We are now entering year 8 of the College Football playoff era. Starting 2014, college football adopted a 4-team playoff format, discarding the old BCS formula that simply pitted #1 vs. #2 in the National Championship Game.
Although I’ve written at length about why I think the CFP has, seemingly paradoxically, decreased parity in college football, and the CFP has been largely dominated by Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State, there have still been some classic games over the past 7 years.
Here, we will take a look back at the 10 best games of the CFP era. These games exemplify what I like to call “Big Boy Football”–true heavyweight bouts. In a sport where lopsided matchups and blowouts are common–frequently even in playoff games–it’s a real treat for us fans when two evenly-matched powerhouse programs square off and give us a game for the ages.
Here’s the list:
Honorable Mention: 2015, Bama 45, Clemson 40
Bama needed to pull out all the stops to win this one. It was a decent game for the first three quarters, but then things went completely haywire in the 4th quarter. The biggest thing about this game was not Bama winning the National Championship. It was not DeShaun Watson throwing for 405 yards and 4 TDs.
It was Nick Saban cracking a smile for potentially the first time since childhood after Bama recovered a surprise onside kick in the 4th quarter, which you can see at the 5:36 mark in the video above.
5. 2019 – Clemson 29, Ohio State 23
Close games in the playoff are a real treat, considering that 11 of the 14 semifinal games have been utter blowouts.
While this one is probably still an open wound for Ohio State fans, it was without a doubt one of the best college football games in recent memory, a true heavyweight bout between two evenly-matched teams with star power out the wazoo.
Clemson had Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins, Justyn Ross, Amari Rodgers, AJ Terrell and Isaiah Simmons, while Ohio State had Justin Fields, JK Dobbins, Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Chase Young, Jeff Okudah, Jordan Fuller, and Pete Werner.
Truth be told, Ohio State fans have a lot to be bitter about from this game. Not only was their team hosed on some bad calls by the refs, but they had a chance to put this game out of reach in the first half, but could not convert their red zone possessions into TDs and instead settled for field goals.
On Ohio State’s first drive, they got the ball inside the Clemson 5 yard line but had to settle for a field goal. On their second drive, JK Dobbins busted off a 68-yard TD run to make it 10-0. At the end of the first quarter, JK Dobbins broke another big run, but Clemson’s Tanner Muse made an incredible shoestring tackle (more of a slap of the cleat, really) to trip him up at the 8 yard line. On 3rd and goal from the 5, Fields lofted a swing pass for Dobbins, who was wide open and would have had an easy TD, but the pass was a bit too far and he had to dive for it. It looked like he hauled it in for the TD, but he could maintain possession through the ground and it was overturned to incomplete. Ohio State settles for a field goal again.
Not even 5 minutes into the second quarter, Ohio State had outgained Clemson in total yards 223-86, but they only had a 13-0 lead to show for it. On their next possession, they got into the red zone once again, but had to settle for a third field goal, this one from 33 yards. While Ohio State was leading 16-0 and appeared to be moving the ball at will, the game was only at the midway point of the second quarter. There was a lot of time for Clemson to come back.
With 4:56 to go in the first half, Clemson had the ball at Ohio State’s 46 on a 3rd & 5. Lawrence dropped back to pass, but Ohio State sent a corner blitz and Shaun Wade just flew in like a missile and absolutely leveled him. It would have been a perfectly clean hit, but at the last second, Lawrence noticed Wade coming at him and sort of braced for impact, bringing his head down and causing Wade to hit him helmet-to-helmet. Lawrence was down on the ground for a while, the refs reviewed the play, called Wade for targeting and ejected him, plus gave Clemson 15 yards and a first down.
Now, I personally thought Lawrence was embellishing on that play. He acted like he was dying on the ground, left the game, but then came back in after sitting out just one play and looked perfectly fine. It was definitely an acting job on Lawrence’s part, but you gotta do what you gotta do. The targeting rules in college football are so candy-ass and unfair, especially with the retroactive review aspect, but like it or not, you have to abide by them. It was a pivotal moment in the game. Clemson was about to have to punt the ball away, and they hadn’t been able to stop Ohio State all game to that point, so Ohio State was probably going to get even more points on their next drive and go into the half up either 19-0 or 23-0.
