Championship games in Div. II, College Football Playoff and various conferences shaped the season
College football's season is the shortest of any major sport. We must cherish the autumns as a result; and when the long road of another offseason arrives, we cherish the memories.
Despite lacking much in the way of landscape-altering upsets, the 2018 campaign still managed to provide enough drama to sate college football's passionate fans. In particular, a top-heavy campaign made for some outstanding championship contests. Indeed, conference title games from both the Group of 5 and Power 5 conferences helped conclude a pedestrian season with some excitement.
25 Best College Football Games of 2018 Season
25. Valdosta State 49, Ferris State 47 – Dec. 15
A pair of undefeated teams going back-and-forth to the very end: One could not ask for more from a national championship than what Valdosta State and Ferris State provided in the NCAA Div. II title tilt.
Quarterbacks Rogan Wells (Valdosta State) and Jayru Campbell (Ferris State) both put on a show. Wells passed for 349 yards and five touchdowns, while Campbell rushed for a game-high 122 yards, passed for another 99, and scored twice. Campbell nearly led the Bulldogs back from a double-digit deficit in the final 8:55; a two-point conversion attempt to force overtime failed.
24. Arizona State 41, Arizona 40 – Nov. 24
Despite 520 yards of total offense and three-quarters of Khalil Tate's best performance of the season, Arizona could not reclaim the Territorial Cup and get to bowl eligibility. Arizona State closed the regular season in Herm Edwards' first season as head coach rallying from down three scores, aided by two turnovers deep in Arizona territory.
The Sun Devils' furious rally made for one of the wildest finishes in the turbulent history of college football's oldest rivalry trophy.
23. Ole Miss 37, Arkansas 33 – Oct. 13
In what would have otherwise been an inconsequential game between two teams with no postseason aspirations (albeit for different reasons), Ole Miss quarterback Jordan Ta'amu made this one to remember. He played one of the best individual games of 2018, passing for 387 yards with two touchdowns, and rushing for 141 with a third score. Zedrick Woods slammed the door on Arkansas' rally attempt with an interception to complete a raucous Rebels comeback.
22. Oklahoma 48, Oklahoma State 47 – Nov. 10
Mike Gundy's decision for Oklahoma State to go for two and the lead late at Oklahoma was correct. The Cowboys' failure to convert illuminates the high-risk proposition it is pursuing victory rather than playing for overtime.
Another Big 12 team won on a two-point conversion, on the road, just a week prior. When such calls work, it's a stroke of genius. When they fail, it can awaken the armchair coordinators. But Taylor Cornelius was lighting up the Sooners' defense, eclipsing 500 yards on the day when he found Tylan Wallace for his third TD pass. With Oklahoma similarly tearing through the Oklahoma State defense, giving Cornelius one more play to take the lead with a minute left made sense.
The play itself had a chance, but Cornelius threw a rare bad ball, which came in low to his target off a bootleg and was batted away to preserve a Sooners win.
21. Texas 28, Georgia 21 – Jan. 1, 2019
After some Georgia players tweeted their apparent disgust with being left out of the College Football Playoff, the one thing the Bulldogs could not do was lose the Sugar Bowl.
The Bulldogs lost in particularly stunning fashion. Texas completely overwhelmed the Georgia offense from the opening bell, only giving up a pair of scores after the final outcome was pretty much in hand. While this was a somewhat garden variety rout (one-score final notwithstanding), the Sugar Bowl was one of the season's best games because it sets the scene for next season.
Tom Herman returns a solid corps in 2019, and after having played for the Big 12 championship, Texas has deserved renewed swagger. A new contender entering into the national conversation isn't a bad thing after four years monopolized by two programs.
20. Clemson 27, Syracuse 23 – Sept. 29
A third-string quarterback, an illegal man downfield penalty, and Travis Etienne were all crucial to Clemson keeping its perfect season intact.
Trevor Lawrence went down to injury early, the same week Kelly Bryant transferred out of Clemson, and Syracuse led in the second half. A second straight Orange win over the Tigers seemed likely, until running back Etienne and the Clemson defense took over. A lineman downfield on a big fourth-down conversion for Syracuse negated what could have led to a critical score.
