McKenzie Milton came up huge for undefeated and Peach Bowl-bound UCF in two of the season's best games
One could make a strong argument that the 2017 college football season ranks among the very best of modern times. This campaign featured countless heart-stopping finishes, provided landscape-altering upsets, and was highlighted with many of the best individual performances of recent memory.
Starting with opening weekend and lasting through the Army-Navy Game, each and every college football Saturday featured at least one remarkable game. Paring down the season to just the top 25 is no easy feat, but 25 do indeed standout as the best of 2017.
25 Best College Football Games of 2017 Regular Season
25. Howard 43, UNLV 40 — Sept. 2
The 2017 season bore a number of similarities to the chaotic 2007 campaign. Among those similarities: teams scoring the largest Las Vegas-dictated upset in college football history.
Howard broke the record-41-point spread Stanford beat outright at USC in 2007 when the Bison rolled into UNLV a 45-point underdog on Sept. 2. The books did not foresee Caylin Newton leading the Bison with a remarkable 190 rushing yards and two touchdowns, in addition to 140 yards and a score via the pass.
24. LSU 27, Auburn 23 — Oct. 14
After a Homecoming loss to Troy two weeks prior, a game in which LSU was pretty soundly dominated, the 2017 season could have easily gone off the rails. Indeed, that's where it appeared headed when Auburn built a 23-7 lead in the first half.
The Bayou Bengals regrouped out of the locker room, however, stifling Auburn's offense to force four second-half punts — one of which DJ Chark returned for a touchdown in a pivotal moment for LSU's 20-point comeback win.
23. New Mexico State 22, South Alabama 17 — Dec. 2
Clinching its first bowl game in 57 years was not without theatrics for New Mexico State. The Aggies came into their season finale against Sun Belt Conference counterpart South Alabama guaranteed a postseason berth with a win, but the visiting Jaguars made it difficult. South Alabama scored first before New Mexico State rolled off 16 unanswered.
After a nine-play, 75-yard drive, the Jaguars followed up with a field goal to take a fourth-quarter lead. That set the stage for arguably the most important drive in the last 57 years of New Mexico State football. The Aggies went 83 yards in 15 plays, and quarterback Tyler Rogers capped the possession as he had so many others in 2017 — with a touchdown pass. This was one of the feel-good moments of the college football campaign.
22. Army 28, Eastern Michigan 27 — Oct. 14
Heartbreak punctuated the 2017 season for Eastern Michigan football. The Eagles lost games to Ohio by seven in overtime; Kentucky by four; eventual MAC champion Toledo by five; and both Western Michigan and Northern Illinois on consecutive weeks by three in overtime. Of Eastern Michigan's many near-misses, the toughest may have come in a one-point loss at Army.
These two programs have played most seasons since 2008, only taking breaks in '11 and '14. Head coaches Chris Creighton and Jeff Monken transformed the outlook for both, as the Eagles and Black Knights struggled mightily not long ago. The 2017 edition showcased the strides of both programs, as they delivered an excellent game. The two exchanged leads, with Darnell Woolfolk rushing for an Army score in the fourth quarter. Eastern Michigan answered when Brogan Roback found Sergio Bailey for a touchdown — but rather play for overtime, Creighton called for a two-point conversion and the win.
The Army defense made a stop literally inches shy of the goal line to seal the win in one of the season's most dramatic finishes.
21. Florida 26, Tennessee 20 — Sept. 16
Tennessee finally snapped its long winless streak against Florida in 2016, but starting a streak of its own against the Gators proved futile. The final minutes of this contest crystallized the final season of the Butch Jones era quite perfectly. Volunteers running back John Kelly was frozen out on the goal-line stand that resulted in a field goal.
On the ensuing possession, the Tennessee defense was out of position when Feleipe Franks found Tyrie Cleveland for a 63-yard touchdown. This was no Hail Mary, either, but rather a scramble play.
20. North Texas 52, Army 49 — Nov. 18
Army and North Texas were two of the nation's surprise, breakout teams in 2017, combining to win 18 regular-season games. They met in the 2016 regular season, and again in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The rubber match this season took the series to an exciting height, with two very different but very much prolific offenses lighting up the scoreboard.
