10. Sep. 17: Alabama 48, Ole Miss 43

Because of everything that followed — Ole Miss’ collapse, Alabama’s run — it became easy to forget how nutty this Week 3 classic was. To wit:

  • Ole Miss led 24-3!
  • The teams combined for four scores in 13 plays in the second quarter: a 63-yard reception by Ole Miss’ Evan Engram, a sack-and-strip by the Rebels’ John Youngblood, a Calvin Ridley response, and an 85-yard punt return by Eddie Jackson.
  • Alabama scored twice on fumble returns in the second half after Ole Miss scored on one in the first.
  • Alabama followed Ole Miss’ 24-3 start with a 45-6 run.
  • Ole Miss then scored twice in eight seconds — a touchdown pass, an onside kick recovery, and another touchdown pass — to cut Bama’s lead from 18 to five.

With two minutes left, Terry Caldwell stripped Bama’s Bo Scarbrough, but Cam Robinson fell on the ball, and Bama converted a third-and-1 to run out the clock.

There might not have been a game all season that had more plot twists.

9. Oct. 15: Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23

Wisconsin played six teams that were ranked eighth or better at the time of kickoff, beat three of them, and lost to three others by a touchdown each. The Badgers put together about the sturdiest 11-3 record possible, but the what-ifs were obvious.

Unbeaten Ohio State encountered immediate resistance in Madison. A 95-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 24-yard pass from Alex Hornibrook to Jazz Peavy, gave the Badgers an early 10-0 lead, and UW held onto a 16-6 advantage at halftime.

Ohio State drove deep into Wisconsin territory in all four of its second-half possessions — quarterback J.T. Barrett would finish with 226 passing yards and 92 rushing yards — but an interception and field goal kept the Buckeyes from pulling away. Wisconsin took a 23-20 lead on an Austin Ramesh touchdown midway through the fourth quarter, but a Tyler Durbin field goal tied things up. Wisconsin ate up most of the rest of regulation but couldn’t get within field goal range.

With storm clouds rolling in, Ohio State finished things up quickly in overtime. Barrett and Noah Brown connected on a seven-yard touchdown, and after a 21-yard pass got UW to the OSU 4, the Buckeyes stuffed Corey Clement twice, then sacked Hornibrook on fourth-and-goal to finish off the comeback.

8. Oct. 8: Texas A&M 45, Tennessee 38

This game checked all the boxes of your typical early-2016 Tennessee game.

Early Vols deficit? Yep! Texas A&M led 21-7 in the first quarter and 28-7 early in the third.

Inspired Tennessee comeback? Absolutely. Alvin Kamara had a career day (127 rushing yards, 161 receiving yards) and scored three second-half touchdowns as the Vols forced overtime.

Funky bounces breaking Tennessee’s way? Oh ho ho ho yes.

The Vols then tied the game on a six-play, 80-yard drive. A&M quickly drove into field goal range, but fate intervened again: Daniel LaCamera’s 38-yard field goal went wide left.

Tennessee had beaten Appalachian State via fumble recovery in the end zone and knocked off Georgia with a Hail Mary. It appeared this game was heading toward an inevitable UT win, but after Trevor Knight scored to put A&M up in the second extra period, fate changed its mind. Armani Watts snared a wayward Joshua Dobbs pass. The Vols were undefeated no more.

7. Nov. 12: Pitt 43, Clemson 42

Pitt was close to something great in 2016. The Panthers lost by one point at both Oklahoma State and UNC and lost by three to Virginia Tech at home. But on a mid-November trip to Clemson, they stole one back and briefly sent the eventual champions into crisis. And they did so despite 580 passing yards from Deshaun Watson.

This was as back-and-forth as it gets. Pitt led 7-0, 14-7, and 27-21. Clemson led 21-14, 35-27, and 42-34. The Panthers went three-and-out on three consecutive possessions late, but just as Clemson applied the dagger, Saleem Brightwell stepped in front of a Watson pass in the end zone and returned it 70 yards. James Conner scored to make it 42-40, but the two-point conversion failed.

Clemson got the dagger back. Facing third-and-1 from the Pitt 35, the Tigers had two chances to convert a first down and put the game away. Wayne Gallman got stuffed on both chances. Nathan Peterman and Scott Orndoff connected for 25 yards to get the Panthers into field goal range, and Chris Blewitt did not blow it (sorry).


6. Oct. 1: Tennessee 34, Georgia 31

by Alex Kirshner

Ten seconds left: UGA’s Jacob Eason connects on a 47-yard Hail Mary to Riley Ridley.

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Zero seconds left: Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs answers with a 43-yarder to Jauan Jennings.

5. Oct. 1: Clemson 42, Louisville 36

This might have been the best game of the year. The defending runners-up and the most dangerous team of September traded blows for every bit of 60 minutes, and the offenses and defenses alternated advantages. The game began with six consecutive punts, and then the next eight possessions ended in either touchdown or turnover.

Through the sloppy, tense, and gripping play, Clemson took a 28-10 halftime lead on three Watson touchdown passes. But Louisville began the second half with a 26-0 run on the future champions, taking a 36-28 advantage on an 11-yard Lamar Jackson touchdown run.

