10. Arizona 49, California 45 (September 20)
9. California 59, Colorado 56 (September 27)
8. California 60, Washington State 59 (October 4)
Again, not every shootout is amazing. Sometimes it just showcases awful defense. But with enough panache and just enough defense, there's nothing like them. Or, in California's case, you just need repetition.
It is staggering to realize that Cal played in these games in consecutive weeks. How there were any living Cal fans after October 4, I have no idea. I mean, even 2013 Auburn had a bye between the crazy Georgia game and the crazier Alabama game.
These games featured 328 points and a downright stupid 3,816 yards. Ten teams failed to gain 3,800 yards all season; Cal and its opponents combined to do it in 15 days. Hell, California and Arizona combined for 446 yards in their fourth quarter; Wake Forest didn't gain more than 387 in a game all year.
Cal led Arizona, 31-13. It was looking like a disappointing result for an Arizona team that had started 3-0, but Sonny Dykes' Golden Bears were 15 minutes from a 3-0 start after winning only one game in 2013.
The Golden Bears and Wildcats combined for 50 fourth-quarter points. Cal still held a 45-30 lead with under four minutes remaining, but Arizona scored, recovered an onside kick, and scored again. The Wildcats missed the two-point conversion, and Cal recovered the second onside.
With 52 seconds left, James Langford missed a 47-yard field goal, and with no timeouts remaining, Arizona worked the ball to the Cal 47 with one final play.
Seven days later, Cal was understandably hungover. Colorado raced out to a 21-7 first-quarter lead in Berkeley, but a 92-yard touchdown run by Daniel Lasco woke the Bears and led to 28-14.
After regrouping at halftime, Cal took off. The Bears scored three touchdowns in the first 10 minutes of the third quarter to take the lead. But we were only getting started.
Colorado took a 42-35 lead with 3:23 left, then Jared Goff hit Stephen Anderson for a 75-yard score to tie it. Colorado threw an interception, and Goff found Chris Harper for a 40-yard touchdown. In 54 seconds, Cal had gone from down seven to up seven. Then Colorado drove right down and tied again with 21 seconds left.
The teams needed four plays to trade touchdowns in the first OT, but Cal's defense made an appearance in the second: Jalen Jefferson and Michael Lowe stuffed Sefo Liufau on fourth-and-goal from the 1. James Langford nailed a 34-yard field goal, and Cal somehow survived, 59-56.
If it's possible, the third game was even crazier. Washington State welcomed Cal to Pullman, gained 812 yards, and lost.
Wazzu held a 24-13 lead, but as was the case the week before, Cal stormed out of the gates after halftime and took a 27-24 lead. Connor Halliday and River Cracraft connected for an 86-yard touchdown, and Washington State took a 38-27 lead midway through the before Trevor Davis returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a score. Isiah Myers put Wazzu up 45-34, and Davis returned another kickoff 98 yards for a score. Wazzu scored again to carry a 52-41 lead into the fourth -- to cap a 56-point quarter -- but Bryce Treggs caught two touchdowns from Goff to take a 54-52 lead. Wazzu responded, of course, and took the lead back with four minutes left. And one minute later, Trevor Davis caught a 51-yard bomb from Goff. 60-59.
And then it got weirder. Wazzu dinked and dunked and found itself with a second-and-goal from the 1 in the final minute. But Mustafa Jalil stuffed Gerard Wicks for a loss of one, and on third-and-goal, Mike Leach decided to kick the game-winning field goal. Bad choice.
Halliday's single-game FBS-record 734 passing yards weren't enough to get Wazzu the win. It was not surprising to see Leach fire his special teams coach after this game.
It was also not surprising to watch Cal lose six of seven to finish the season. How in the world are you going to have anything left in the tank after this?
7. WKU 67, Marshall 66 (November 28)
Cal could only play runner-up in the Silliest Shootout category for 2014.
For the season, Marshall had a strong defense. The Herd recorded 105 tackles for loss and passes defensed and allowed 4.7 yards per play. Even against a bad schedule, those are solid numbers. But a shootout takes on a life of its own.
Western Kentucky wasted no time attacking the Herd. After a pregame scuffle got the blood pumping, the Hilltoppers drove 62 yards in nine plays to score on their opening possession, picked Rakeem Cato off on Marshall's second play, and scored again one play later. It was 14-0 after three and a half minutes, 21-7 after six, 28-14 after 11, 35-21 after 16, and 42-28 after 20. It was 49-42 at halftime, an opening salvo like few we've seen. (Four more points, and they would've topped 2007 Navy-North Texas' FBS record for points in a half.)