Army rushed for a whopping 534 yards, but Mason Fine's 386 passing yards and four touchdowns kept the Mean Green stride-for-stride with the Black Knights. Fine and Co. got the final opportunity, marching 46 yards to get into field goal range, and Trevor Moore connected on a 39-yard attempt just before the clock hit zeroes to give North Texas the win.
19. Auburn 26, Alabama 14 — Nov. 25
College football benefits from a great Iron Bowl, and in 2017, bitter rivals Alabama and Auburn delivered — well, at least Auburn delivered. Just two weeks removed from mauling Georgia, the Tigers came at Alabama with an oppressive defensive effort, stymying the Crimson Tide for four quarters.
Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn emptied the playbook, which included a jump-pass, goal-line touchdown throw from Kerryon Johnson. Jarrett Stidham played an outstanding game, as well, etching his name in the lore of this historic rivalry.
18. Oklahoma 31, Ohio State 16 — Sept. 9
Refer to a Win Probability chart on this early-season showdown of national powerhouses, and Ohio State was given a 75 percent or so likelihood of winning until the fourth quarter. It makes sense: the Buckeyes went to Norman a season ago and throttled a Sooners team that had legendary Bob Stoops on the sideline and not a head coach in Lincoln Riley working just his second game.
Baker Mayfield (above, right) turned the win probability chart on its head in the fourth quarter, however, leading a pair drives that extended a 17-13 lead to an insurmountable, 31-13 advantage. It was a victory that proved pivotal to Oklahoma's and Ohio State's playoff chances alike.
17. Washington 33, Utah 30 — Nov. 18
A timeout proved pivotal to Washington's come-from-behind win over Utah on Nov. 18. A touchdown run by Utes quarterback Tyler Huntley early in the fourth quarter gave the visitors a 30-23 lead they held much of the period, limiting Washington's run game to just three yards per carry. The Huskies forced a quick punt late in the fourth, setting up a Myles Gaskin touchdown run.
Another forced punt on the ensuing possession gave Washington the ball, albeit without prospects of doing anything more than forcing overtime — until a timeout call after first down changed Chris Petersen's strategy. The Huskies attacked and drove into field-goal territory, giving Tristan Vizcaino the opportunity to boot through a 38-yard game-winner after Jake Browning threw a 31-yard completion to Andre Baccellia.
16. Syracuse 27, Clemson 24 — Oct. 13
The defending national champions' Friday the 13th horror did not wear a hockey mask; rather, Clemson's fright night donned navy blue and orange.
Syracuse head coach Dino Babers and his staff came at Clemson with an aggressive game plan on both sides of the ball, taking control early en route to one of the 2017 season's biggest upsets.
15. Iowa 44, Iowa State 41 (OT) — Sept. 9
The rivalry matchup for the CyHawk Trophy has a... let's say less-than-favorable reputation among outsiders. Low scores in recent years have shaped perception about this early-season series, but the 2017 edition defied preconceptions.
Hakeem Butler's 74-yard touchdown reception looked like a game-winner for Iowa State — until Akrum Wadley went 46 yards on a reception to force overtime. Ihmir Smith-Marsette's reception in overtime sealed the win in an exciting shootout.
14. Army 14, Navy 13 — Dec. 9
One of college football's great traditions is the Army-Navy Game, played after the conference championships and on a stage all its own. It's one of sports' preeminent rivalries — though for more than a decade, the series was lopsided in Navy's favor. But Army forced competitive games in the years leading up to 2016's breakthrough, and the fierce competition carried over into the beginning of a new streak in 2017.
Yards and points both came in short supply under heavy snowfall, which provided a unique visual aesthetic. Navy scored 13 unanswered over three quarters, but book-ending touchdowns by the Black Knights gave Army the lead late. It came down to the final play, with a 48-yard Navy field goal attempt missing. Army completed its first winning streak in the series since 1995-96.
13. Iowa State 38, Oklahoma 31 — Oct. 7
Iowa State visited Norman this season bringing with it an ugly 5-74-2 all-time record against Oklahoma. The Sooners went ahead 14-0 in the first quarter, and it looked like victory No. 75 would be an easy one. That was, until Joel Lanning and relatively unheard-of quarterback Kyle Kempt went off.
