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The 20 best college football matchups of all time

Bill dives into the college football games that featured the greatest combination of teams.

Donald Miralle/Getty Images

There are 100 different ways to determine the greatness of a given game. My criteria seemingly change from pick to pick in my annual Top Games of the Season countdown. Tight scores, back-and-forth action, plot twists, etc., are all in the "you know it when you see it" aspect of greatness.

This week, I've been looking at greatness from a statistical standpoint. On Monday, we used my Estimated S&P+ figure (using points scored and allowed to compare output to expected output based on opponent strength) to determine the teams that were, on average, the best of each decade. On Tuesday, we looked at the best of the best offenses from a percentiles standpoint. Today, let's use the same approach to judge the best games; to put it more clearly, let's look at the games that featured the greatest combination of teams.

Using nothing but the combined estimated S&P+ ratings of the two teams in a given game, here are the 20 college football games that featured the most combined greatness.

20. Miami 27, Florida State 24 (Oct. 7, 2000)

Percentile Ratings: Miami 99.4%, FSU 98.9%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 FSU, No. 7 Miami

We were only beginning to figure out how awesome Miami was at this point in the 2000 season. The Hurricanes hosted the defending national champion Seminoles having lost at Washington, 34-29, a few weeks earlier. They had gone 9-4 the year before, and Washington was in itself a fantastic team, so there was no shame in that loss. But we hadn't put all of those pieces together yet.

Early on, this looked like the ultimate statement game. Miami took a 17-0 lead into halftime, but an injured Chris Weinke found Anquan Bolden for two second half touchdowns; his third touchdown pass, to Atrews Bell with 1:37 left, gave the Seminoles their first lead. Miami responded, but almost too quickly. Ken Dorsey hit Jeremy Shockey for a 13-yard touchdown with 46 seconds left to give Miami a 27-24 advantage, but FSU was quickly able to drive back into field goal range.

Alas, key field goal attempts have not tended to go well for FSU in this series. Matt Munyon's 49-yarder sailed right as time expired, and Miami had its biggest win in years.

To say the least, this result became a point of contention when a one-loss FSU team reached the BCS title game against Oklahoma instead of one-loss Miami. Hurricane fans will be happy to know that their team held the estimated S&P+ advantage for the season. I'm sure that's almost as good as playing for a national title.

19. Notre Dame 19, Pitt 9 (Sept. 10, 1977)

Percentile Ratings: Notre Dame 99.6%, Pitt 98.9%
AP rankings at the time: No. 3 Notre Dame, No. 7 Pitt

This one pitted the defending national champion against the eventual national champion. Behind Tony Dorsett, Pitt won the title in 1976 but had to replace both Dorsett and head coach Johnny Majors, who took the Tennessee job. In what was the season opener for both teams, the Panthers jumped out quickly. Quarterback Matt Cavanaugh found Gordon Jones for an early touchdown but broke his wrist on the play. Sophomore Wayne Adams was unable to do much against a stifling Notre Dame defense -- Pitt finished the game with just eight first downs -- and eventually the Irish offense began to move.

Dave Reeve's 35-yard field goal tied the game at 9-9 early in the fourth quarter, and it didn't take long for the Irish to officially overtake the Panthers. Another Reave field goal, followed by a short Terry Eurick touchdown, gave Notre Dame the win.

Notre Dame would suffer an upset at Ole Miss the next week, but against Purdue, quarterback Gary Forystek suffered a nasty injury and was replaced by Rusty Lisch (who had begun the year as the starting quarterback). But with Lisch ineffective, a desperate Dan Devine inserted third-stringer Joe Montana. The Irish would not lose again.

18. Miami 26, Florida State 25 (Oct. 3, 1987)

Percentile Ratings: FSU 99.5%, Miami 99.1%
AP rankings at the time: Miami No. 3, FSU No. 4

By 1987, Miami was a name brand. The Hurricanes had only won one national title (and it was an underdog run in 1983), but their dominant 1986 squad was regarded as one of the best (and most notorious) in recent college football history before suffering a stunning Fiesta Bowl upset to Penn State.

They were tasked with replacing a lot of difference makers and began the season just 10th in the preseason AP poll. But they began the season by destroying No. 20 Florida and No. 10 Arkansas by a combined 82-11 and were quickly up to No. 3. FSU, meanwhile, was looking for its first major breakthrough since 1980. They hadn't finished in the top 5 since then and went just 7-4-1 in 1986. But they were 4-0 when Miami came to town, having destroyed Michigan State, 31-3, in East Lansing the week before.