And then Marshall nearly won with defense. WKU went scoreless on three possessions, and the Herd blocked a 35-yard field goal to start the second half. Steward Butler scored on a 22-yard run, and with a minute left in the third quarter, the game was 49-49.
WKU got rolling again. Brandon Doughty hit sophomore Nicholas Norris for 42 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter, and WKU took the lead on a field goal. Cato was intercepted again, and WKU went up 59-49 on a 35-yard pass to Jared Dangerfield. Marshall kicked a field goal from the WKU 1 (which should have been automatic disqualification in a shootout like this), forced a punt, and drove 82 yards to tie the game with 39 seconds left. After 60 minutes that included 118 points and 1,396 yards, we went to overtime.
Marshall scored on its first play (a 25-yard pass to Hyleck Foster, and yes, Marshall had the greatest collection of names in 2014), and Doughty retorted. At this point, it was easy to see this lasting all day. WKU head coach Jeff Brohm had other ideas. He elected to go for two, and why not? Gaining three yards and finishing drives in the end zone wasn't much of a problem that Black Friday. Doughty hit Willie McNeal for the conversion.
It's amazing Fox Sports could cut the highlights down to 2.5 minutes.
Ole Miss, and the matter of ghosts
Sometimes, knowing there's no curse only makes it more terrifying.
6. Auburn 35, Ole Miss 31 (November 1)
5. Texas A&M 41, Auburn 38 (November 8)
From time to time, college football seems scripted. From mid-November 2013 through the first weekend of November 2014, it had begun to feel like Auburn was destined to come out on top in any crazy scenario.
Sure, the Tigers had lost at Mississippi State in October. But they were still well-positioned to make another run at a title. At 7-1, they had destroyed LSU, overcome wackiness to beat South Carolina, and taken advantage of kicker miscues to beat Kansas State. And on November 1, they escaped Oxford by the skin of their teeth.
Early in the third against No. 4 Ole Miss, it looked like the Rebels' special season would continue. Evan Engram caught a 50-yard touchdown from Bo Wallace to extend the lead to 24-14; after scoring on the opening possession of the game, Auburn's offense had scored just once in the proceeding seven possessions. But as is often the case, Gus Malzahn's Tigers found a crack and turned it into a fissure.
Nick Marshall completed a 73-yard drive with a two-yard run to make it 24-21, and after Ole Miss punted, Marshall hit Marcus Davis for a 17-yard score to give Auburn the lead. Ole Miss responded with a touchdown, and Auburn responded with another 75-yard drive and another score.
And then the game took a tragic turn. Following a successful series of passes to Vince Sanders and Laquon Treadwell, Wallace was stripped of the ball at the Auburn 6, blowing an opportunity to take the lead back. The Rebels made their way back downfield, and Wallace threw a quick pass to Treadwell, who bulled ahead from the Auburn 20 for what seemed to be a touchdown.
He suffered a nasty ankle injury on the play and was lost for the season.
While he was incapacitated, replay officials had time to notice that, while reacting to the injury, he had begun to lose the football before he crossed the goal line. Auburn had grabbed the ball in the end zone. Auburn won.
There's a gutting loss, and then there's that. Ole Miss' national title hopes were quashed, and its best offensive player was done for the season.
So you can forgive us for assuming we knew what Auburn was going to do the next week. Sure, Texas A&M went up 14-0 two minutes in. And sure, a newfangled Aggie offense with freshman Kyle Allen at the controls looked steady. And sure, the Aggies hit 35-17 at halftime thanks to a blocked field goal return score.
Still, we knew how this was going to play out. Auburn was going to figure out a way to win because that's what Auburn does. It was 38-24, but it was only a matter of time.
On the first play of the final quarter, Nick Marshall connected with Quan Bray for a 31-yard score. Here we go.
A&M redoubled its ground game efforts and worked down the field, chewing up seven minutes and getting a field goal to extend the lead to 10. Three plays later, Marshall sent a 52-yard bomb to Sammie Coates, then scored on the next play. A&M's lead was 41-38 with six and a half minutes left. And then the Aggies went three-and-out. This is how it ends ...
... wait, did Marshall just fumble at the A&M 2? It was a controversial call, but no worries. A&M punted after narrowly avoiding a safety, and Auburn got the ball back with 90 seconds left. They'll still go down, and ...
... wait, did center Reese Dismukes just snap the ball before Marshall was ready? Did A&M recover? Is this game ... over? Did this game just go off-script?