Kempt out-dueled Baker Mayfield, while Lanning led the Iowa State defense to some critical stops, holding the Sooners scoreless for nearly 25 minutes of game time. The Cyclones' upset win ended with a planting of the Iowa State flag on the field.
12. Alabama 31, Mississippi State 24 — Nov. 11
With cowbells rattling, Mississippi State came at Alabama relentlessly in this SEC West showdown. Nick Fitzgerald played a great game, and the Mississippi State defense was outstanding for three quarters. But after throwing the kitchen sink at the Crimson Tide, Jalen Hurts emerged in the fourth quarter to engineer two scoring drives, both of which proved critical to keeping Alabama's College Football Playoff hopes alive.
Hurts' 26-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith under duress was one of the plays of the season in SEC football.
11. Washington State 30, USC 27 — Sept. 29
In a scene Washington State head coach Mike Leach described as "Woodstock except everybody's got their clothes on," the Cougars scored their first win over USC in Martin Stadium since the 2002 season. Quarterback Luke Falk passed for two touchdowns in the Washington State win, but it was running back Jamal Morrow with his fourth-quarter touchdown run and linebacker Jahad Woods, whose strip-sack of Sam Darnold, that came through as the Cougars' heroes.
10. Penn State 21, Iowa 19 — Sept. 23
Iowa running back Akrum Wadley might have stolen the show in this prime-time encounter, had it not been for Saquon Barkley. The Penn State running back's 211 rushing yards outshined Wadley's 150 yards of total offense, but it was quarterback Trace McSorley who stepped into the spotlight at game's end.
McSorley led the Nittany Lions on a 65-yard drive in 1:42 and found Juwan Johnson with zeroes on the clock to deliver one of the season's most dramatic finishes.
9. Miami 24, Florida State 20 — Oct. 7
Miami's march to the program's first-ever ACC Championship Game did not begin with the Hurricanes' win over rival Florida State, but the dramatic, end-of-game drive marked an important step on the road.
Instead Miami finally seized on an opportunity to beat the Seminoles, who had become an albatross for The U, winning every matchup from the 2010 season until this one. And this time, it was the Hurricanes that broke the hearts of FSU fans (and arguably the spirit of the Seminoles) with a last-second, game-winning touchdown pass.
8. Oklahoma 62, Oklahoma State 52 — Nov. 4
Bedlam proved to be a fitting nickname for this year's installment of the in-state rivalry series between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. The action in Stillwater was fast and chaotic, with two of the nation's best offenses combining to put up more than 1,400 yards of offense and a score these two universities' basketball teams will probably only exceed this season because Trae Young will be on the court.
After a 38-38 tie sent the rivals into the locker room, Oklahoma holding Oklahoma State scoreless in the third quarter made the Sooners look like the '85 Chicago Bears. The 10 points Oklahoma scored in that frame proved to be the difference, but not before a pair of Mason Rudolph touchdown passes brought the Cowboys within a field goal. They drove for the lead late, but the Oklahoma defense buckled down just enough to preserve the lead, and Trey Sermon's touchdown slammed the door.
This was the game that effectively put Baker Mayfield in the driver's seat for the Heisman.
7. UCF 62, Memphis 55 (2OT) — Dec. 2
Championship Weekend provided plenty of drama, starting with USC's narrow win over Stanford — a game that barely missed the cut for this countdown. Ohio State survived a hard-fought win in the Big Ten Championship Game over Wisconsin. But none compared to the shootout between Memphis and UCF for the American Athletic Conference title.
With a shot at a New Year's Six bowl on the line, the Tigers and Knights exchanged haymakers. Riley Ferguson threw 195 of his 471 yards to Anthony Miller, a fitting way to cap the season for one of the best pass-catch tandems in college football. But with 494 yards and five touchdowns, as well as a sixth touchdown on the ground, McKenzie Milton powered UCF to its first league title since 2013.