Instead, Clemson got the ball at the Ohio State 30 with a fresh set of downs, which they then turned into their first points of the game, a Travis Etienne 8-yard TD. The greatness of Travis Etienne can be summed up in just this one picture. He scored a TD here:
He literally has 6 Ohio State defenders between himself and the endzone and still scored.
After forcing an Ohio State punt, Clemson got the ball back with under 2 minutes to go in the half, and Trevor Lawrence broke loose for a 67-yard TD run. It was a defensive meltdown by Ohio State, for sure, but it also showed the speed of Trevor Lawrence, something I’ve been talking a lot about in my fantasy football posts this year. The dude is fast as hell.
So while Ohio State dominated most of the first half, a defensive breakdown on that run, plus a momentum-changing targeting call just before it allowed Clemson to draw the score to 16-14 at the half. That targeting call really was the game-changer.
On Ohio State’s first drive of the second half, JK Dobbins pulled up lame on a non-contact injury to his lower leg. He’d leave the game for a bit, but would eventually return later, albeit not at 100%.
Another Ohio State blunder would give Clemson new life midway through the third quarter: stopped for a 4th & 6 from their own 15 and punting, Ohio State’s guys got called for roughing the kicker, and so instead of Ohio State getting the ball around midfield, Clemson got 15 yards and a new set of downs. A few plays later, Travis Etienne would take a dump-off pass from Lawrence 53 yards to the house thanks to some excellent downfield blocking by his teammates, and suddenly the game was 21-16 Clemson.
While things were looking pretty bad for Ohio State at this point, they appeared to get a break their way with about 5 minutes to go in the 3rd quarter. Lawrence threw a pass to Justyn Ross at around the Clemson 28. Ross was wrapped up by Jeff Okudah, who then knocked the football out of Ross’s hands, and Jordan Fuller then picked up the ball and ran it into the endzone. It was initially called a catch, fumble and touchdown for Ohio State, but the refs overturned it and said it was incomplete. I thought this was the worst call of the game, personally. Ross caught the ball, took two full steps, then had it knocked out, and somehow it was reversed to incomplete? I could understand if the refs had initially ruled it incomplete, but it was ruled a catch and fumble on the field. To me, there was nowhere near enough evidence to overturn the call.
Ohio State still got the stop and the ball back, but Justin Fields threw a pick to Isaiah Simmons. for the game’s first turnover. Simmons was just an absolutely incredible player at Clemson; he was the Butkus Award winner that year as the Nation’s top linebacker, and if you go back and watch that play, he was basically playing safety. That’s how fast and rangey he is. Very few other players in the country could’ve made that play.
Ohio State, however, forced a punt and would regain the lead with 11:46 to go in the game on a 4th & 2 conversion that went for a TD. It was a gutsy call by Ryan Day to not only go for it on Clemson’s 24 yard line, but to take a shot at the endzone. It paid off and Fields hit Olave for the TD to make it 23-21 Ohio State.
Not much would happen after that until about the 3 minute mark, when Trevor Lawrernce led Clemson down the field for the go-ahead and ultimately game-winning TD. It was only a few plays even though the drive began at the Clemson 17. First play, a 12 yard run by Lawrence for a first down. Then he found Amari Rodgers for a 43-yard catch and run. Next play, Lawrence finds Etienne on a wheel route for a 29 yard score. It looked like a designed run for Lawrence, but he stopped running, threw the ball to Etienne and Etienne did the rest and found the endzone. It was a hell of a playcall, and I don’t think Ohio State was prepared for it at all. I think Dabo reached deep into his bag of tricks for that one. That was the only time in Lawrence’s three years at Clemson that I ever saw them run that play, although I certainly didn’t watch every game.
Clemson would get the 2-point conversion to make it 29-23, and I guess they did it because it would have meant if Ohio State scored and missed the extra point, it would be a tie game.
But there was still 1:49 to play and Ohio State had 2 timeouts remaining.
Justin Fields hit JK Dobbins for a few quick dumpoffs, then found KJ Hill over the middle, and eventually Fields and Ohio State found themselves facing a 2nd & 7 at the Clemson 23 with 43 seconds left and one timeout.
Things were looking pretty good for Ohio State. It was a very favorable situation. Fields dropped back, and had a lot of time to throw in a clean pocket; he scanned the field, and then fired one towards the endzone, but it was picked off by Clemson’s safety and that was the ballgame. On live TV, it looked like an absolutely horrible decision by Fields. There was no Ohio State receiver in sight, only Clemson defenders.