These were the two best teams in the country in 1987, whether it was known at the time or not. FSU would go on to crush No. 6 Auburn by 28 points on the road, then knock out No. 5 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl. Miami whooped No. 10 Notre Dame by 24 points, then took down No. 8 South Carolina (20-16) and No. 1 Oklahoma (20-14 in the Orange Bowl) to win the national title.

This was the first truly great Miami-FSU game. FSU led 19-3 in the final stages of the third quarter, but Steve Walsh hit Melvin Bratton for a 49-yard touchdown, then found Michael Irvin for a 26-yarder to tie the game at 19-19. With FSU in position to take back the lead with three minutes left, Danny McManus fumbled a snap at the Miami 11. Bennie Blades recovered, and Walsh and Irvin connected for a 73-yard score moments later.

McManus responded. He found Ronald Lewis for a score with 42 seconds left, and on a windy day, with FSU's kicking game a bit of a shambles, head coach Bobby Bowden elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. Bubba McDowell broke up a McManus pass, however, and Miami survived.

17. Penn State 48, Pitt 14 (Nov. 28, 1981)

Percentile Ratings: Penn State 99.6%, Pitt 98.9%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Pitt, No. 11 Penn State

Since suffering a 36-22 loss at Florida State in 1980, Pitt had won 17 straight games and needed only a home win over rival Penn State to secure a winner-take-all Sugar Bowl battle against No. 2 Georgia. Led by quarterback Dan Marino and running backs Bryan Thomas and Wayne DiBartola, the Panthers were devastating and had gone mostly unchallenged that season. They had won by fewer than 14 points only once all year -- 29-24 over a Boston College team quarterbacked by a freshman named Doug Flutie -- and quickly jumped out to a 14-0 lead on Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions.

Then things went horribly, horribly wrong. Penn State had gone through a pretty dramatic month; on Halloween, the No. 1 Nittany Lions were upset, 17-14, by unranked Miami, then returned home and lost by 15 points to No. 6 Alabama. They knocked off Notre Dame, 24-21, the week before, but they had some frustration to release. Quarterback Todd Blackledge began to play out of his mind, and the Nittany Lions forced seven -- seven -- Pitt turnovers. It got out of hand.

To almost make matters worse, Pitt then knocked off Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. That handed Clemson the national title.

16. Texas 25, Ohio State 22 (Sept. 10, 2005)

Percentile Ratings: Texas 99.6%, Ohio State 99.0%
AP rankings at the time: No. 2 Texas, No. 4 Ohio State

This was one of the biggest, most well-timed home-and-home series in recent college football history. In 2006, the No. 1 Buckeyes would take down No. 2 Texas, 24-7, in Austin and ride that statement win all the way to an undefeated season. The year before, in Columbus, Texas basically did the same thing.

This game was simply fantastic, at least if you like field goals. Texas jumped out to a 10-0 lead, then Ohio State charged back with three field goals and a 36-yard touchdown pass from Troy Smith to Santonio Holmes. The teams traded three more three-pointers in the third quarter, and Ohio State held a 22-16 lead deep into the game. But as was his tendency, Vince Young made plays late in the game. Texas got the ball with five minutes left and drove 67 yards; with 2:37 left, Young lobbed a gorgeous 24-yard touchdown to Limas Sweed. The Longhorns tacked on a late safety and escaped Columbus with an enormous win.

15. Army 23, Navy 7 (Dec. 2, 1944)

Percentile Ratings: Army 99.4%, Navy 99.2%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Army, No. 2 Navy

Take it away, C.J. Schexnayder.

Despite throwing five interceptions and fumbling the ball three times, Army kept control of the contest from start to finish. The Cadets outgained the Midshipmen 181-71 on the ground, and Navy was only able to complete 14 of 24 passes for 98 yards.

"Our offense just couldn't get going," explained Comdr. Hagberg. "They whipped us, and that's just about all there is to it."

Blaik was his usually reserved self in making his post-game assessment.

"I think it was just a case of the No. 1 team in the country beating the No. 2 team in the country," he said.

Blaik's mentor, former West Point superintendent and then Supreme Allied Commander South West Pacific Area, Douglas MacArthur, wired his congratulations shortly after the win.