6. Western Michigan 71, Buffalo 68 (7OT) — Oct. 7
Mid-American Conference foes Western Michigan and Buffalo matched the all-time FBS record of seven overtimes, and edged the highest combined point total mark of 137 that Pitt and Syracuse set a season ago.
A Buffalo fumble in the third overtime seemingly ended it, until Western Michigan's 29-yard, field-goal attempt on the ensuing possession was no good, extending the contest. The Broncos scored touchdowns in every frame except that third, which proved pivotal. Buffalo scored first in the seventh overtime with a field goal. That was the opening Jarvion Franklin needed to finally end it.
5. Georgia 20, Notre Dame 19 — Sept. 9
Terry Godwin's one-handed, falling touchdown catch may have been play of the year in a game that propelled Georgia to remarkable heights under second-year head coach Kirby Smart. The Bulldogs made a rare trek north in the first half of this home-and-home series and scored what was their biggest win until beating Auburn in the SEC Championship Game.
Godwin's reception marked an unofficial coming-out party for Jake Fromm, a true freshman quarterback poised to lead Georgia into the College Football Playoff this season — and perhaps again in the years to come.
4. Boise State 59, Colorado State 52 — Nov. 11
Boise State rallying from down 52-38 with just over three minutes left in regulation seemed next to impossible. Rashaad Boddie's scoring run should have ended it, for all intents and purposes. The Broncos did not get the memo.
Boise State went 75 yards in just over a minute, getting one touchdown to at least give itself the chance to win. A recovered onside kick set up another touchdown drive, and Colorado State opted to play it safe on the ensuing possession. That proved to be costly, as Boise State got into the end zone for the third time in as many consecutive possessions, then forced a fumble in overtime to finish what ranks among the very best comebacks of 2017. It wasn't the comeback of the season, however.
3. UCLA 45, Texas A&M 44 — Sept. 3
Well before Texas A&M pulled ahead of UCLA 44-10 in the third quarter of their season-opening matchup, the game felt over. The Aggies came into the Rose Bowl and ran all over UCLA's defense, while limiting Josh Rosen and the Bruins' offense. Outside of punter Stefan Flintoft, it was a rough evening for UCLA.
Until... it wasn't. What started as garbage-time points late in the third quarter suddenly sparked some energy in the Rose Bowl. With Nick Starkel sustaining an injury, the Aggies' offense became stagnant just as UCLA's came alive. Once Rosen found Darren Andrews on a 42-yard touchdown pass that was nearly intercepted, it started to feel like the Bruins could really do it. And they did.
The rally from 34 points down is the second-largest in Div. I history, and surpassed UCLA's previous greatest comeback by two touchdowns.
2. Ohio State 39, Penn State 38 — Oct. 28
From start — Saquon Barkley running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown — to finish — J.T. Barrett going Hero Mode to lead an Ohio State comeback — the de facto Big Ten East championship game had it all.
Penn State took control early on the road, but the Nittany Lions were locked into a chess match with a Buckeyes defense that dared Trace McSorley to beat it. With Barkley limited, Ohio State chipped away. Barrett's fourth quarter was one for the ages, as he threw for three touchdowns, including the game-winner to Marcus Baugh with less than two minutes remaining.
1. UCF 49, USF 42 — Nov. 24
On the last week of the regular season, burgeoning rivals UCF and USF delivered the game of the year.
The winner earned a berth in the American Athletic Conference Championship Game, and for UCF, a shot at a New Year's Six bowl game was on the line. It was evident in the intense back-and-forth that persisted all evening that this contest was special.
USF rallied from what could have easily turned into a blowout, given the trajectory of many UCF games this season. The Bulls stormed back from down 21-7 to eventually take a 34-28 lead on one of five Quinton Flowers touchdowns. Flowers played what may have been the best individual game of any player in the 2017 season, passing for 503 yards and four touchdowns, and rushing for another 102 yards with a score.
McKenzie Milton exchanged shots with Flowers, accounting for five touchdowns of his own (four passing, one rushing). But the play of the game — and maybe of the season — came on Mike Hughes' 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, just after Flowers delivered an 83-yard strike to Darnell Salomon and two-point conversion to seemingly force overtime.
(Top photo courtesy of @UCF_Football)