But after they showed the replay, you could see that Fields was trying to throw to Chris Olave, who appeared to be running his way. Olave, however, must have not known what was going on, as he stopped and tried to run the other direction, falling down in the process. Fields threw it to where he thought Olave was going to be, but Olave went the other way.
After the game, Olave said he broke off his route and ran the other way because he thought Fields was going to scramble. But the playcall was for Olave to run a post in the endzone, and he said he thought it would’ve gone for a TD if he hadn’t broken off his route. It was just a miscommunication between Olave and Fields, and made for somewhat of an anti-climatic end to an otherwise thrilling game.
Ohio State fans have every right to be bitter about this game, but to the rest of the country it was a highly entertaining 3.5 hours of football and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
Of course, it ultimately didn’t really matter, as Clemson would go on to lose 42-25 to the juggernaut that was the Joe Burrow LSU team in the National Championship. I don’t think Ohio State would have been able to beat LSU that year either.
But still, that won’t make the semifinal game any less painful for Ohio State.
4. 2014 – Ohio State 42, Alabama 35
After barely squeaking in to the inaugural playoff as the #4 seed, one-loss Ohio State was considered an underdog against top-ranked Alabama. The Tide were favored by 7, and much of the discussion leading up to the game was about whether or not Ohio State even deserved to be in it: there was a lot of moaning about how Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU got snubbed. And remember: Ohio State was playing with their third-string QB Cardale Jones in this game (plus the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin, which Ohio State won 59-0). Braxton Miller went down before the season even began, and then JT Barrett, who stepped up and filled in so admirably for Miller during the season, was lost for the year on an injury sustained during the Michigan Game. So basically, there were two moments during that 2014 season where Ohio State fans basically abandoned all hope and assumed it was a lost year.
But Urban Meyer and the boys had other plans.
After falling behind 21-6 in the first half due to a couple of turnovers that gave Bama short fields and subsequent easy TDs, Ohio State appeared to be well on their way to another blowout loss to an SEC team. Remember, Ohio State had gotten their doors blown off by Florida in the 2006 National Championship game, and then again the next year by LSU in the 2007 National Championship Game. The consensus until this game was that Big Ten teams simply could not compete with SEC teams, and the on-field results backed it up.
But then Ohio State punched back. After going down 21-6, Ohio State then went on a 36-7 run to pull ahead 42-28 in the 4th quarter. With an incredible trick play WR pass where Evan Spencer threw a TD pass to Michael Thomas, who made an incredible toe-tap circus catch at the end of the first-half, Ohio State cut the deficit to just a point.
The second half was mostly Ohio State. It was 34-28 for most of the 4th quarter, and then came the now-legendary 84-yard Ezekiel Elliott TD run to make it 42-28 Ohio State with 3:24 to play. It’s a play that went down in history for Ohio State football. But Bama wasn’t just going to roll over. A quick scoring drive late in the 4th quarter cut the deficit to just a TD, and the game came down to a last-second Hail Mary attempt by Bama QB Blake Sims, but it was not to be. It ended up being a real nail-biter of a game.
When you go back and rewatch the highlights of this game, it is absolutely remarkable how many future NFL stars were on the field in New Orleans that night. Not just future NFL players, future NFL stars. Bama had Derrick Henry, Amari Cooper and OJ Howard on offense, plus Kenyan Drake and TJ Yeldon in the backfield as well. On defense, Bama had Landon Collins, Eddie Jackson and Marlon Humphrey in their secondary. Ohio State’s offense featured Ezekiel Elliott and Michael Thomas, plus Taylor Decker on the offensive line. Ohio State’s defense had Joey Bosa, Eli Apple and Vonn Bell. It was Big Boy Football in every sense of the word.
Both teams were just so fast and hard-hitting, and you had stellar line play. It was so refreshing to see both Bama and Ohio State finally face off against a team they just couldn’t push around with their superior talent. When you’re a coach like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer at an elite program, you recruit all those 5-star guys not to bully teams like Rutgers and Vanderbilt, but for games like this–where the other team is also loaded with future NFL players. This was college football being played at its absolute highest level.