"The greatest of all Army teams – STOP – We have stopped to war to celebrate your magnificent success. MacArthur."

14. LSU 9, Alabama 6 (Nov. 5, 2011)

Percentile Ratings: LSU 99.4%, Alabama 99.2%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama

13. Alabama 21, LSU 0 (Jan. 9, 2012)

Percentile Ratings: LSU 99.4%, Alabama 99.2%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 LSU, No. 2 Alabama

With two of the best defenses in the sport's history facing off, 120 minutes (and overtime) produced one offensive touchdown and eight field goals. No, that's not aesthetically pleasing to many. Yes, few outside of the SEC region were excited about a rematch in the national title game. Yes, it took a massive upset -- Iowa State over undefeated Oklahoma State -- and some decimal points to create a rematch at all. Yes, this game was so displeasing to the masses that it helped to push the fervor for a college football playoff over the top.

Still, because of the defenses, these were two spectacular teams, the two best of the season. Aesthetics or not, this was a heavyweight matchup we happened to get twice.

12. Notre Dame 0, Army 0 (Nov. 9, 1946)

Percentile Ratings: Notre Dame 99.4%, Army 99.3%
AP Rankings at the time: No. 1 Army, No. 2 Notre Dame

Led by the duo of Glenn Davis and Doc Blanchard, Army had won 24 straight games; in 1945, the Cadets fielded maybe the best team in the history of the sport. In '46, they were still awesome, but they weren't quite as dominant. An offense that averaged 46 points per game in 1945, came to Yankee Stadium averaging only 30. Notre Dame, meanwhile, had outscored opponents by a 177-18 margin.

We'll put this one in the same department as 2011 Alabama-LSU. It was great in the talent and greatness on display. But it wasn't an offensive masterpiece. Blanchard and Davis gained a combined 79 yards, and both teams really produced only one scoring chance each. One ended in an interception, the other in a fourth-down stop. This was a complete and utter stalemate.

11. Michigan State 13, UCLA 3 (Sept. 18, 1965)

Percentile Ratings: MSU 99.5%, UCLA 99.4%
AP rankings at the time: Both teams were unranked to begin the season.

10. UCLA 14, Michigan State 12 (Jan. 1, 1966)

Percentile Ratings: MSU 99.5%, UCLA 99.4%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Michigan State, No. 5 UCLA

Numbers can surprise you sometimes. None of the games on this list have been particularly surprising so far, but this pair of battles probably is. UCLA and Michigan State have played each other just six times -- in the Rose Bowl following the 1953 and 1955 seasons, in a home-and-home in 1973-74, and in these two incredibly well-timed battles.

No one saw UCLA coming. The Bruins had gone just 10-20 from 1962-64 and had just hired Oregon State's Tommy Prothro, who had engineered a Rose Bowl trip for the Beavers the season before. It was a big-time hire, but with a sophomore quarterback named Gary Beban in charge, slow growth was expected.

It was the same for Michigan State. The Spartans had hit a blip under Duffy Daugherty, averaging just 5.1 wins per season from 1958-64 after a huge run of top-10 finishes. But with eventual All-Americans Bubba Smith and George Websterleading a destructive defense, State found its way quickly. After shutting down Beban in a 13-3 win, the Spartans were untouchable. They eked by No. 6 Purdue, 14-10, in late-October, then shut down No. 4 Notre Dame in a 12-3 win to finish the regular season. All they had to do was beat UCLA again, and they would take home their first national title of the 1960s.

It was not to be. Set up by a muffed punt, Beban scored on a one-yard run to give UCLA a 7-0 lead, and after a surprise onside kick, a pass from Beban to Kurt Altenberg set up another one-yard plunge. It was 14-0 into the fourth quarter, but big Bob Apisa scored on a 38-yard run to make it 14-6. With under a minute left, State scored again, but Bob Stiles and two other Bruins stopped Apisa short of the goal line on the game-tying two-point conversion attempt. UCLA survived a thriller and handed Alabama the national title.

9. Texas 45, Oklahoma 35 (Oct. 11, 2008)

Percentile Ratings: Oklahoma 99.7%, Texas 99.3%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 5 Texas

We'll come back to this one.

(Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

8. Army 32, Navy 13 (Dec. 1, 1945)

Percentile Ratings: Army 100.0%, Navy 99.0%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Army, No. 2 Navy

Navy was very good in 1945. Few teams hit the 99th percentile, after all. But this game is No. 8 on the list because of Army's 1945 perfection. The Cadets had already beaten No. 9 Michigan by 21, No. 19 Duke by 35, No. 2 Notre Dame by 48, and No. 6 Penn by 61. This was a coronation, the finish to the most perfect season ever.

