Top 25 College Football Games of 2016

Texas' season-opening victory over Notre Dame in double-overtime was one of this season's most entertaining games

The 2016 college football season had a little bit of everything, to the point where you could fill your bingo card twice over. The greatest opening weekend ever? Definitely. Historic upsets from coast-to-coast? Without a doubt. Shootouts? Check. Seismic shifts as the result of game-changing plays? Double check.

 

Oh, and overtimes? Yes, there were plenty of those.

 

It was a fantastic season and it seemed like no matter what day it was or what week in the season it was, there was about to be a thrilling game on that was worth watching (and sometimes more than one at the same time). Which ones were the best ones though? Here’s a look at the 25 who made the cut and a few more that have just as good of a case to be one of the top college football games of 2016.

 

And while a great game is always a great game, there may be a few differences in how some of these matchups are viewed in certain parts of the country. Trying to weigh everything from national impact to watchability, a few tweaks needed to be made for the overall list as a result of several games being viewed more favorably to college football fans at large compared to the perspective in certain conferences. 

 

2016's Best Games by Power Five Conference: ACC I Big 12 I Big Ten I Pac-12 I SEC

 

Top 25 College Football Games of 2016 Regular Season

 

25. Pitt 42, Penn State 39 – Sept. 10

Who knew back in September that this game would carry significant postseason weight when it came to the College Football Playoff? Pitt jumped out to a three-touchdown lead in the second quarter but needed to hold on late to prevent a furious rally from its in-state rivals. Running back James Conner ran for 117 yards and scored twice for one of the feel-good stories of the year following his return from cancer treatment, and the Panthers’ defense came up with a crucial interception seal the victory over the eventual Big Ten champions on a day where Pitt honored its 1976 national championship. To add to things, PSU’s Saquon Barkley scored five touchdowns on the day and helped make this contest one everybody discussed later in the year.

 

24. Army 21, Navy 17 – Dec. 10

Fourteen years. Fourteen long years Army had to sing their alma mater first, fighting back tears through heartbreaks and blowouts all the same. But this year the Black Knights pulled off an improbable, thrilling victory that flipped the script and gave cadets everywhere something to stand up straighter for the next 365 days. The streak was ended thanks in large part to quarterback Ahmad Bradshaw’s timely completions and great trigger on the triple option but this wasn’t the sharpest of games with a number of turnovers causing some wild swings of emotion. In the end the Midshipmen and their third-string quarterback couldn’t pull off the comeback but still delivered us a great game that made you proud to be an American.

 

23. Cal 52, Oregon 49 (2OT) - Oct. 21

Few games embodied the #Pac12AfterDark spirit quite like this one as the two teams combined for 101 points, more than 1,000 yards of total offense and an FBS-record 203 combined plays. This also was the highest over/under in college football history according to Vegas (89.5), and the two teams hit the over, appropriately, in overtime. Cal also set an FBS record for plays in a game with 118 and didn’t commit a single turnover while doing so. That allowed the Bears to hold off the Ducks, who needed four touchdowns in the second half to rally for extra frames, before the defense stepped up with an interception that allowed them to win the game.

 

22. Penn State 24, Ohio State 21 – Oct. 23

This was undoubtedly the signature victory for James Franklin in his tenure at Penn State and shook up the Big Ten and College Football Playoff races in the process. The Buckeyes entered as the No. 2 team in the country and looked to all but certainly be on a collision course with Alabama for the national title but simply couldn’t put away the Nittany Lions in the middle of a Happy Valley whiteout. While OSU mostly dominated the low-scoring affair, the Buckeyes failed to capture the victory after Marcus Allen leaped to block a 45-yard field goal attempt and Grant Haley returned the ball 60 yards for the game-winning touchdown. A pair of sacks from the PSU defense sealed the win and kicked off a wild celebration after an important victory that gave the team a key tiebreaker.

 

21. Utah 20, BYU 19 — Sept. 10

This for sure wasn’t the most well-played game ever but the latest edition of The Holy War turned out to bring plenty of hard-hitting defense, a shocking nine — nine! — turnovers and one incredible defensive stand at the end to give Utah a sixth straight victory in the series over its in-state rivals. Things were kicked off by a pick-six on the very first play of the game and it ended with a 75-yard drive by the Cougars to pull to within one. However an impressive defensive stand helped foil a two-point conversion that would have won things and Utah held on for a win that toed the line between hot potato and stellar defensive play.