19. Virginia Tech 34, Virginia 31 (OT) – Nov. 23
Like sales on Black Friday, Virginia Tech beating Virginia has become an inevitable part of Thanksgiving weekend. This season's matchup looked like it could be Virginia's best hope of a win in the series since 2003; the Cavaliers had a better campaign than the Hokies, evident in UVa playing for its eighth win, and Virginia Tech just trying to have a shot at keeping its bowl streak alive.
Virginia may have been better on paper, but Virginia Tech was again better on the field during rivalry week.
18. Stanford 38, Oregon 31 (OT) – Sept. 22
With College GameDay in Eugene and the ABC primetime spotlight on Autzen Stadium, Stanford-Oregon 2018 felt like old (albeit very recent) times. The game lived up to the hype.
Seeking its first signature win of the Mario Cristobal era, Oregon beat Stanford at its own game, leaning on physicality and a multifaceted rushing attack. Appropriately, the Cardinal responded with a dash of the old Oregon football: scoring quickly to erase a deficit. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside's outstanding individual performance stole the show, though Oregon's odd final possession in regulation was the story of the game afterward.
17. Washington 28, Washington State 15 – Nov. 23
A snow-covered rivalry game to determine the Rose Bowl? The 2018 Apple Cup provided a sequel 21 years in the making after Washington State outdueled Washington in 1997 to win one of the greatest games in Pac-12 history.
The 2018 installment — played 10 years after the programs met in one of the worst, or at least most unsightly games in conference history — wasn't quite as dramatic as the '97 contest. However, it was intense to the finish. Washington won on the strength of its defense, and Myles Gaskin put a nice exclamation point on an illustrious career.
16. Fresno State 19, Boise State 16 (OT) – Dec. 1
The Mountain West provided the ideal conference championship game: What were clearly the conference's two best teams (and bitter rivals), having proven it on the field all season, battling to a virtual stalemate.
Snowfall painted Boise State's blue turf white, conditions which might have seemingly benefited the home team. After all, Boise State has a longheld reputation as one of the premier defensive programs in college football. But a dramatic defensive turnaround has been the hallmark of Fresno State's incredible, two-year turnaround under Jeff Tedford. It was only fitting the Bulldogs completed their revival in a physical slugfest, winning the Mountain West title and moving one step closer to the best finish in program history.
15. LSU 22, Auburn 21 – Sept. 15
One year after losing a heartbreaker to LSU, Auburn built an early 21-10 lead in the rematch. All appeared OK, and the Tigers — the War Eagle version — looked poised to successfully defend their SEC West crown.
In a bit of role reversal, however, the LSU offense that could muster almost nothing got a big play for a touchdown. Auburn's own offensive stagnation allowed LSU to chip away, eventually securing the win when Cole Tracy, a Div. III transfer, booted the game-winner.
14. UAB 27, Middle Tennessee 25 – Dec. 1
Buzz about the College Football Playoff and New Year's Six bowls have obfuscated the importance of conference championships in some corners of the sport. Not in Conference USA. The league's 2018 finale was an emotional tilt between a UAB program resurrected from the dead less than four years prior, and a Middle Tennessee program with father and son taking the field together with one last shot at a title.
UAB, which had been smashed by the Blue Raiders just a week prior, fell behind again early. But a 21-point third quarter set the scene for a wild volley in the second half. The Blazers took the lead on a late field and stopped Middle Tennessee on fourth down in UAB territory to seal a championship in Bill Clark's national Coach of the Year-winning campaign.
The Blue Raiders' father-son team Rick and Brent Stockstill addressed the media postgame in a scene that reminds us of the humanity that goes into the game.
The Middle Tennessee postgame press conference was by far the most emotional one I’ve ever covered. Rick Stockstill and Brent Stockstill both fighting back the tears following a heartbreaking championship loss. pic.twitter.com/hLAzpInwa9— Justin Beasley (@JBeasleyWSMV) December 2, 2018
13. Oregon 30, Washington 27 (OT) – Oct. 13
Although rivals Oregon and Washington have been two of the Pac-12's benchmark programs for the better part of three decades, neither program has been on top at the same time. That appears likely to change with Chris Petersen and Mario Cristobal helming each.
