65. Oct. 29: Louisville 32, Virginia 25
Louisville’s season ended on a down note as the Cardinals lost their final three games to fall to 9-4. But on the last Saturday in October, they were title contenders, and they needed 60 minutes to escape an upset in Charlottesville.
UVA’s Micah Kiser sacked eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson three times, and the Cardinals scored once in their first nine possessions while falling behind 17-7. They surged ahead, 24-17, but Virginia not only responded with a touchdown with 1:57 left — they went for two and got it.
Down 25-24 with the season on the line, Jackson responded. He found Cole Hikutini for five yards on fourth-and-3, rushed for a first down, then lofted a gorgeous touchdown to Jaylen Smith with just 13 seconds left. The dream season would continue for at least a couple more weeks.
64. Sep. 1: Tennessee 20, Appalachian State 13
by Steven Godfrey
Week 1 has a habit of finding that one program whose hype doesn’t match its reality, then exposing that disconnect in a public way as anxiety eats the fan base alive. Compound that with Tennessee’s last decade. If schadenfreude’s your dish, this game earned a Michelin star.
And yet Tennessee won! You don’t remember, because this because the game was on a Thursday night and App led 13-3 at the half. The Vol offense had to lumber through overtime just to close out the comeback. Tennessee won, and this game was still the harbinger of death for a team thought to be finally back in the national conversation.
App State was a touch of pestilence on Tennessee’s 2016, even through the comeback vs. Florida and the miracle vs. UGA. Even when Butch Jones haircuts were popular for five minutes, before this 5-0 team started its three-game skid, Tennessee fans already knew what their team actually was.
Congrats on the win, though.
63. Nov. 5: Georgia 27, Kentucky 24
62. Sep. 17: Georgia 28, Missouri 27
Georgia’s season was a disappointment. In Kirby Smart’s first year, the Bulldogs rose to ninth in the polls during a 3-0 start but lost four of five in the middle of the season, including a Hail Mary loss to Tennessee and a one-point defeat to Vanderbilt. They finished 8-5, just their second time in the last six seasons to finish with fewer than 10 wins.
It could have been worse. They were just a couple of plays away from starting 2-7.
Against Missouri, Georgia struggled to contain J’Mon Moore, who caught eight passes for 196 yards and two scores; the second gave Mizzou a 27-21 lead deep into the fourth. But on fourth-and-10 with 1:36 left, UGA’s Jacob Eason hit Isaiah McKenzie for a 20-yard touchdown and a one-point lead. On the next play, Juwan Briscoe stripped Moore after a 20-yard gain and recovered the fumble, sealing the win.
On the first Saturday in November, UGA traveled to face a smoking-hot Kentucky that was dreaming of an SEC East title. The dream died. McKenzie scored to give UGA an early lead, and Rodrigo Blankenship kicked four field goals, the last as time expired.
61. Nov. 12: Navy 42, Tulsa 40
Like Louisville, Navy finished a potential dream season with three consecutive losses. But a mid-November win over Tulsa moved the Midshipmen to 7-2 and eventually secured an AAC West title.
This game was quite a template for all of Tulsa’s and Navy’s best (offense) and worst (defense) tendencies. TU’s Dane Evans threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns, and four different Golden Hurricane receivers caught at least one 30-yarder. Navy’s Will Worth rushed for 122 yards and completed six of eight passes for 111.
Both teams gained over 500 yards, and while Navy mostly led, Tulsa always responded. But when TU scored to make it 42-40 with 5:30, Navy pulled a Navy: The Midshipmen converted a third-and-2 and a fourth-and-1 and ran out the clock.
60. Sep. 10: Boise State 31, Washington State 28
It was one of those late-night Washington State games, a game that doesn’t become worth watching until all the other games have ended.
Following a 10:15 ET kickoff, an early pick six and a 47-yard touchdown pass contributed to a 17-point Boise State lead. But per the patent, Wazzu made things interesting late. The Cougars cut the score to 31-28 in the fourth. They got the ball back with 53 seconds left with a chance to tie or win, but Tyler Horton stopped Gabe Marks a yard short on a third-and-10 completion, then Raymond Ford broke up a pass to Tavares Martin Jr.
59. Oct. 8: Navy 46, Houston 40
58. Oct. 15: Houston 38, Tulsa 31
57. Nov. 25: Memphis 48, Houston 44
Houston was on the happy end of some tight finishes in 2015, beating Louisville by three, Cincinnati by three, and Memphis by one. The tight wins helped to define what was seen as a program-turning season for Tom Herman and the Cougars.
As tends to happen, the god of close games turned against UH in 2016.