 

20. Navy 28, Notre Dame 27 – Nov. 5

This historic rivalry has been filled with plenty of close games but few were as interesting to see play out as this one, which took place at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla. While Notre Dame scored on all but one possession, Brian Kelly’s decision to kick a field goal trailing 28-24 with seven minutes came back to haunt him in near inexplicable fashion. While that amount of time normally would mean a chance to get the ball back, Notre Dame never did as Navy iced the rest of the clock thanks to several fourth-down conversions and never punted in the game. Amazingly, the Irish offense only touched the ball twice in the entire second half.

 

19. Washington 31, Utah 24 — Oct. 29

This was one of the few close calls the Huskies had in a Pac-12 game during a fun one from Salt Lake City. Utes punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a performance worthy of his Ray Guy Award by pinning Washington deep in its own territory all day while Joe Williams once again impressed in his return from retirement with 172 rushing yards against a stingy Washington defense. All of that culminated in a crazy punt return from Dante Pettis however, that the UW receiver brought back 58 yards for a touchdown and the eventual game-winning points with just a little more than three minutes left. It was the Huskies’ first opportunity to show the College Football Playoff Selection Committee they could beat a good team and they came through in the clutch.

 

18. Alabama 10, LSU 0 — Nov. 5

This isn’t everybody’s cup of tea but just about every Alabama/LSU matchup is a meeting between SEC heavyweights and it appeared to be the case once again in this low-scoring affair that helped propel the Crimson Tide to the West Division title. With NFL draft picks all over the field, Alabama freshman Jalen Hurts was mostly bottled up but came through in the clutch with a couple of key quarterback runs to set up the team’s two scores while the dominating defense did the rest in keeping the Tigers out of the end zone. In a day full of shootouts, this was a bit of a refresher between a bunch of big-time players who you will soon see on Sunday.

 

17. Houston 33, Oklahoma 23 — Sept. 3

After a summer full of College Football Playoff talk, Houston lived up to its preseason billing by knocking around a top-three Oklahoma squad in an opening statement win that had a bit of everything down at NRG Stadium. Set against the backdrop of Big 12 expansion, Houston delivered behind a stellar QB Greg Ward Jr. while Brandon Wilson delivered one of the best plays all year when he plucked a short field goal attempt out of the air and returned it 109.9 yards for a game-changing touchdown.

 

16. Washington 31, Utah 24 — Oct. 29

This was one of the few close calls the Huskies had in a Pac-12 game during a fun one from Salt Lake City. Utes punter Mitch Wishnowsky had a performance worthy of his Ray Guy Award by pinning Washington deep in its own territory all day while Joe Williams once again impressed in his return from retirement with 172 rushing yards against a stingy Washington defense. All of that culminated in a crazy punt return from Dante Pettis however, that the UW receiver brought back 58 yards for a touchdown and the eventual game-winning points with just a little more than three minutes left. It was the Huskies’ first opportunity to show the College Football Playoff Selection Committee they could beat a good team and they came through in the clutch.

 

15. Alabama 48, Ole Miss 43 — Sept. 17

The Rebels seemingly had Nick Saban’s number after winning two seasons in a row against the Crimson Tide. For a while, it looked like they had it again in jumping out to a 24-3 lead with just minutes left in the first half. But Alabama reverted back to Alabama and used two quick scores — including an 85-yard punt return touchdown by Eddie Jackson — to come storming back to take the lead. Jonathan Allen’s fumble return for a score appeared to ice the game with five minutes to go but Ole Miss scored twice more to make things interesting before Alabama ended the threat and the losing streak.

 

14. Texas A&M 31, UCLA 24 (OT) — Sept. 3

Trevor Knight’s debut for the Aggies was an impressive one as he scored three times, including a key touchdown run on 4th-and-goal in overtime that just about ended a wild comeback by UCLA. Josh Rosen didn’t quite have the game he wanted after calling out Aggies fans, throwing for 343 yards but also three interceptions. Still, the Bruins ran off 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to storm back and force overtime before Rosen’s pass fell incomplete to cap a tough loss for the visitors.

 

13. Houston 38, Tulsa 31 – Oct. 15

Houston was coming off its first loss of the season and may have been worrying too much about that than beating a very good opponent late on a Saturday night as the Cougars came out a bit lackluster at home early on. Tulsa rallied — twice — from two-touchdown deficits to tie the game and were driving to take the lead with less than 90 seconds left when Emeke Egbule picked up a loose fumble to rumble 24 yards to the end zone for the eventual game-winner. The Golden Hurricane still had a chance to win the game however with two plays inside the three-yard line but they were stopped for a loss on the first one and then, after a bit of confusion, were stuffed at the one-inch line to end the game.

