Karlos Williams gained seven yards on fourth-and-four, and after a couple of passes to Rashad Greene and a 21-yard scramble on third down, Winston handed to Devonta Freeman for a short touchdown. FSU still wasn't completely clicking, but a 21-10 halftime deficit seemed manageable. FSU would add a field goal in the third quarter, but both defenses controlled the line of scrimmage and limited scoring, and the score remained 21-13 heading into the fourth quarter.
To this point, Auburn had controlled the game with monstrous field position advantages. FSU started each of its first 11 drives at or inside its 25-yard line, and four drives began within the 10. But the Seminoles finally flipped the field a bit when P.J. Williams stepped in front of a misguided Marshall pass and set FSU up near midfield. Winston found Kelvin Benjamin for 21 yards, then dumped to fullback Chad Abram for an 11-yard score. An unsportsmanlike conduct penalty prevented the Seminoles from going for two points and the tie, but after pecking away, FSU was back to within 21-20.
Auburn went back to basics, grinding out a 13-play drive (12 on the ground) and kicking a field goal with 4:42 left, but instead of giving Winston a chance at a Heisman moment, it simply set the table for Kermit Whitfield to become a household name.
The freshman put FSU ahead for the first time. But Winston would still get his Heisman moment thanks to Mason. With Auburn milking clock and looking to at least tie the game and send it to overtime, Mason bucked the script with an incredible, 37-yard touchdown run that gave Auburn the lead.
Winston had 71 seconds to respond. He needed 58.
He found Greene for a short gain, but Greene burst ahead of two colliding Auburn defenders and raced for a 49-yard gain down the right sideline. He dumped to Freeman for a pair of short gains and to Kenny Shaw for a key first down, and he forced Auburn cornerback Chris Davis (not the last time you'll hear that name) to interfere with Greene to prevent a game-winning score with 17 seconds left. And on first-and-goal from the Auburn two, he lobbed to big Benjamin to complete the drive.
Thirteen seconds later, after a desperate series of laterals was done in by FSU's Telvin Smith, Florida State was the 2013 national champion.
2 No. 7 Auburn 43, No. 25 Georgia 38 (November 16)
I really wanted to make this game No. 1 just to point out how incredible it was. With what happened next in the Iron Bowl, this game became almost a footnote, albeit a lengthy one. It was simply the craziness that set up further craziness. But on the third Saturday in November, one of college football's longest-standing, most underrated rivalries put on an outright spectacle.
It didn't start that way. Needing a win to create a winner-take-the-division battle with Alabama, Auburn came out on fire. The Tigers drove for a field goal on their opener, forced a quick three-and-out, and finished a quick touchdown drive with a 21-yard run by Corey Grant. Georgia went three-and-out again, Auburn tacked on another field goal, and after 17 minutes, it was 13-0. Total yardage: Auburn 170, Georgia 4.
Georgia did score on a nine-yard Todd Gurley run and would block a field goal late in the second quarter, but Auburn just kept pushing forward. Marshall went off right guard for a six-yard score, and after a Ryan Smith interception, Mason went up the middle for a 23-yard touchdown and a 27-7 lead with a minute left in the first half.
Georgia would rally. The Dawgs got a field goal at the end of the half, then drove 75 yards for a score to start the second half. Auburn answered with another Marshall touchdown, and the Tigers took a 34-17 lead into the fourth quarter, then tacked on yet another field goal to go up 20 points.
Holding Auburn to field goals, however, began to pay off when Georgia's offense finally got untracked. Auburn could have long ago put the game away, but field goals meant the Tigers were only up 20. And then they were up only 13 after a five-yard touchdown from Murray to Rantavious Wooten. And then they were up only six after a three-and-out and a 24-yard touchdown from Murray to Arthur Lynch.
Auburn went three-and-out again, and with 4:47 left, Georgia got the ball back in Auburn territory, somehow with a chance to take the lead. Murray hit Rhett McGowan for a 10-yard gain on third-and-five, then found Michael Bennett for 17 yards on first-and-15. It was first-and-goal in a shocked Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But after a short Gurley run, two passes fell incomplete, and suddenly it was fourth-and-goal. What followed might have been Aaron Murray's greatest play as a Georgia Bulldog.