The Cougars were up to No. 6 in the country when they were sunk by Ken Niumatalolo’s Midshipmen. The score was 20-20 at halftime, but Navy deployed a nearly perfect third quarter. Darry Bonner scored to put the Middies up seven, and a minute later Josiah Powell’s pick six made it 34-20. A 34-yard touchdown catch by Brandon Colon and a safety off of a bad Houston punt snap put the game away.
Niumatalolo was excited.
A week later, the Cougars thought about letting another one slip away. Houston led 31-17 midway through the fourth quarter, but two quick Tulsa touchdown drives tied the game. With 1:21 left, Garrett Davis sacked and stripped TU’s Dane Evans, and Emeke Egbule returned the ball 24 yards for a touchdown.
But Tulsa came almost as close as you can get to scoring without actually scoring. On the last play, UH’s Austin Robinson stopped Jesse Brubaker about an inch from the goal line, all with plenty of weird officiating.
In what turned out to be Herman’s last game, the Coogs suffered more heartbreak. For the second year in a row, Memphis bolted to a big lead (34-17 at halftime), and for the second year, Houston charged back. With 1:29 left, Greg Ward Jr. found Chance Allen for a three-yard score and a 44-41 lead. Unlike Tulsa, Memphis figured out how to get the extra inch. The Tigers drove 72 yards in five plays, and with 19 seconds left Riley Ferguson found Anthony Miller.
Houston wasn’t as successful in 2016, but Houston games were just as fun.
56. Sep. 5: Florida State 45, Ole Miss 34
You don’t see too many games decided by double digits on this list. But for sheer pedal-to-the-metal thrills, it’s hard to top FSU-Ole Miss, a game that was two blowouts in one.
For 29 minutes, Ole Miss looked like a national title contender, invading the FSU line of scrimmage and throwing all around a dizzied Seminole secondary.
- First 29 minutes: Ole Miss 28, FSU 6.
- Next 31 minutes: FSU 39, Ole Miss 6.
The Seminoles scored with 28 seconds left in the first half, then again to start the second. And then Chad Kelly threw an interception. FSU scored a touchdown, and Kelly was sacked and stripped. The game turned on a dime, and FSU’s depth and perseverance allowed for an exhausting Labor Day win.
Ole Miss was 2016’s weekly supernova, doing explosive things and usually burning out by the fourth quarter. The first week set the prototype.
55. Nov. 12: Ole Miss 29, Texas A&M 28
When Kelly was lost for the season to injury, Ole Miss’ season was all but done. But freshman Shea Patterson, who saw his redshirt torn off in the 10th game, provided one set of thrills before struggling in two season-ending blowouts. In front of 104,892 at Kyle Field, where Johnny Manziel thrived, Patterson pulled a Manziel of his own.
Trailing 21-6 heading into the fourth quarter, Patterson connected with Damore’a Stringfellow for a six-yard score, then set up a touchdown with another 40-yard strike to Stringfellow. A&M went up 28-19, but Ole Miss kept reeling the Aggies in. Patterson and Van Jefferson connected for a 32-yard touchdown, and after an A&M three-and-out, Patterson completed a pair of passes and rushed for a first down to set up Gary Wunderlich’s game-winning field goal with 37 seconds left.
And then Ole Miss got outscored 93-37 the rest of the way.
54. Oct. 29: Notre Dame 30, Miami 27
Notre Dame’s season had long since gone off the rails. The Fighting Irish were 2-5, losers of five close games and winners only against Nevada and Syracuse. Miami had lost three in a row itself.
The Hurricanes would rally, finishing with five consecutive victories, while Notre Dame would only win once more, but an early Irish surge held up on this Saturday. They burst ahead 17-0 in the first 11 minutes, then held on for dear life. Miami went on a 27-3 run, taking the lead on a Notre Dame muffed punt, but a 41-yard Josh Adams run tied the game again, and after a Miami three-and-out, Adams’ rushing helped to set up the winning field goal with 30 seconds left.
53. Oct. 29: Washington 31, Utah 24
52. Sep. 17: Washington 35, Arizona 28
Washington began 12-1, winning the Pac-12 and reaching the Playoff, and aside from a loss to USC, the path was mostly smooth. Ten of 12 wins came by at least 24 points.
The other two were thrillers. First came an early-season, Pac-12-after-dark scrap at an Arizona that had not yet collapsed. Two John Ross touchdowns kept the Huskies afloat, but a three-yard touchdown from Brandon Dawkins to tight end Josh Kern tied the game with 17 seconds left in regulation. Dante Pettis scored for UW in overtime, however, and Arizona’s possession stalled out at the 11.