 

12. Central Michigan 30, Oklahoma State 27 — Sept. 10

Don’t ask Mike Gundy about this game. Just don’t ask him, since in his mind it is still a win and not a loss. The Cowboys were poised to win this one in closer-than-expected fashion and tried to kill the final four seconds of the game by running around and throwing the ball away. But officials mistakenly penalized the team for intentional grounding, setting up CMU with one final chance to win the game. That’s when the Chippewas launched a long Hail Mary pass downfield that landed into the arms of a receiver, who promptly pitched the ball to a trailer as he was getting tackled for an improbable touchdown and the “win.” Still one of the craziest endings of the season.

 

11. Ohio State 30, Wisconsin 23 (OT) – Oct. 15

Two of the top defenses in the country met up in Madison for a fun Big Ten night game that had all the fun and intensity of a big-time bowl game. Ohio State quarterback J.T Barrett broke Braxton Miller’s school record for touchdowns and helped the Buckeyes’ offense move the ball with his arm and his legs. Corey Clement was the main weapon for Wisconsin and had one of the best games of his career with 164 yards on the ground. The Badgers’ offense too often had to settle for field goals however, despite several creative plays leading to big gains. OSU needed 17 points in the second half to force overtime where Barrett found Noah Brown for an incredible score in the corner of the end zone for the eventual game-winner.

 

10. North Dakota State 23, Iowa 21 – Sept. 17

Don’t schedule North Dakota State. That was the lesson Iowa learned as NDSU knocked off yet another FBS team — its sixth straight — and foretold that things wouldn’t be quite as easy in the regular season for the Hawkeyes as 2015 was. The Bison scored late in the fourth quarter and opted to go for two on the road but couldn’t punch it into the end zone. The defense came up with a stop however and a quarterback run set up Cam Pedersen’s 37-yarder as the clock expired to seal a signature win for NDSU and cause plenty of jokes about Kirk Ferentz’s recently signed contract extension.

 

9. BYU 55, Toledo 53 – Sept. 30

Most of the country may have been focused on Washington’s beatdown of Stanford on this same night but the fun really was a little further southwest in Provo, Utah. The Cougars played in some nail-bitters in just about every contest during the first half of their schedule but none seemed to be as wild as this one was with an amazing eight lead changes in the second half alone. BYU tailback Jamaal Williams had a school-record 286 rushing yards and five touchdowns on the ground while oft-injured quarterback Taysom Hill led another remarkable comeback with a 71-yard drive to set up a short field goal to win the game.

 

8. Pitt 43, Clemson 42 – Nov. 12

The Tigers were playing with fire at home for most of 2016 and suffered their first home loss in 21 games at the hands of a Pitt team that made every clutch play down the stretch. Tailback James Conner ran for 132 yards and two scores, including a late touchdown that brought the Panthers within striking distance. That’s when the defense stuffed Clemson on fourth down from midfield to give themselves a chance with less than a minute on the clock. Chris Blewitt eventually knocked home the game-winner from 48 yards out to spoil a perfect season and force a shakeup in the playoff rankings at the time. Not everything was bad for Dabo Swinney’s squad however, as the loss seemed to wake the team up on its run to an eventual conference title and return trip to the playoff.

 

7. Clemson 42, Louisville 36 – Oct. 1

This game had a little bit of everything and played a major role in shaping the ACC title race, determining the playoff rankings and sorting out many of the major postseason awards this year. Clemson needed everything it could muster in a raucous environment at Death Valley to come up with a fourth-down, red-zone stop to keep its championship aspirations alive. Deshaun Watson scored five times, including twice in the final seven minutes, to balance out a few turnovers and a furious second half rally from Lamar Jackson that came up a yard short. This set the tone for the conference’s great season and had so many incredible swings of momentum.

 

6. Arkansas 41, TCU 38 (2OT) — Sept. 10

There were not a ton of great non-conference matchups in the SEC in the second weekend of the season but this one more than made up for things with a thriller between a pair of old SWC foes. Arkansas led most of the game in a bit of a slugfest and took a 20-7 lead into the fourth quarter. TCU came storming back behind Kenny Hill however, running off three straight touchdown drives to take a lead with two minutes to go. It didn’t take long for the Hogs to answer, finding the end zone and converting the two points for the tie. The Horned Frogs’ KaVontae Turpin was amazing down the stretch and nearly won the game in setting up a 28-yard field goal with 10 seconds left thanks to a big return, but the kick was blocked. Eventually Arkansas prevailed in the second overtime as Austin Allen powered his way into the end zone to cap a heck of a game.