7. Florida State 36, Pitt 22 (Oct. 11, 1980)

Percentile Ratings: FSU 99.6%, Pitt 99.4%
AP rankings at the time: No. 4 Pitt, No. 11 Florida State

Actually, we'll revisit this one in a moment, too.

6. USC 24, Alabama 14 (Sept. 23, 1978)

Percentile Ratings: USC 99.6%, Alabama 99.5%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Alabama, No. 7 USC

Both Alabama and USC were in the middle of their most lengthy runs of success at this point in the 1970s. John McKay had engineered nine top-10 finishes and three AP titles between 1962-75, and when McKay left for the NFL, offensive coordinator John Robinson kept the good times rolling with a No. 2 finish in 1976. But the Trojans had slipped a bit in 1977, finishing 8-4, and as a result, they began the 1978 season only ninth in the polls. They would eventually split the national title with the Tide -- Alabama took No. 1 in the AP poll, USC in the UPI -- thanks to an out-of-nowhere 20-7 loss at Arizona State. But head-to-head in Birmingham, the Trojans were the superior team.

These teams were loaded in a way that only 1970s teams could be loaded. USC featured running back Charles White, offensive linemen Anthony Munoz, Pat Howell, and Brad Budde, linebacker Dennis Johnson, and safeties Dennis Smith and Ronnie Lott. Alabama's wishbone was helmed by quarterback Jeff Rutledge and running backs Major Ogilvie and Tony Nathan, offensive linemen Dwight Stephenson and Mike Brock, and defensive linemen Marty Lyons and T.J. Junior. The 1970s were the decade of the bluebloods, and this game may have been the pinnacle. (Well, the vice pinnacle, anyway.)

White was the star of this one. He carried 29 times for 199 yards and a score, and the ridiculous USC secondary picked Rutledge off four times in 19 passes. The Trojans handed the Crimson Tide their first loss of the decade early in 1970s, then handed them their last here.

5. Florida State 18, Nebraska 14 (Oct. 4, 1980)

Percentile Ratings: FSU 99.6%, Nebraska 99.5%
AP rankings at the time: No. 3 Nebraska, No. 16 Florida State

Okay, so let's talk about 1980.

Because of Herschel Walker's dominance, our memories of 1980 are mostly Georgia-related. Walker plowed through Tennessee's Bill Bates in the opener, Lindsay Scott caught one of the most famous passes in college football history in a 26-21 win over Florida, and an injured Walker ground out 150 yards and two touchdowns in a Sugar Bowl win over Notre Dame. National champs!

Let's just say Georgia fans would have hated me (and all computers) had computer rankings been a thing. The Dawgs ranked SEVENTEENTH in my estimated S&P+ ratings that year. Their best wins before the Sugar Bowl were against the teams S&P+ ranked 16th (South Carolina, whom Georgia beat by 3) and 20th (Florida). They barely got by No. 49 Clemson and No. 59 Ole Miss. This was the most blessed of national title runs.

Meanwhile, the best teams of 1980 were busy knocking each other out of contention. The four most dominant teams of the season were, according to estimated S&P+, No. 1 Florida State, No. 2 Nebraska, No. 3 Pitt, and No. 4 Penn State. And in the first two weekends of October 1980, the Seminoles took down both Nebraska and Pitt. They went to Lincoln and won, 18-14, then they returned home to Tallahassee and surged past Pitt. Later that year, Pitt would beat Penn State in Happy Valley.

By the time FSU went to Lincoln, the Seminoles were already out of the national title race, even if nobody knew it at the time. Georgia would finish undefeated, and FSU had slipped up against Miami, 10-9, on September 27. (For two decades, Miami was a nearly perfect Seminole foil.) And in a classic Orange Bowl, they would lose by one to Oklahoma, which, at No. 8 in estimated S&P+ was better than any team Georgia faced.

FSU's early-1980s strategy of taking on any team at any time would peak in 1981, when the Seminoles took on road games against Nebraska, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Pitt, and LSU in consecutive games. In 1980, the schedule nearly created a national title contender.

Meanwhile, I should apologize to unsuspecting Pitt fans, who may have unsuspectingly stumbled onto this list only to find that their team lost three of the *greatest* games ever. I should have put a disclaimer at the top.

4. Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31 (Nov. 25, 1971)

Percentile Ratings: Nebraska 99.7%, Oklahoma 99.5%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Oklahoma

When the game lives up to the hype, it is an amazing thing. This was billed as college football's game of the century beforehand, and it actually might have been.

3. Texas 41, USC 38 (Jan. 4, 2006)

Percentile Ratings: USC 99.7%, Texas 99.6%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 USC, No. 2 Texas

If 1971 NU-OU was the game of the 20th century, this was, to date, the game of the 21st.

It honestly takes me a little bit to remember something from the 2005 season that didn't involve Texas and USC. Wasn't Penn State pretty good that year? Wasn't that the year that Pat White and Steve Slaton came out of nowhere? Didn't Rhett Bomar make a cameo appearance somewhere in there? Wasn't Tennessee supposed to be good? No two teams have ever dominated an entire season storyline quite like the Longhorns and Trojans ... which made it all the more impressive when the game between them actually lived up to the endless hype.

2. Nebraska 38, Alabama 6 (Jan. 1, 1972)

Percentile Ratings: Nebraska 99.7%, Alabama 99.7%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Nebraska, No. 2 Alabama

It makes sense that there would be a dud near the top of this list. This is college football, after all; it constantly gives us indelible moments but occasionally lets us down. And after matching Nebraska's dominance blow for blow in 1971 -- opening the season with a win over USC, beating a 10-win Ole Miss team by 34, beating a 10-win Tennessee team by 17, beating nine-win Auburn by 24 -- Bear Bryant's resurgent Crimson Tide, back on the national scene after averaging just seven wins per year from 1967-70, got really, really roughed up by Johnny Rodgers and the Huskers in the Orange Bowl.

Nebraska's estimated S&P+ slipped just ahead of Alabama's because of this game, and thank goodness for that. I didn't want to take on that argument.

1. Florida 24, Oklahoma 14 (Jan. 8, 2009)

Percentile Ratings: Florida 99.7%, Oklahoma 99.7%
AP rankings at the time: No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Oklahoma

Timing is the most underrated aspect of sports. In 2007, there was no single, dominant team -- LSU won the national title with two losses over a crowded field of flawed contenders. In 2011, Alabama was able to earn a rematch with LSU because there was only one undefeated team; in 2009 and 2010, there were two. In 2002, Mark Richt's best Georgia team finished with one loss and ended up behind two undefeated teams; in 2001, Nebraska backed into the title game with a loss because nobody else really wanted a bid.

We remember you for how great we thought you were, but part of our impressions are dictated by timing.

In 2007, no teams hit the 99th percentile. In 2008, four did: Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and USC. Any one of them would have probably run away with a national title the year before, but only two of them ended up getting a chance at it.

And by a decimal point, the team that lost to two of the other great teams finished ahead of the pack in S&P+.

  1. Oklahoma (99.69%)
  2. Florida (99.66%)
  3. USC (99.37%)
  4. Texas (99.28%)

Oklahoma lost to Texas on October 11 and to Florida on January 8. Both were tight games decided by a specific play or two. OU lost star linebacker Ryan Reynolds to injury early in the third quarter against Texas and gave up a couple of quick scores in an eventual 45-35 loss. Meanwhile, Florida stuffed the Sooners on fourth-and-goal in the second quarter, then picked off another pass at their goal line. From a statistical standpoint, that's the kind of randomness that decides tight games against evenly matched teams.

This cluster of teams was incredible. Florida lost to Ole Miss in September, then averaged 47 points per game the rest of the way. Texas averaged 42 points per game and fell only to a great Texas Tech team via last-second TD. Southern Cal could have quashed the OU-vs-Texas debate if not for a stunning late loss at Oregon State in September. And between the Texas and Florida losses, Oklahoma put together maybe the most dominant run of offense since Army's in 1945: Despite facing five teams that finished with at least eight wins (including 11-2 Texas Tech and 10-4 Missouri), OU averaged 60 points per game over a seven-game span.

These were four nearly perfect teams that all suffered a single regular-season glitch. OU got the chance to face Florida because of decimal points in the BCS formulas, then lost because of a couple of goal line glitches. This was an amazing season, and while this championship game doesn't carry the forever-long heft of Texas-USC or Nebraska-OU, I understand why it ranks No. 1 here.

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