A month later came a less surprising test. UW jumped to a 14-0 lead against a solid Utah, but it was 14-10 at halftime, and Utah took the lead on the first possession of the second half. It was 24-24 with under four minutes remaining when Utah made a deadly mistake: kicking to Pettis.
51. Oct. 1: Michigan 14, Wisconsin 7
Michigan welcomed No. 8 Wisconsin on a high point, having just knocked off strong Colorado and Penn State teams by a combined 94-38. They were ranked fourth in the country, and they would eventually survive the Badgers in front of 111,846.
It took a while, though. The Wolverines went up 7-0 on their second drive but missed two field goals, then threw an interception from the UW 33 to start the second half. Given second life, the Badgers tied via a 17-yard Dare Ogunbowale run.
A third missed field goal followed, but Michigan finally went back ahead with a 46-yard bomb from Wilton Speight to Amara Darboh with 7:56 left. Interceptions by Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis finally put the game away, with Lewis’ a catch of the year contender:
50. Sep. 17: Oklahoma State 45, Pitt 38
After suffering a debilitating loss to Central Michigan the week before, Oklahoma State did what every team should do to exorcise demons: go deep on the first play of the next game.
The Pokes needed those seven points and quite a bit more to survive Pitt. Washington scored again, then Rennie Childs scored on a 67-yard run to give the Cowboys a 31-17 lead in the first half, but a 60-yard TD catch by Jester Weah and a 50-yard run by Quadree Henderson helped to tie the game up at 38-38 late in the third quarter.
With under two minutes to go, OSU decided to go deep once more. Mason Rudolph hit Jhajuan Seales for an 86-yard gain to the Pitt 1.
With 1:28 left, Rennie Childs put OSU up for good. Pitt would advance into Poke territory, but Ramon Richards picked off a pass with 15 seconds left.
49. Oct. 8: NC State 10, Notre Dame 3
48. Sep. 24: Duke 38, Notre Dame 35
47. Nov. 5: Navy 28, Notre Dame 27
46. Nov. 19: Virginia Tech 34, Notre Dame 31
45. Sep. 4: Texas 50, Notre Dame 47
by Richard Johnson
The Fighting Irish did something this season that was pretty incredible: they went 1-7 in games decided by a single score.
The loss to NC State was one in which the Fighting Irish tried to play fancy, coordinated football in weather that necessitated the exact opposite. ND traded punches with Duke most of the way, but fell short of final-drive heroics. Navy ran all over their asses and held the ball for the game’s final 7:28, playing keepaway. Against Virginia Tech, they blew a 17-point lead. And in Week 1 against Texas, they lost what we all thought was the dang game of the year, at the time.
In the category of finding new and inventive ways to lose, Notre Dame excelled in 2016. Maybe they can hang their hats on that?
44. Oct. 15: Clemson 24, NC State 17 (OT)
Clemson’s championship DVD will feature dramatic finishes, from the early escapes against Auburn and Troy to the dramatic win over Florida State, the plot-twist loss to Pitt, and the incredible fourth quarter against Alabama.
But the Tigers were a 33-yard field goal attempt from no title whatsoever.
43. Oct. 27: Virginia Tech 39, Pitt 36
42. Oct. 8: Pitt 37, Georgia Tech 34
41. Sep. 10: Pitt 42, Penn State 39
by Jason Kirk
All hail the mighty Pitt Panthers, the greatest five-loss football team in the world, the only team worthy of defeating Clemson (more on that later), and the team that (for the second time in a decade) denied a major rival a national title shot.
Pitt did suffer a setback against somewhat local rival Virginia Tech, but what a classic it took. The neck-and-neck, steady-paced shootout goes down as one of the season’s best Thursday nighters, and this was also the game during which most of the country realized Pitt’s best defender plays in cutoff shorts.
And here’s a fact: Pitt might not’ve beaten Georgia Tech without the play that won the second-ever Piesman Trophy.
Finally, I urge you to spend time every day thinking about this tweet from before the Pennsylvania state champs beat the Big Ten champs:
Pitt, at least in its current state, is simply not good enough to be Penn State’s rival. We deserve better. https://t.co/2o9M5VFKJ9— Onward State (@OnwardState) September 8, 2016
40. Oct. 29: Georgia Tech 38, Duke 35
39. Nov. 26: Georgia Tech 28, Georgia 27
2016 was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Paul Johnson. Following an 11-win 2014, Johnson’s Yellow Jackets went 3-9 in 2015, then lost three in a row after a 3-0 start in 2016.
They won six of their final seven, however, handling Virginia Tech in Blacksburg and Kentucky in the TaxSlayer Bowl. They also eked out a couple of thrillers.