Saban and Urban Meyer were undoubtedly the top two coaches in college football at the time, and will probably go down as the two best coaches of this era. It was only the third career matchup between the two coaches, the other two coming when Meyer was at Florida (the 2008 and 2009 SEC Championship Games, which the two teams split). After this game, most people assumed that we’d see Saban vs. Meyer in the Playoff for years to come, but sadly it was the only time we ever got to see those two coaching legends face one another. And barring something crazy in which Urban Meyer returns to college football (unlikely, but not totally out of the question), it’ll probably never happen again, sadly.
From 2008–the first year Bama was truly elite under Saban–until the 2016 National Championship Game, Urban Meyer was the only coach in America to ever beat Nick Saban with a National Championship on the line. There was the 2008 SEC Championship Game, and then this game. The only other game Saban lost in that span with either a National Championship or a National Championship berth on the line was the infamous Kick Six game against Auburn in 2013. Other than that, Bama won it all in 2009, had a down-year in 2010, won back-to-back Titles in 2011 and 2012, the Kick Six Game in 2013, and then the Semifinal Game against Ohio State in 2014. That’s what made this game so remarkable: Bama simply doesn’t lose games like this.
Although it was just a semifinal game, it was the de facto National Championship Game. Ohio State went on to dog-walk Oregon in the National Championship Game 42-20, and Bama would’ve probably done the same.
3. 2017 – Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48
For my money, certainly one of the most entertaining sports events I’ve ever seen. Maybe not the best Rose Bowl ever, as I don’t think anything can top the 2005 Texas-USC all-time classic, but this one is up there.
The reason this game was so great was because of all the momentum shifts and big plays, not to mention the star power on both sides. You really never knew who was going to win the game. It seemed like Oklahoma, then it seemed like Georgia, then it seemed like Oklahoma again, and then Georgia ultimately got it done. It was the true definition of a thriller. It had everything you could ever want in a football game.
Oklahoma came into this semifinal game with the Heisman-winning QB Baker Mayfield, and first-year head coach Lincoln Riley, who took over after as the hand-picked successor to Bob Stoops after an 18-year tenure. It was OU’s second playoff appearance in school history, with the first a 37-17 blowout loss to Clemson in 2015. This time around, the Sooners would be a lot more competitive. They had an absolutely loaded roster in 2017; in addition to Mayfield, Oklahoma had Hollywood Brown, CeeDee Lamb, Mark Andrews and Trey Sermon. Although Sermon and Lamb were both true freshmen, they still played quite a bit in this game. Oklahoma also had Orlando Brown at offensive tackle. This Oklahoma team went to Columbus and beat #2 Ohio State early in the season, and from that point on, they were viewed as serious National Championship contenders.
Georgia, meanwhile, was having their best season as a program in a long time. It was the Dawgs’ first 12-win season since 2012, when they lost a heartbreaker to Bama in the SEC Championship, and their second 12-win season since 1980, when they won the National Title with Herschel Walker. 2017 was Kirby Smart’s second year at Georgia, and it was already clear by year 2 that he had taken the program to another level from where Mark Richt had them playing.
While Georgia didn’t have the Heisman winner, they did have a trio of elite running backs: Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and D’Andre Swift, all in the same backfield. Swift, however, was a youngster and only got 4 carries for 6 yards in the game.
Georgia also had star linebacker Roquan Smith, who won SEC Defensive Player of the year as well as the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, and wound up as a top-10 draft pick that spring. Georgia also had Isiah Wynn, an offensive tackle who was also drafted in the first round in 2018. While Georgia was starting a freshman, Jake Fromm, at QB, they still had the ability to keep pace with Oklahoma’s high-flying offense due to their elite running game.
At first, it seemed like Oklahoma was going to run away with the game. They were busting big plays left and right, and it seemed like Georgia had no answer for their speedster Hollywood Brown, as well as the power running game. At the end of the first half, CeeDee Lamb threw a TD pass to Baker Mayfield on a Philly Special-esque trick play, although interestingly this Rose Bowl game took place a month before the Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl where the Philly Special play became famous. I wonder if this was where the Eagles got the idea from.
Even though there was only 6 seconds left in the half after the Oklahoma TD, Georgia was somehow able to get into field goal range for Rodrigo Blankenship to convert a 55-yarder to make it a 31-17 game going into the half. It just felt like Oklahoma was doing whatever they wanted on offense, and that Georgia, with their running-based offense, would not be able to keep pace with them in the second half.