We were just getting started. Artavis Scott returned a kickoff 77 yards to set up a 20-yard Mike Williams touchdown, and after a Louisville three-and-out, Watson and Big Play Jordan Leggett connected for a 31-yard score to give Clemson a 42-36 lead with 3:14 remaining. Jackson responded with five consecutive completions, but after a couple of short runs and a false start, Louisville faced a fourth-and-12 from the Clemson 14 with 40 seconds remaining.

The Cardinals gained 11 yards.

4. Dec. 30: Florida State 33, Michigan 32

This might have been the best game of the year. A field goal-heavy slow burn of a first half gave way to countless second-half momentum shifts.

As far as final acts go, Dalvin Cook’s could hardly have been better. His early score gave FSU a lead the Seminoles would hold for most of the game. They went up 17-3 in the first quarter and 20-6 at halftime, but Michigan’s awesome defense adapted. The Noles began the second half with two three-and-outs, then Deondre Francois threw a pick six. Cook briefly saved the day with a 71-yard run to set up a Francois score and bump FSU’s lead back to 27-15, but Michigan wasn’t going away.

On third-and-goal with 5:22 left, Wilton Speight and Khalid Hill connected to get Michigan within 27-22, and after a 17-yard Speight run on third-and-5, Chris Evans gave Michigan the lead with 1:57 left on a juking, 30-yard explosion.

The Wolverines’ good feelings lasted until the ensuing kickoff. Keith Gavin took it 66 yards — amid a mid-play miscommunication with his fellow return man — then Francois found Cook for 21 yards to the UM 13. One play later, Francois lobbed the ball to Nyqwan Murray. Chris Wormley blocked the PAT attempt, however, and Josh Metellus returned it for two points.

A field goal would win it for Michigan, but the Wolverines couldn’t get within range. On fourth-and-10 with seconds left, Carlos Becker III picked off Speight’s final pass, and FSU held on in a classic.

3. Nov. 26: Ohio State 30, Michigan 27

This might have been the best game of the year. Neither team deserved to lose, and the winner went to the Playoff.

The game’s first 60 minutes were impressive enough, with Michigan controlling much of the action, Ohio State picking off two passes (and returning one for a score) to keep up, and Ohio State missing a late field goal with a chance to tie (then making one with one second left).

Overtime went to a different level, however.

You had Speight’s redemption moment, a fourth-and-goal touchdown pass Amara Darboh to send the game to a second OT. You had Curtis Samuel’s amazing, field-reversing eight-yard gain on third-and-9. You had J.T. Barrett’s fourth-and-1 conversion (which will be Zaprudered until the end of days). You had Samuel’s game-winning explosion into the end zone.

When one of the sport’s most celebrated rivalries produces all-or-nothing stakes and lives up to hype, college football goes to a different stratosphere. Ohio State-Michigan took us there, and we stayed there for much of the postseason.

2. Jan. 2: USC 52, Penn State 49

by Jason Kirk

Some games are great for 60 minutes … of real time. The Rose Bowl was great for 60 minutes of actual football time.

I’ve never seen a 100-point shootout that still required both teams to work so hard to score. It felt like every play was a superhuman catch by Chris Godwin, a Beast Mode run by Saquon Barkley, or an impossible throw under duress by Sam Darnold. Both defensive lines were getting pressure, and both secondaries were making plays (the game’s final turning point: an INT by Leon McQuay III, redeeming a dropped INT a play earlier), but it was still like watching Steph Curry vs. James Harden.

This game was so good, both teams got bowl bumps from it. The Trojans finished the season as the highest-ranked three-loss team ever, the Rose Bowl’s losing team remained ahead of the winning teams from the Cotton and Orange, and both will likely be top-five going into next year.

On the field during the final minutes, reporters and photographers were sprinting from one end zone to the other, trying to be in place for whatever the winning score turned out to be. I probably had to run about a third of a mile.

1. Jan. 9: Clemson 35, Alabama 31

Clemson and Alabama combined for a championship matchup that encapsulated college football in 2016. You had explosive plays and tempo. You had special teams and field position playing immense roles. You had defenses adapting and forcing momentum shifts. And, as proof that not all indicators are good indicators, you had a game that played out over four-plus hours.

While the middle quarters might have been a punty stalemate slowed by injuries and commercial breaks, the tension and wait were worth it. Alabama led 24-14 heading into the fourth quarter, but Watson hit Williams for a four-yard score to get the Tigers within three. With Alabama’s offense stagnating, its defense had to make stops and did just that, forcing consecutive punts, but when Clemson got the ball back with 6:33 left, the Tide showed some cracks. Watson connected with Jordan Leggett for 17 yards and Williams for 26. He rushed for 15 yards, leaping to the 1. And with 4:38 left, Clemson took its first lead.

Alabama’s offense finally responded. The Tide converted a fourth-and-1, then Ar’Darius Stewart threw for 24 yards to O.J. Howard on a trick play. Jalen Hurts weaved through Clemson tacklers for a 30-yard score, and with 2:07 remaining, Clemson trailed once again. But there was no way Watson, Leggett, Williams, and Hunter Renfrow would be denied.

With the national title on the line, Watson completed five of six passes. Williams and Leggett made acrobatic grabs, and with just one second left on the clock, Renfrow hauled in the title winner.

Rarely does a title rematch meet the standard the original set. But the 2016 CFP final topped 2015, just as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney topped his alma mater.