In desperate need of a win, the Ramblin’ Wreck burst out to a 28-7 lead over Duke behind touchdown runs of 82 and 22 yards by Justin Thomas. Duke went on a 28-3 run of its own to surge ahead midway through the fourth quarter. Thomas ripped off a 46-yard run on second-and-19 from his 5, then completed a 21-yard touchdown to give the Jackets the final lead.
On Thanksgiving weekend, the Jackets were the team unleashing the late comeback. A 20-0 Georgia run put the home team up 27-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but Dedrick Mills scored with 6:28 left, and Lance Austin picked off UGA’s Jacob Eason near midfield. After another key pass, Qua Searcy scored to give Tech a sudden lead. And on the final play, Brant Mitchell reeled in an Eason heave.
38. Oct. 1: Oklahoma 52, TCU 46
37. Oct. 1: Baylor 45, Iowa State 42
36. Oct. 8: Oklahoma State 38, Iowa State 31
35. Oct. 8: TCU 24, Kansas 23
34. Oct. 22: Kansas State 24, Texas 21
33. Nov. 5: Oklahoma State 43, Kansas State 37
32. Nov. 12: Oklahoma State 45, Texas Tech 44
31. Nov. 19: Kansas 24, Texas 21
The Big 12 didn’t have a Playoff team in 2016; early Oklahoma stumbles prevented the Sooners from reaching the top four, even after an undefeated run through the conference.
But what the conference lacked in title-level play, it made up for in weekly drama. We were guaranteed at least one thriller a week; here’s a smattering:
- Oklahoma’s conference slate almost got off on the wrong foot when the Sooners gave up runs of 21-7 to start the game at TCU and 22-3 to finish it. But how do you overcome combined runs of 43-10? By making a 42-3 run in the middle of it. The Sooners scored touchdowns on six of seven possessions in the second and third quarters, gaining 534 yards and surviving by six.
- That same day, an undefeated Baylor kept the conference’s national hopes alive with a fourth-quarter run. The Bears trailed Iowa State 42-28 in Ames following a 46-yard pass from Joel Lanning to Carson Epps, but the Cyclones collapsed. The last five drives of the game: Baylor touchdown, ISU three-and-out, Baylor touchdown, ISU three-and-out, game-winning Baylor field goal as time expired.
- The next week saw a repeat: ISU led Oklahoma State 31-14 deep into the third. OSU’s James Washington caught a 35-yard touchdown pass, Ashton Lampkin recovered an Epps fumble, then Jalen McCleskey scored to make it 31-28. Soon, Washington scored again in what was about the most orderly 17-point comeback possible.
- In Lawrence that same day, something weird was happening: Kansas was winning. A 21-yard Ryan Willis touchdown run gave the moribund Jayhawks a 23-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. TCU’s Kenny Hill hit Jaelan Austin for a 25-yard score, and KU missed two field goals. TCU hit a 34-yarder to take a one-point lead … and then Kansas’ Matthew Wyman missed another one, this one from 54 yards with two seconds left. When you’re not used to holding the dagger, you might not know how to use it.
- In mid-October, Texas visited Manhattan and fulfilled its "must always lose to Kansas State" contract (the Longhorns have lost seven of nine to the Wildcats). They thought about making a dramatic comeback — it was 24-7 late in the third quarter — but while they advanced into KSU territory on each of their last five drives, they turned the ball over on downs twice and missed a field goal.
- A couple of weeks later, Oklahoma State did what Texas couldn’t. Kansas State led the Pokes 30-21 with 16 minutes left, but Mason Rudolph hit Austin Hays for a 34-yard touchdown, then, after another KSU touchdown, hit Washington for 82 yards. Chris Carson gave OSU the lead with 1:46 left, but the Wildcats drove to the OSU 1 before an offensive pass interference penalty forced them backward and Jordan Sterns picked off a pass on the last play of the game.
- OSU won another wild one the next week against Texas Tech, though this time the Pokes varied the formula by becoming the team that nearly blew the lead. They went up 21-7 and led 45-35 heading into the fourth following yet another bomb to Washington, but Tech got to within 45-38, then scored on a one-yard Quinton White run with 1:44 left. All Tech had to do was hit the PAT and ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh no—
- Kansas finally figured out how to alter its "blow it late" formula: letting the other team take the lead. Texas took a 21-10 lead in the fourth and seemed on its way to bowl eligibility, but a one-yard Khalil Herbert plunge and two-point conversion made it 21-18, and Texas’ D’Onta Foreman lost a fumble at the KU 13 as the Longhorns were driving for the game-clinching score. Three passes from Carter Stanley to Ke’aun Kinner got KU in Wyman’s field goal range, and with seven seconds left, Wyman atoned for his TCU misses.
Leads are never safe in the Big 12.