 

5. Texas A&M 45, Tennessee 38 (2OT) — Oct. 8

A battle of top-10 teams lived up to the early billing with a thrilling finish that saw the Volunteers rally from six turnovers to force overtime but fail to overcome a seventh as the Aggies held on in a pivotal SEC matchup. Texas A&M thought it had all but secured a victory when Trevor Knight busted out a 62-yard run with just three minutes left in the game to go up two scores. However, Alvin Kamara scored twice in the final two minutes to force overtime before Knight ended things for good with another touchdown on the ground in the second extra frame to cap off a super long thriller for both teams.

 

4. Tennessee 34, Georgia 31 — Oct. 1

Second-half Tennessee was a sight to behold this season and needed every ounce of that magic between the hedges against Georgia for a win that was thought to lock up the SEC East. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 17-0 lead but the Volunteers came roaring back once again, helped in part by a defensive touchdown set up by superstar Derek Barnett. The teams combined for three touchdowns in the final three minutes though, including an improbable Hail Mary from Joshua Dobbs to Jauan Jennings from 43 yards out to induce pandemonium on the UT sideline and cap off a game that had a little bit of everything.

 

3. Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (2OT) – Nov. 26

The latest edition of “The Game” lived up to its billing as two of the best teams in the country battled back and forth with each other in another classic edition of the much-hyped rivalry. Michigan certainly had its chances in this game, which had both conference and national implications, and led for most of the first half. Ohio State came storming back however, taking advantage of the Wolverines’ mistakes on offense to end up tying the game. Tyler Durbin missed a 20-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have tied things up but sent the game to OT with a short kick and just a second left on the clock. The two traded touchdowns in the first overtime but the Buckeyes’ defense held the Wolverines to a field goal. OSU would have kicked one to extend the game but Urban Meyer opted to go for it on fourth down, resulting in a controversial spot that just barely gave them the Buckeyes the first down. Curtis Samuel punched it in from 15 yards out on the next play to give the home team a huge win over their rivals and (eventually) a place in the College Football Playoff.

 

2. Texas 50, Notre Dame 47 (2OT) — Sept. 4

Nobody knew then that this would be a matchup of two of the most disappointing teams in the country who didn’t even make a bowl game in 2016 but at the time it was certainly one of the best games of an epic opening weekend that was the best in college football history. True freshman Shane Buechele made the most of his first start with 280 passing yards in a new-look offense and backup Tyrone Swoopes ended up punching it in for the winner in the second overtime. The Longhorns did jump out to a big lead but Notre Dame rallied after finally deciding on a quarterback in a strange shuffle that caused plenty of second guessing of head coach Brian Kelly. It’s crazy to look at this one in retrospect but man was it fun on Labor Day weekend.

 

1. Penn State 38, Wisconsin 31 – Dec. 3

While the other Power Five conference title games were almost all duds, the Big Ten delivered with theirs in a game befitting the kind of season the league had. Wisconsin jumped out to a 28-7 lead in the first half and seemed to be on its way to a rout given how good the defense was playing up to that point. Penn State responded however, with the offense starting to click in impressive fashion with a 31-3 scoring run to close out the game. Quarterback Trace McSorley was making big plays all over the field and finished with four touchdown passes and 384 yards through the air while Saquon Barkley added another great game on the ground. Corey Clement also had a big game for Wisconsin with 164 yards and a wild run in the first quarter from 67 yards out that set the tone early for the Badgers. While the outcome wasn’t quite enough to get PSU into the playoff, it was certainly one of the best Big Ten title games in conference history and one folks will be talking about for years to come.

 

Best of the Rest:

Tulsa 48, Fresno State 41 (2OT)

UNLV 69, Wyoming 66 (3OT)

Pitt 76, Syracuse 61

Western Kentucky 44, Middle Tennessee 43 (2OT)

Wyoming 34, San Diego State 33

Tennessee 20, Appalachian State 13 (OT)

Oklahoma 66, Texas Tech 59

Kansas 24, Texas 21 (OT)

Hawaii 34, Air Force 27 (2OT)

Wyoming 30, Boise State 28

 

— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.

 

(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)

Event Date: 
Thursday, December 8, 2016 - 21:16

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