In an alternate universe, that play would have won the game, and SportsCenter would have led with a story about Murray's heroics. But the 2013 season was played in Auburn's universe, even if we didn't realize it until mid-November. Auburn would get a first down following the score, but Jordan Jenkins sacked Marshall, setting up a fourth-and-18 from Auburn's 27 with 36 seconds left.
The game wasn't over, by the way. Remember that? Given just 25 seconds, Murray almost pulled off a miracle to follow the miracle. He found Lynch for 22 yards, then Wooten for 28. With three seconds left, Georgia was at the Auburn 20, but on the final play, Dee Ford hurried a Murray throw, and it fell incomplete.
But surely Alabama was still going to kill Auburn in a couple of weeks, right?
1 No. 4 Auburn 34, No. 1 Alabama 28 (November 30)
Auburn-Georgia featured three quarters of Auburn domination, a stout comeback, and a miracle finish. It was awesome. But it was the precursor for the seven stages of disbelief two weeks later, when top-ranked Alabama visited Jordan-Hare.
Alabama had played in too many huge games to count through the years, but the Crimson Tide looked tight from the outset. Cade Foster missed a 45-yard field goal on Alabama's opening drive, then Cody Mandell had a punt partially blocked after he struggled with a fine snap. Ten minutes into the game, Alabama suffered an assignments breakdown on a zone read, and Marshall burst off left guard for a 45-yard touchdown and an Auburn lead. Surely this can't be happening, right?
Alabama eventually settled down and responded. A.J. McCarron found Jalston Fowler for a short touchdown, and Landon Collins forced and recovered a Mason fumble. McCarron connected with Kevin Norwood for a 20-yard score. Auburn went three-and-out, Amari Cooper went 28 yards on an end around, and T.J. Yeldon scored. 21-7, Alabama. Auburn had its fun, but now Alabama was here to restore order.
Or not. Mason burst up the middle for 40 yards to set up a one-yard touchdown, and Alabama led by just seven at half.
Auburn picked up where it left off in the third quarter. Marshall completed a few short passes, the last one to C.J. Uzomah for a touchdown, and three minutes into the second half, the game was tied again. Surely this can't be happening, right?
Midway through the third quarter, Alabama went on one of those game-closing drives. McCarron and Cooper hooked up for 54 yards down the right sideline, and Alabama casually moved the chains time and again. Seven minutes later, Foster missed another field goal. (He initially made it, but after a false start penalty, he missed the retake.) Auburn was forced to punt, however, and Alabama quickly moved in front on the scoreboard. Very quickly.
A little on the desperate side, Auburn responded by going three-and-out, but Gus Malzahn decided to roll the dice and go for it on fourth-and-one from his own 35. Adrian Hubbard stopped Marshall short, and Alabama had a chance to put the game away like it has for most of the last five years. But with 5:34 left, on fourth-and-one from the Auburn 13, Carl Lawson stuffed T.J. Yeldon.
Auburn went three-and-out again, and the reaper approached once more. Christion Jones returned a punt to the Auburn 19, and three plays (and a few penalties) later, Foster came on to ice the game.
Nosa Eguae blocked 44-yard field goal. With 2:32 left, Auburn would get one last chance to tie. Surely this can't be happening, right?
Auburn drilled down the field with six straight Mason rushes. At some point, the Tigers were going to have to make a move, though. And then they did.
Overtime, right? Not necessarily. Alabama played the final seconds conservatively, but when Yeldon ripped off a 24-yard run on a draw play, and when replay review put one second back on the clock at the end of his run (it was really close, and Nick Saban campaigned really hard for that one second), Alabama got one final chance in regulation.
Instead of a Hail Mary, the Tide decided to use their long-range place-kicker, Adam Griffin, to try a 57-yard field goal. The worst thing that could happen is a miss and overtime, right?
College football began almost 150 years ago, and most programs have been playing the sport for 100 years or more at this point. Games have ended in every conceivable way, but until the early evening of November 30, no game was known to have ended on a walk-off missed field goal return.
That this happened in one of the sport's greatest rivalry games was incredible. That it happened in a battle of top-four teams was magnificent.
That it happened just two weeks after Ricardo Louis' miracle touchdown and took Auburn to within one step of the national title game, just one year after the Tigers went 3-9 and fired their coach, made this quite possibly the greatest finish in the history of the sport.
Auburn fans, Alabama fans, and college football fans will be talking about this game, and this finish, 50 years from now. We might still be talking about this season then, too.