4. Sugar Bowl: Ohio State 42, Alabama 35 (January 1)
We thought we knew how this one would turn out, too. Ohio State was given the No. 4 seed in the first College Football Playoff, ahead of Baylor and TCU. They were on their third quarterback, and while Cardale Jones had looked spectacular in the Big Ten title game against Wisconsin, he was going up against Alabama. The best run defense in the country would slow down the best run offense in the country.
And when Ohio State blew opportunities and Alabama went up 21-6, the prophecy had been fulfilled. But then Ohio State scored twice before halftime, and the game changed.
The combination of the late-half scores, playful play-calling, and Jones' aloof (in a good way) nature -- I'm not sure what it would take for him to look like he isn't having fun -- relaxed Ohio State. And in the second half, it was time for the team on the other sideline to grow unstable. A perfect zone blitz baited Bama quarterback Blake Sims into a Steve Miller pick six, and after a bad punt gave the Tide a golden opportunity to take the lead, down 34-28, Sims forced the ball into coverage and was picked off at the Ohio State 1. Alabama worked into Ohio State territory four times in the fourth quarter but scored only once.
Ohio State didn't even need to work the ball into Bama territory. They put the game away with a lightning bolt.
Alabama kept it close and created a chance to tie, but Ohio State was simply the better team. Computer darlings for a while and mostly dominant since the upset loss to Virginia Tech, Ohio State got an opportunity to prove to the universe how good it had become. The eventual national champions took advantage.
Imported football, imported chicken
It isn't easy to play football in paradise. The effort just might be worth it.
3. Bahamas Bowl: WKU 49, CMU 48 (December 24)
There are few perfect things in this world. The beef cheek ravioli at Babbo in New York. "And Your Bird Can Sing." The Great Pumpkin Ale at Flat Branch in Columbia. Almost Famous. That old "We Know Something You Don't Know" video. The 2004 ALCS. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Cochon Butcher. Janelle Monae.
Add this play to the list.
It even made Lou Holtz sound like a young fan.
That CMU had begun the fourth quarter down 49-14 was almost unimportant. The comeback assured that this game would find the Top 100 list. This single play took an uninteresting game and put it at No. 3.
This wasn't the most fun season on record. From the "FSU vs. the world" story line to the weekly outrage that followed the for-ratings-only release of the Playoff rankings, it was difficult to avoid negativity. In case we needed a reminder of why we follow this sport, why we immerse ourselves in it to such a ridiculous degree, this game -- and specifically, this one play -- gave it to us.
Only the hardcores were watching the final stages of a sure WKU blowout win midday on Christmas Eve. And college football chose this moment to give us a wink. This game sneaked up like Houston-Pitt, then delivered a Hail Mary hook-and-triple-lateral we hadn't ever seen before.
Not even CMU's horrific fade-route two-point attempt (which didn't work) could ruin this. This was perfect.
2. Cotton Bowl: Michigan State 42, Baylor 41 (January 1)
Bowl season was defined by comebacks, from Central Michigan to Houston to this. This was the standard of the bunch, but it was two top-10 teams trading blows.
Michigan State's offense exploded early, gaining 135 yards and scoring two touchdowns in 13 plays. The Spartans held a 14-7 lead until Baylor scored on a 53-yard double pass, from Bryce Petty to Jay Lee to Corey Coleman. Baylor's defense took control of the proceedings, forcing three punts and two turnovers on downs, and the Bears' offense scored on a 74-yard touchdown pass from Petty to KD Cannon and a 46-yard field goal from Chris Callahan.
State finally scored again, but so did Baylor ... on a 390-pound fat-guy touchdown, no less ...
... and it was 41-21 heading into the fourth quarter.
The State comeback wasn't a surge. It wasn't without setbacks. Callahan missed a 46-yard field goal off the upright, and Connor Cook used a 50-yard pass to Keith Mumphery to set up a short touchdown and cut BU's lead to 41-28. But after State recovered a surprise onside kick, Cook was intercepted by Taylor Young, and the Bears were quickly into Spartan territory. Petty fired incomplete to Cannon on fourth-and-6, however, and State got the ball back with nine minutes left unscathed.
It took a while, but after nine plays and 60 yards, State was within six. Jeremy Langford plunged in from a yard out, and Sparty was going to force Baylor to put more points up. And it looked like the Bears would do just that.
Petty hit Levi Norwood for a 31-yard gain, then found Corey Coleman for 26 more yards to get inside the State 10. But Coleman was called for a face mask penalty, and after a false start and a four-yard loss, Baylor's potential game-clinching field goal came from 43 yards instead of, say, 25 yards. It was blocked, the kicker was decleated, and State had one last chance.