But Georgia was not about to go quietly into the Pasadena night. Kirby Smart would lean heavily on the running game in the second half, and just a couple of minutes in, Nick Chubb would bust a 50-yard TD run after breaking a few tackles near the line of scrimmage. Right there, we should’ve known Chubb was a beast. You could already see the combination of speed and power that makes him one of the best running backs in the NFL today. 31-24 Oklahoma.
Late in the third quarter, Sony Michel ran a TD in from 38 yards out to tie the game at 31 heading into the 4th quarter. Georgia had figured out how to halt the OU offense, and to their credit they never abandoned the run despite being down as much as 17 in the game.
Baker would begin the 4th quarter by throwing a pick that Georgia would return all the way back to the Oklahoma 5. Fromm then hit Javon Wims for a TD pass to give Georgia a 38-31 lead, and suddenly the Dawgs were in control of the game and had gone on a 24-0 run since the final seconds of the first half.
But what made this game so great is that it went back-and-forth. On Oklahoma’s next drive, Baker connected on a deep shot to CeeDee Lamb, then found Dimitri Flowers in the endzone for a TD to even the score at 38. On the next Georgia drive, Oklahoma forced a Sony Michel fumble, which they then picked up and ran in for a TD to take a 45-38 lead.
It all came down to a 2-minute drill for Georgia, and give Jake Fromm a ton of credit for stepping up and leading his team down the field with some big throws. Georgia leaned heavily on the run game up to that point, but in the final minutes of the game, it was all on Fromm’s shoulders, and he delivered. Nick Chubb took a direct snap on the 2 yard line and ran it in to tie the game up at 45 with 55 seconds to play. Baker had an opportunity to drive his team down the field and kick a game winning field goal in regulation, but couldn’t get it done and the game went to OT.
The teams traded field goals in the first overtime, with Georgia going first and OU going second. In 2OT, Oklahoma went first and was held to a field goal, but Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter blocked it. That was pretty much the game, as a field goal would win it for UGA. But they didn’t need one. On 2nd & 12, Sony Michel took a direct snap and ran it into the endzone for a 27-yard score and the game-winner to send Georgia to their first National Championship Game since the inception of the BCS in 1998. Michel would finish the game with 11 carries for 181 yards and 3 TDs, while Chubb had 14 carries for 145 yards and 2 TDs.
Speaking of that National Championship Game…
2. 2017 – Alabama 26, Georgia 23
The first All-SEC National Championship of the CFP era was one for the ages. It was a virtual home game for the Dawgs as the game was played in the brand-new Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, and although it started off promising for the black and red, it ended up as yet another gut-wrenching loss for a Georgia football team in a Championship Game–remember, the Falcons had the infamous 28-3 blown lead in the Super Bowl just a year prior. The Bulldogs only blew a 13-point lead in this game, but it probably stings just as much as the Super Bowl for Georgia sports fans.
First, a little background. Georgia prior to the arrival of Kirby Smart in 2016 was a good-not-great football program under longtime coach Mark Richt. The closest they’d ever come to a National Championship was 2012, when they lost a thriller to, who else, Bama in the SEC Championship Game.
After the 2015 season, Richt’s 15th in Athens, Georgia decided to make a change at head coach and brought in Smart, who for the prior 8 years was Saban’s defensive coordinator at Bama and had helped the Tide collect four National Championships over that span (2009, 2011, 2012, 2015).
In Smart’s first season, the Dawgs went 8-5. But in 2017, year 2 of the Smart era, Georgia was ready for prime-time. They started off 9-0, getting as high as #2 in the rankings, but had an ugly 40-17 loss at Auburn that appeared to derail their season. The Bulldogs bounced back, however, and rallied to make it to the SEC Championship Game, where they met Auburn once again. The Dawgs got their revenge, winning 28-7 and clinching a playoff berth. They won a thriller in the semifinal at the Rose Bowl over Oklahoma (more on this shortly) and advanced to their first National Championship game of the BCS/CFP era.
As you can infer, Bama didn’t win the SEC that year. They didn’t even make it to the SEC Championship game. Although Bama started the season ranked #1 in the nation and won their first 11 games, they imploded in the final game of the regular season, losing 26-17 to Auburn and missing out on the SEC Title Game. Although Bama was 11-1 and had been ranked #1 for most of the season, they were in danger of missing the playoff due to that one late slip-up against Auburn.
