In some years, college football’s national championship game is one for the ages. In others, it’s pretty ho-hum. If Clemson upsets defending champion and six-point favorite Alabama, it will likely be one of best title games ever with plenty of dramatic plays.
Between the pre-BCS No. 1 vs. No. 2 pairings and the national championship games, there have been some classic moments that are etched in our memories. Here are the top 10.
10. Jan. 8, 2007 – Ted Ginn Jr. Returns Opening Kickoff for Touchdown
Ohio State had the most explosive team in college football and that was apparent when Ginn took the opening kickoff, cut right and raced 93 yards for a touchdown. Things pretty much went to hell in a handbasket after that, as Ginn was hurt in the celebration and Florida bounced back to take a 34-14 lead at halftime en route to the national title. Nevertheless, no other national title game has started off with such a bang.
9. Jan. 3, 2003 – College Football’s Most Controversial Pass Interference Call
The 2003 Fiesta Bowl is one of the greatest games college football has ever produced. It is a shame that is remembered for a controversial pass interference call. Few outside of the Midwest gave No. 2 Ohio State a chance against defending national champion Miami, who had won 34 straight games, but both teams were tied 17-17 at the end of regulation. Miami scored on its first overtime possession when quarterback Ken Dorsey hit Kellen Winslow Jr., with a seven-yard touchdown pass. Ohio State then faced fourth-and-three on Miami’s five-yard line. Quarterback Craig Krenzel attempted a pass to Chris Gamble, but it bounced off his hands and fell incomplete. Miami players rushed the field, but a late flag for pass interference on defensive back Glenn Sharpe gave the Buckeyes new life. Commentator Dan Fouts quickly criticized the call, but Krenzel then scored on a one-yard touchdown run to tie the game. In the next overtime, Ohio State scored a touchdown and then stopped Miami on downs to win its first national title since 1970. To this day, the pass interference call remains a point of contention amongst both teams, as well as fans and sportswriters.
8. Jan. 1, 1996 – Tommie Frazier Breaks Seven Tackles
The 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers are one of the best teams in college football history and it was never more apparent than in their 62-24 beatdown of No. 2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. The game’s most memorable play came with the Huskers up 42-10 late in the third quarter. Frazier, Nebraska’s dynamic dual-threat quarterback, took the snap and broke seven arm tackles on his way to a 75-yard touchdown run. After the loss, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier hired Bob Stoops to overhaul the Gator defense.
7. Jan. 2, 1987 – The Fiesta Bowl Becomes a Major Player
Since its launch in 1971, Arizona’s Fiesta Bowl had always put together solid matchups, but in 1986 it was a uniquely positioned to host the national championship. Miami was No. 1 and Penn State No. 2 and both teams were independents at the time. Since the Sugar, Rose, Orange and Cotton Bowls had contracts with conferences and the Fiesta Bowl did not, it was able to sign both schools to play for the national title (Penn State upset Miami 14-7.). If anyone wonders how the Fiesta Bowl was part of the Bowl Championship Series and now in the College Football Playoff “New Year’s Six,” they can look to this game.
6. Jan. 1, 1993 – “The Strip”
Miami entered the game ranked No. 1 and heavily favored to win its fifth national title. Alabama entered the game sporting one of the nastiest defenses in college football history. The Crimson Tide dominated the game, beating Miami 34-13 and picking off Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta three times. The game’s signature play came in the third quarter when Torretta hit wide receiver Lamar Thomas with a long bomb that looked like it would be an 89-yard touchdown pass. But Alabama defensive back George Teague chased Thomas down and then took the ball away from him on the 15-yard line. Although the play was negated by an offside call, it completely summed up the tone of the entire game.
5. Jan. 1, 1963 – Wisconsin Looks “Respectable”
The Rose Bowl featured the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup since 1946 and for three quarters, it was clear why USC held the top spot. The Trojans led Wisconsin 42-14 with 14 minutes left in the game, when Badger quarterback Ron VanderKelen told his team, “Let’s at least go out and look respectable.” They did just that. Wisconsin scored two touchdowns to make the score 42-28. Then with 2:40 left, USC center Larry Sagouspe snapped the ball past punter Ernie Jones into the end zone for a safety. Wisconsin got the ball and VanderKelen hit Pat Richter in the end zone to make the score 42-37. A USC punt gave Wisconsin the ball again, but the offense ran out of time. In the end, the Badgers did accomplish their goal.
4. Jan. 1, 1994 – Three Field Goal Attempts in 76 seconds
Down 15-13 with 1:16 left in the game, kicker Byron Bennett booted a 27-yard field goal to give No. 1 Nebraska a 16-15 lead over Florida State. Two penalties gave the Seminoles excellent field position and Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward drove his team inside Nebraska’s 10-yard line where kicker Scott Bentley kicked a 22-yarder with 21 seconds left to give FSU an 18-16 lead. A decent return gave Nebraska the ball back on its 46-yard line and quarterback Tommie Frazier hit tight end Trumane Bell with a pass to get the Cornhuskers to the Seminoles’ 28-yard line. Time seemed to expire and FSU head coach Bobby Bowden was doused with Gatorade. However, officials determined there was one second left and Bennett lined up for a 45-yard attempt. This one went wide left, giving Florida State and Bowden their first national titles.
3. Jan. 1, 1979 – “The Stand”
Penn State entered the Sugar Bowl ranked No. 1 and Alabama was No. 2. In a hard-fought game, the Crimson Tide was up 14-7 in the fourth quarter when a botched pitch gave the Nittany Lions the ball deep in Alabama territory. Penn State worked its way all the way down to the one-yard line in what became a testament of Bear Bryant’s tenure in Tuscaloosa. On third down, linebacker Rich Wingo stopped fullback Matt Suhey in mid-air short of the goal line. Then on fourth down, linebacker Barry Krauss stopped halfback Mike Guman. The Crimson Tide hung on for the win and the national title. Paintings of “The Stand” are wall art in homes throughout the state of Alabama.
2. Jan. 6, 2014 – A Perfect Ending to the BCS
The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) rating system for determining the two teams to play for the national title was generally maligned by fans and sportswriters in every one of its 16 years of existence. That being said, it ended on a high note. Second-ranked Auburn, the most exciting team in college football that season, jumped out to a 21-3 second quarter lead over Florida State. The Seminoles fought back, finally retaking the lead at 27-24 on a 100-yard kickoff return by Levonte Whitfield with 4:31 left in the game. Auburn went back in front when Tre Mason raced 37 yards into the end zone with 1:19 left in the game. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston then led the Seminoles down the field and hit Kelvin Benjamin for the game-winning score with only 13 seconds left. ESPN’s Gene Wojciechowski called the 34-31 win “the perfect ending to 16 years of an imperfect BCS system.” None of the five subsequent College Football Playoff games have produced a fraction of the excitement of this game.
1. Jan. 4, 2006 – Vince Young Sprints to a National Title
The 2006 Rose Bowl was a storybook game for two storybook teams. Undefeated USC was riding a 34-game winning streak and looking to claim its third straight national title. Standing between the Trojans and glory was undefeated Texas and Young, the Longhorns’ talented dual-threat quarterback. In a game that saw six lead changes, Young threw for 267 yards and ran for 200 more. What is arguably college football’s greatest game has been covered in detail in numerous documentaries, but the image we all remember is Young taking the snap on the USC eight-yard line and sprinting into the end zone with 19 seconds left in the game to secure the win and the national championship. There is no question that this is the most memorable moment in national title game history.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.