10. TCU 36, Boise State 35 (Nov. 12). There is always a chance that a one-loss Alabama (or Oklahoma State) team would have still ranked above an undefeated Boise State squad in the year-end BCS standings. That said, this was probably Boise State's single best opportunity to earn a title shot. Even as the number of injuries piled up, the Broncos faced a schedule that offered only one huge test over the last couple of months. If Boise State could get past TCU at home, they might make it all the way to the BCS Championship. Of course, they didn't. TCU picked an awfully inconvenient time to look like the old Horned Frogs again. Casey Pachall passed for 473 yards and five touchdowns on a depleted Bronco secondary, and in the home stretch, the breaks went against the home team.
Breaks, like both a touchdown and a two-point conversion that went through a defender's hands.
Breaks, like yet another last-second missed field goal.
Football's best soon-to-be former mid-majors (well, if you consider the Big East major, anyway) put on a tremendous show, as they tend to do.
9. South Carolina 45, Georgia 42 (Sept. 10). I just realized that all four of Georgia's losses made this list. Sorry, Dawg fans.
This was another leader in the plot twists category. The lead changed hands eight times, and South Carolina scored three touchdowns via defense and special teams. You want big offensive games? How about Marcus Lattimore's 176 rushing yards? Or maybe Aaron Murray's four touchdown passes to four different receivers? In the mood for some defensive explosiveness? Well what about a pick six by Antonio Allen? Maybe a fumble return touchdown by Melvin Ingram (after Jadeveon Clowney tossed Murray around like a rag doll)? And in the special teams department ... would you be in the market for a 68-yard sprint by Ingram on a fake punt?
At the time, this game felt like it meant more than it did. Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks seized control of the SEC East with the win, and Mark Richt, assumed by some to be on the hottest seat in America, began a pivotal season 0-2. Georgia would go on to win 10 straight and take the East, but we didn't exactly know that at the time.
8. Northern Illinois 63, Toledo 60 (Nov. 1). The peak of MACtion, this game didn't feature as many yards and points as Toledo-WMU, but a) it came first (and therefore felt more novel) and b) it was simply ridiculous. Northern Illinois' Tommylee Lewis returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and after an easy Toledo scoring drive, he returned another one for a touchdown. Two touchdown passes to Nathan Palmer gave NIU a 28-14 lead, but Toledo took a 31-28 lead early in the second half; it was the first of eight second-half lead changes. The teams scored 80 points in three quarters, then scored another 43 in the fourth quarter. Defense might win championships, but offense can put on a ridiculously entertaining show.
For the game, the stats were incredible. Toledo's Austin Dantin threw for five touchdowns, Adonis Thomas rushed for 160 yards, and five of Eric Page's nine catches (for 149 yards) ended up in touchdowns. NIU matched the Rockets every step of the way. Chandler Harnish threw six touchdown passes, three to Palmer, and threw in 133 rushing yards to boot. And in a "last team with the ball wins" game, the Huskies masterfully milked away most of the game's final four minutes with their game-winning touchdown drive.
The term "basketball on grass" is thrown around often, but let's just say this: ten months before these two teams combined for 123 points, the NIU and Toledo basketball teams played and combined for ... 118.
7. Oklahoma 23, Florida State 13 (Sept. 17). As with Georgia-South Carolina, this is another "if we knew then what we know now" game. Both of these teams would be decimated by injuries, and each would lose three more games the rest of the way. But with the stakes that we thought this game held at the time, this was perhaps the most exciting, dramatic example of big boy football in the 2011 season. Doak Campbell Stadium was rocking, both teams were delivering body blows, and when backup quarterback Clint Trickett (in for the injured E.J. Manuel) found Rashad Greene for an incredible, game-tying catch-and-run with 9:32 remaining...
... things got crazy. That Oklahoma was able to lock things down and win going away was a major achievement and a display of mental strength the Sooners would struggle to duplicate the rest of the way.
6. Kansas State 36, Baylor 35 (Oct. 1). Okay, sure, Kansas State was undefeated. But there was just no way they could counter Baylor's speed, right? Right?
To beat the 15th-ranked Bears, Kansas State needed to win the turnover battle and control the ball at all costs. They did that perfectly ... and still found themselves down nine points late in the third quarter, thanks in part to a gorgeous, diving catch by Kendall Wright. Still down nine with under six minutes remaining, KSU found some reserve strength. They drove 70 yards in 13 plays to cut the lead to 35-33, and then the defense took over. Jordan Voelker started getting strong pressure on Robert Griffin III, Arthur Brown made a juggling interception to set up a go-ahead field goal, and after allowing over 400 yards in 3.5 quarters, the Wildcats completely shut the Bears down in the home stretch.
5. Oklahoma State 52, Kansas State 45 (Nov. 5). "They should have been watching our game [instead of the LSU-Alabama defensive slugfest]." -- Mike Gundy
4. Arkansas 31, Vanderbilt 28 (Oct. 29). For so many, Twitter has become part of the overall fan experience. This season, Twitter revealed that, for a good chunk of college football fans, Vanderbilt is basically everybody's smart, athletically-challenged younger brother. When they had a chance to knock off a strong team like Arkansas, Twitter was abuzz. When they blew the game, there was no "THEY CHOKED!" sentiment on Twitter, only 1,149 different versions of ":-(."