After Conference Championship Weekend, Clemson was 12-1 and was chosen by the Committee as the #1 seed in the playoff. Georgia was obviously in. And so was Oklahoma. The debate for the fourth spot in the playoff came down to Alabama and Ohio State. The Buckeyes were Big Ten Champions, which gave them that edge over Bama, but the Buckeyes had also lost twice that year: once to Oklahoma early on, and a hideous and somewhat inexplainable 55-24 blowout loss at Iowa. The Committee gave Bama the final playoff spot over 2-loss Ohio State, and it locked in a third-straight playoff matchup between Alabama and Clemson.
In 2015, Bama won a thriller over the Tigers in National Championship Game. The following year, Clemson got revenge on the Tide and won their first National Title since 1981. This was hyped up as the rubber match between the two, but with DeShaun Watson having left for the NFL in the spring of 2017, Clemson was simply not able to compete with Bama. The Tide rolled to an easy 24-6 victory and advanced to face Georgia in the National Championship.
Everything about the game was classic SEC and classic South. Georgia and Alabama are neighboring states, the game was played in Atlanta, and the Zac Brown Band sang the national anthem. Bama was favored by 3.5, but fell behind 13-0 in a largely defensive first half.
But then Nick Saban made The Switch. Jalen Hurts: benched. Freshman sensation QB Tua Tagovailoa: in. When you look back on it, it really was a remarkable move by Saban. Benching the QB that had started the past two seasons for the Tide? For a freshman who had never even started a game before? Well, when you’re Nick Saban, and you have an embarrassment of riches all over the roster, you have that option. Still, to actually make the move and put in a true freshman in the second half of the National Championship, it’s pretty much unprecedented. I can’t think of any other time where something like it has happened in a Championship game. It’s like something straight out of a movie.
However, if you think back to that 2017 season and how Jalen Hurts’ play at the QB position seemed to deteriorate as the season went on, it really isn’t all that surprising. We forget it now because after Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley turned him into not only a capable passer but a great passer, but at Alabama, Jalen Hurts was pretty awful as a passer. In the first half of that National Championship Game, the Tide offense was completely impotent, managing just 90 total yards. Their 5 possessions resulted in 4 punts (on 4 three-and-outs) and a missed field goal. Hurts was just 3-8 passing for 21 yards. They were going nowhere fast, and Saban probably figured if he left Hurts in the game, they had no chance of scoring enough points to win.
So his halftime adjustment was to put in a new quarterback altogether. He probably figured it was a longshot to expect a freshman to come in and lead a comeback in the National Championship Game, but that Tua still gave the Tide better odds than Hurts did. It was either keep Hurts in and lose, or put Tua in and maybe, just maybe. So Saban rolled the dice.
The results were evident almost immediately. Tua was so much more dynamic than Hurts was. Bama had ridiculous offensive talent on the perimeter–Calvin Ridley, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith, all on the same team!–but Hurts simply couldn’t get the ball to them. Tua could.
Of course, Tua wasn’t perfect, but it felt like the mere fact that he could complete passes to his receivers and move the ball down the field provided a much-needed spark to the entire Alabama team.
Still, though, Georgia went into the 4th quarter with a 20-10 lead. They were still in control of that game. But Tua made plays in the 4th quarter. He threw the game-tying TD pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:49 to play. Georgia then went three-and-out, and it felt like Bama had all the momentum. Tua drove Bama all the way down to the Georgia 16 yard line and it looked like it was a done deal for the Tide. All they needed to do was hit a 33 yard field goal and they would win the National Championship. I remember that day before the game, my boss at the time mentioned that his nephew was the kicker for Bama, Andy Pappanastos. He hit two kicks in the second half, but missed one early in the first quarter. And somehow the game came down to him at the end.
Of course as we all know, he missed the potential game-winner at the end of regulation. It wasn’t even close. He shanked the hell out of it. Never had a chance. It would’ve been soul-crushing even if I wasn’t pulling for my boss’s nephew in that moment, but that factor just made it so much worse for me, personally. I felt so bad for the kid. He had the chance to be the hero, but instead the game was heading to overtime and he potentially blew the whole National Championship. I couldn’t even imagine.
(As a side note, I’ve always wondered why, as great a recruiter as Saban is, he’s always seemed to have trouble with his kickers.)