It was the only blocked kick of the year that required an "I'm still alive" tweet from the kicker.
I am alive. It has been a great season. I am proud to be a Baylor Bear. #SicEm— Christopher Callahan (@chrispcallahan2) January 1, 2015
Of course, State still had to finish the job. It took eight plays. Cook hit Mumphrey for 18 yards, then found Tony Lippett for 17 yards on fourth down. With 17 seconds remaining, he and Mumphrey connected on a 10-yard score. State sacked Petty twice and picked him off as time expired, and the 21-point comeback was complete.
A three-touchdown comeback, a fat-guy touchdown, a hit-of-the-year candidate, 1,100 yards, a bunch of sacks and turnovers, huge special teams plays, and a last-second finish? In a game pitting two top-10 teams? Yeah, that's a classic.
And it was only the second-best game Baylor played.
1. Baylor 61, TCU 58 (October 11)
This was, for all intents and purposes, a nearly perfect football game. ... 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.
That's what I wrote when I named Baylor-TCU the best game of the season ... three years ago. Granted, the "61-58!" vs. "Play somebody!" argument that followed was one of many that got tiresome down the season's home stretch, but that was collateral damage. Annoyance is worth it when you get to experience everything that unfolded on the afternoon of October 11.
This was the only 2014 game I scored like a 12-round fight. It featured two games' worth of plays (198 in all) and possessions (39), and the plot twists were too frequent to count. The absurd tempo assured us of points (119, with each team scoring at least 10 points in each quarter) and yards (1,267) despite the fact that both defenses made plenty of huge stops and big plays.
TCU bolted to a 14-0 lead and led 21-17 before Baylor tied with two long touchdown passes (29 yards to Corey Coleman, 67 yards to KD Cannon). TCU took the lead back 11 seconds later when B.J. Catalon returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score. Baylor cut the lead to 31-27 at halftime after TCU biffed a punt with one second left in the half, and Chris Callahan made a 29-yard field goal. This was an exhausting half, and it was forgotten once the second got rolling.
The teams managed only to trade field goals through the first 10 minutes of the third quarter, but TCU's Aaron Green burst for a 41-yard gain to set up a short touchdown that put the Frogs up, 41-30. Baylor went three-and-out, and Trevone Boykin hit Kolby Listenbee (four catches, 146 yards on the day) for a 45-yard bomb. Three plays later, it was 44-30. Baylor scored on a 47-yard pass to Jay Lee, and Catalon responded with a 59-yard run to set Green up for a short TD. Two plays into the fourth, TCU led, 51-37. Three minutes later, Marcus Mallet stepped in the way of a Petty pass and took it 49 yards for a TCU score.
TCU was one of the best teams in the country. The Frogs went 12-0 in games that weren't this one, and with 11:38 left in Waco, they led by three touchdowns. And it took seven minutes for Baylor to tie.
A pair of personal fouls set the Bears up near midfield after the pick six, and Devin Chafin scored from seven yards out. TCU punted, and Petty hit Goodley for a 28-yard score. TCU went three-and-out, and Petty and Coleman hooked up for a 25-yard touchdown. It almost seemed easy.
TCU worked into Baylor territory but faced a conundrum with 1:17 left: punt on fourth-and-3 from the BU 45 and give a smoking hot offense time to work into field goal range, or go for it even though you're barely past midfield? TCU went for it, calling an ill-advised fade route (one of many on the day).
Petty threw two incomplete passes, and a third-down bomb to Levi Norwood fell incomplete. It appeared to be fourth down, but Corry O'Meally was called for a rather sketchy pass interference penalty, which moved Baylor inside the TCU 30. Three Shock Linwood runs later, Callahan was in position to make a 28-yard field goal for the win. He nailed it, and Baylor remained undefeated.
From a neutral observer, the ending was frustrating. You want an incredible game like this to end with players making huge plays, not with refs making calls. But that only slightly dented the experience. This was college football's best 60 minutes, pitting two teams playing a modern, aggressive style of football and continuing to make big plays on both sides of the ball.
Plus, it defined the rest of the season. If TCU wins, Ohio State doesn't reach the Playoff. Cardale Jones doesn't take on mythological status. If Baylor wins by a healthier margin, the Bears perhaps fend off the Buckeyes in the Playoff race. Instead, this set the table for the weeks of argument that followed. It was probably the most important game of the regular season, and it was a brilliant one at that.
In four years of Top 100 countdowns, Baylor-TCU has finished No. 1 twice. You don't get to hang a banner for that, but you do get to claim one of the best current rivalries in college football.
Baylor travels to TCU on November 27, 2015.