And when I say they blew it, I mean it.
- The Commodores led 21-7, having completely dominated defensively against a strong Razorbacks offense, before allowing a touchdown pass with just five seconds left in the first half.
- Out of a wildcat formation, running back Zac Stacy threw a pick on the second play of the second half. Arkansas kicked a field goal to cut the lead to 21-17.
- Vandy led 28-20 at the beginning of the fourth quarter and were driving in for another touchdown when Stacy fumbled at the Arkansas 5; Jerry Franklin recovered the ball and took it 94 yards for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was good, and instead of going up 15, Vandy found themselves tied.
- Arkansas took a 31-28 lead, but Jordan Rodgers led a last-second drive to tie. They advanced to the Arkansas 10 ... and Carey Spear missed a 27-yard chip shot.
Tragedy, as it pertains to college football losses, is also entertaining sometimes, and this game featured so much of it. Vanderbilt outgained Arkansas by 74 yards, and the Commodores' offense made six trips inside Arkansas' 10 (Arkansas made just two). But they figured out a way to lose, regardless.
3. Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31 (Oct. 22). A successful Hail Mary at the end of a big game automatically places you pretty high on this list. A successful Hail Mary at the end of a big, and incredibly entertaining, game places you in the Top Three. As they would also do in the Big Ten Championship, State overcame an early double-digit deficit (14-0 after 7:18) and surged to a double-digit lead of their own. They went up 31-17 with 11 minutes left, but Russell Wilson and the comeback kids responded. Montee Ball scored his second touchdown of the game to tie things up with 1:26 left. Did State play for overtime? Not so much. With Wisconsin denying anything deep, Kirk Cousins dink-and-dunked his way into Badger territory. Keith Nichol took it from there. State needed 44 yards to win. They got exactly 44 yards, and not a centimeter more.
2. Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (Nov. 18). For all intents and purposes, Oklahoma State was just under six quarters away from the BCS championship game. Despite some quality defense from Iowa State in the first half, when Brandon Weeden found Tracy Moore for a 30-yard touchdown two and a half minutes into the third quarter, the 'Pokes were up, 24-7. Surely Jared Barnett and the offensively-challenged Cyclones were not going to be able to score 17 points, right? And even if so, surely they wouldn't be able to keep the 'Pokes from scoring again, right? And even if they did come back, Oklahoma State and that ridiculous offense would have the advantage in overtime, right?
For the last two years, Joe Tessitore has called countless fantastic Friday night games on ESPN. And aside from one other game, he saved his masterpiece for the end of the season. Played amid the backdrop of the tragic plane crash that claimed the lives of the Oklahoma State women's basketball coach and top assistant, this game featured drama in both human terms and sports terms. It was an emotional night in Ames, and in the end, it prevented the Cowboys from playing from their first national title.
(And I still don't think Quinn Sharp missed that field goal.)
This game had the added bonus of severely challenging the notion that anytime is a good time for some "Sweet Caroline."
1. Baylor 50, TCU 48 (Sept. 2). It is a beautiful coincidence that Tessitore called both the best and second-best games of 2011, but it certainly contributes to the Tessitore Magic meme that has made Friday night ESPN football so very much worth watching. But as good, and important, as Iowa State-Oklahoma State was, it just didn't hold a candle to the joyful, college football experience that took place in Waco on the very first Friday night of the football season.
In the end, lovers of college football become lovers because of joy, that feeling that you are watching, and feeling, something no other sport can deliver. At its best, college football combines freakish athleticism and vulnerability ... creativity and limitations ... power, urgency, resilience and grace delivered through some of the least graceful members of the planet: 19-year old males. At its best, the college football product makes you want to hug yourself one moment and hug a player the next. (At its worst, it displays exactly the same qualities.) And in the best game of 2011, all that is good about college football was on display. That it involved Dan Jankins' alma mater made it all the better.
Beauty: The trajectory of Robert Griffin's deep passes.
Creativity: Receiver Kendall Wright throwing a 40-yard touchdown pass two minutes into the season.
Vulnerability: A perfect Baylor offense grinding to a halt with a 47-23 lead.
Urgency: TCU scores 25 points in ten minutes to take a 48-47 lead.
Grace: Kendall Wright running a deep route.
Resilience: Having completely fallen apart in every way, Baylor rallies to drive for the game-winning field goal with a minute left. Griffin, fresh off a killer fumble, catches a third-and-10 pass over the middle from Wright and gets lit up. He picks himself up and continues to lead the drive.
Limitations: TCU's Casey Pachall throwing the game-clinching interception on a terrible read from the Baylor 40.
This was, for all intents and purposes, a nearly perfect football game.
The 2011 season exposed so much that is wrong with college football. But this game, and the 99 others on this list, showed that it still has so much going for it. I said recently that nobody hates their sport as much as college football lovers. If there is justification for this, it lies in the fact that there is so much beauty that gets covered up by the sleaze.