Anyway, you know how overtime goes. Georgia settles for a field goal, Bama has the chance to win it on the next possession. But while we remember that game for the walk-off TD pass to DeVonta Smith, a lot of people forget that Tua almost fucked that game up royally. He took a 16 yard sack on first down! In that moment, everyone was probably thinking, “Wow, Bama just choked that game away.” Then, of course, the very next play was the DeVonta Smith TD and everybody instantly forgot about the sack. Smith was a freshman just like Tua, and it was his only catch of the game. In a game that felt like it was straight out of a Hollywood script, it had the most Hollywood ending possible. Simply incredible. One of the greatest National Championships of all time, no doubt. It was the first Championship to go to OT since the Ohio State-Miami game in 2002.
To say the game was an emotional roller-coaster for both teams is an understatement. Both sides went through all the emotions in that game multiple times. I’m sure so much alcohol was consumed and cigarettes were chain-smoked by fans purely to deal with the stress of the game. At halftime, Georgia was probably thinking “We got this.” Bama fans were probably thinking, “We suck. We can’t do shit. Fuck.” Then at the end of regulation, Georgia fans were probably thinking, “We just choked it away. Fuck.” while Bama fans were thinking, “I can’t believe we’re about to pull this off.” Then the missed field goal, and Georgia fans were back on top of the world. After being held to a field goal in overtime, Georgia fans were probably thinking, “We’re fucked.” Then the 16-yard sack happened, and Bama fans were thinking, “We just lost the game.” And then they won the game.
It’s an all-time classic. No doubt about it. You had an unbelievable amount of NFL talent on the field, too: Bama not only had Ridley, Ruggs, Jeudy and Smith, but also Najee Harris, Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs–and that’s just on offense. On defense Bama had Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da’Ron Payne and Quinnen Williams. Georgia was loaded as well: Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, D’Andre Swift and Mecole Hardman on offense (plus Calvin Ridley’s brother Riley!) And on defense the Dawgs had Roquan Smith and DeAndre Baker.
For most of that game, it really felt like it was the moment Georgia was finally going to break through. Finally, someone other than Bama was going to have their moment of glory. But Bama gonna Bama. Saban gonna Saban. That’s why he’s the GOAT.
1. 2016 – Clemson 35, Alabama 31
I debated putting the Bama-Georgia game at #1, but this one had to take the top spot. It gets the edge because, while the Bama-Georgia game was utter insanity, at the end of the day it was yet another Alabama National Championship, and quite frankly, most college football fans are sick of Bama and their constant winning.
This one, though, was a true feel-good win because the underdog Clemson Tigers won their first National Championship since 1981. It also had the revenge factor, as Bama outlasted Clemson in the National Title game the year before. On top of all that, while the Bama-Georgia game ended on a walk-off, this one ended on a buzzer-beater. Had Tua not connected with Smith in the Georgia game, Bama still would’ve had a chance on 3rd down. But had DeShaun Watson not connected with Hunter Renfrow in this game at the very end, there might not have been any time on the clock remaining. Even though there was still one second left on the clock after Renfrow caught the go-ahead TD, had he not, you never know how the ball would’ve bounced. It could’ve been the last play of the game had he not caught it–and Clemson was losing by three, too.
Dabo easily could’ve been the scapegoat for going for it on that play, with 5 seconds left on the 2 yard line, instead of just kicking the field goal and playing for OT. But instead he trusted his QB DeShaun Watson to make a play. He figured, “Hey, Clemson hasn’t won a National Title since 1981. We’re here now; we have the chance to win it right here, right now. Let’s go for it.” Takes a lot of balls.
I’m not even going to try to give a play-by-play of the final 5 minutes of that game, it would take too long. You’ll just have to watch the highlights to relive it for yourself. But it was without a doubt one of the most incredible endings to a football game ever.
This is #1 for me. I know we’re all sick of Clemson nowadays, but at the time, Clemson was the underdog team that everybody was rooting for. It felt like David vs. Goliath.
The unforgettable 2005 Texas vs. USC Rose Bowl classic still holds the crown for the best college football game ever (at least in my eyes; ESPN has it ranked #7 all-time), but 2016 Clemson over Bama comes close.
Bonus: 2019, LSU 46, Alabama 41: It’s not a playoff game, but it was a true heavyweight bout.