20. USC 38, Oregon 35 (Nov. 19). USC's surge to what might be the top of the 2012 preseason polls truly took hold when they dominated for the first two and a half quarters in Eugene. A five-yard pass from Matt Barkley to Randall Telfer gave the Trojans a 38-14 lead with 3:28 left in the third quarter, but USC had to hold on for dear life as Oregon scored three touchdowns in 11 minutes to get within three points. But Alejandro Maldanado missed the potential game-tying, 37-yard field goal as time expired.
19. Kansas State 53, Texas A&M 50 (Nov. 12). Kansas State turned smoke and mirrors into an art form in 2011, but they needed smoke, mirrors and four overtimes to get past the Aggies. After losing an early 14-0 advantage, A&M took a 31-21 lead with 6:38 remaining in regulation, but that was old hat for the Aggies, who led by double digits in 12 of 13 games in 2011, yet won only seven.
18. Stanford 56, USC 48 (Oct. 29). How do three overtimes, seven lead changes, 948 yards and two tragic (or near-tragic) turnovers sound? Good? And what if we get No. 6 Stanford and their 15-game winning streak involved? And a crowning moment for one of college football's best players? Yeah? Andrew Luck threw a fourth-quarter pick six, then immediately drove his team down for the tying touchdown. The teams traded blow after blow in overtime until Curtis McNeal lost a heartbreaking fumble.
17. Oklahoma State 30, Texas A&M 29 (Sept. 24). On September 24, Texas A&M wasn't the most disappointing team in the country -- they were simply the No. 8 team in the country, undefeated and thinking big. They completely befuddled Oklahoma State in the first half of their Week 4 meeting in College Station and took what figured to be an insurmountable 20-3 lead into halftime. Oklahoma State had the lead 12 minutes later. The 'Pokes scored 27 straight points in all, then held off a late rally to win. Both teams' seasons had the same trajectory coming into the game; after September 24, they went in opposite directions.
This game receives both bonus points and a point deduction for this:
16. Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31 (Sept. 10). The first prime time game at the Big House, this one lived up to its atmosphere. Notre Dame dominated for three quarters and took a 24-7 lead, but Denard Robinson caught fire just in time. He led three scoring drives, and the Wolverines took a 28-24 lead with 1:12 left. But the
defensive breakdowns offensive heroics were just beginning. Tommy Rees and the Irish drove 61 yards in 42 seconds to take the lead, then Robinson found Jeremy Gallon for 64 yards and (despite the fact that they could have played for a field goal and forced overtime) Roundtree for another 16. Ballgame.
15. New Orleans Bowl: UL-Lafayette 32, San Diego State 30 (Dec. 17). If you can't enjoy a game like this, then college football just isn't for you. In a game that really only people in Louisiana and a small portion of San Diego actually cared about, Mark Hudspeth's Ragin' Cajuns went all out for their first bowl appearance. They ran Oklahoma drills on the sidelines before the game, completely shut down SDSU's Ronnie Hillman, returned a punt for a touchdown, and took a 19-3 lead early in the second half. But the Aztecs stormed back and took their first lead with just 35 seconds left. No worries. ULL's Brett Baer, who missed two PATs earlier in the game, calmly banged home a 50-yarder at the buzzer. Bananas.
14. Baylor 45, Oklahoma 38 (Nov. 19). Oklahoma gained 605 yards without Ryan Broyles and continuously responded to Baylor's scores and, um, lucky breaks.
Oklahoma tied the game at 38-38 with 51 seconds left, but Baylor decided to play for the win instead of overtime. That line of thinking was typically rewarded in 2011. Griffin scrambled twice for 30 yards, found Kendall Wright for 12, then found Terrance Williams in the end zone with eight seconds left. This game is No. 14 on this list ... and was only the third-best Baylor game of the season.
13. Military Bowl: Toledo 41, Air Force 40 (Dec. 28). One of seven Toledo games to reach 70 combined points and four to reach 80, this game had a little of everything. Defensive touchdown? Check. Special teams touchdown? Check. Offense dominated in the first half, but both defenses adapted. Air Force quickly overcame an early 14-0 lead (another lesson in 2011: 14-0 is nothing unless you're Alabama) and tied the game at 21-21, 28-28 (at halftime) and 35-35. But when they scored with 52 seconds left, they went for two points and the win. And failed miserably.
12. Big Ten Championship: Wisconsin 42, Michigan State 39 (Dec. 3). Kudos to these teams for playing two of the best games of the year. Like The Godfather, the sequel was excellent, if not quite as good as the original (yes, Godfather I was better), if only because it ended on a punter flop. Still, this game had about as many plot twists as any all season. Wisconsin threatened to blow off the Spartans' doors, sprinting to a 21-7 lead just 12 minutes in. But Michigan State stormed ahead, 29-21, and continued to hold the lead until late in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-6 from the MSU 43, Russell Wilson heaved an absolute prayer to Jeff Duckworth for a 36-yard gain, and Montee Ball scored the go-ahead points on the next play. Some (justifiably) accuse of somewhat artificially going nuts sometimes. And sometimes a play makes everybody go nuts.
After an MSU punt, Wisconsin was able to run out the clock thanks to the aforementioned running-into-the-kicker penalty. Still, the movie was good even if the ending left something to be desired.
11. Rose Bowl: Oregon 45, Wisconsin 38 (Dec. 2). In my Rose Bowl preview, I simply said that this matchup "felt right," in a "styles make fights" kind of way. Put a viewer-friendly matchup on in one of college football's prettiest settings, and you've got something great. The game lived up to my expectations in every way. Montee Ball was Montee Ball, De'Anthony Thomas was really fast, both defenses made key plays at times, and Russell Wilson almost led another last-second comeback. (He needed about one more second.) As with other games, the ending was a bit dissatisfying, but that can be overlooked when the first 59:59 is this much fun.