The back-and-forth, overtime contest at Autzen Stadium suggests a new marquee series to determine Pac-12 supremacy. Washington rallied from the defeat to win its second conference title in three years, while the breakout performance of freshman running C.J. Verdell of Oregon points to big things ahead for the Ducks.
12. Clemson 28, Texas A&M 26 – Sept. 8
Marquee, on-campus matchups between Power 5 programs have become increasingly rare as NFL franchises (via local municipalities) dump billions into stadiums that need big-ticket events. Clemson and Texas A&M offered a reminder of just how special a high-profile, on-campus matchup between power programs can be.
Clemson's road back to the College Football Playoff faced an early possible stumbling block against new-look A&M, in just its second game with Jimbo Fisher at the helm. While the Aggies' two-point conversion attempt to force overtime failed, the near-miss foreshadowed positive things to come for Texas A&M — and this was hardly Clemson's last win over the SEC West.
11. Northwestern 34, Nebraska 31 (OT) – Oct. 13
Northwestern rallied from down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and forced overtime on a 99-yard scoring drive, to extend Nebraska's program-worst start.
The Wildcats made a habit of playing in bizarre games during the 2018 season, but their rally against Nebraska was the oddest. Clayton Thorson passed for 455 yards, contributing to the program career record he concluded with in another wild comeback from down 20-3 in December's Holiday Bowl.
10. Oregon State 41, Colorado 34 (OT) – Oct. 27
Halloween weekend was perhaps the most bizarre in a season full of oddities for the Pac-12. The strangest of the lot was Oregon State's furious comeback from down 31-3 to beat Colorado on the road.
The home-standing Buffaloes needed a win to seal bowl eligibility after a 5-0 start, but Oregon State — pursuing its first Pac-12 win in almost two years — spoiled the party. Adding to the absurdity, Oregon State had a chance to win in regulation, but their go-ahead PAT attempt was blocked.
9. Ohio State 52, Maryland 51 (OT) – Nov. 17
This defense-optional showdown of Big Ten East opponents featured some of the best individual performances of the 2018 college football season. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. was outstanding in leading his team from a two-touchdown deficit — not the first time he did so on the road in the campaign — and J.K. Dobbins rushed for more than 200 yards.
That Ohio State rallied to win in overtime should not overshadow Anthony McFarland, however. He rushed for 298 yards and two touchdowns in the loss.
8. Oklahoma 28, Army 21 (OT) – Sept. 22
Army's 11-win campaign produced the program's highest ranking since the early 1950s when it was a perennial college football powerhouse. The signature performance for Jeff Monken's Black Knights may very well have come in one of only two losses.
Army controlled the ball for almost 45 minutes, confounding then-Oklahoma defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. The flexbone-oriented attack gave the Sooners as many fits as any of the spread or air-raid offenses Oklahoma saw in the Big 12. But as he did repeatedly on his way to the Heisman Trophy, Kyler Murray came through for Oklahoma in the clutch in what turned out to be one of the regular season's best matchups of non-conference opponents.
7. West Virginia 42, Texas 41 – Nov. 3
Perhaps the most impressive win of Dana Holgorsen's tenure at West Virginia — or at least, second to the 70 points dropped on Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl — came against Texas in 2018.
Holgorsen lived by the mantra "play for the win" when he called Will Grier's number to go for a two-point conversion instead of kick a PAT. The gamble paid off, and the Mountaineers left Austin with an exciting win that marked one last high in Holgorsen's up-and-down time as Mountaineers head coach.
6. Clemson 44, Alabama 16 – Jan. 7, 2019
In a season somewhat bereft of drama, the most stunning result coming by way of the two best teams is quite fitting. Alabama and Clemson made their burgeoning rivalry a quadrilogy, meeting for the fourth consecutive College Football Playoff. In both instances, these were arguably the best version of each program.
That makes Clemson's 28-point steamrolling of Alabama all the more shocking. The Tigers controlled every phase of the game, snuffing every "OK, this is where the comeback starts" moment. That Clemson's two best offensive performers were both freshmen also gives the air of Duke launching its basketball dynasty after blindsiding UNLV in the 1991 Final Four.
5. Ohio State 27, Penn State 26 – Sept. 29
In what has fast become the pace-setting series in the Big Ten, Ohio State paved its way to a second straight conference championship in part with a furious rally against Penn State.
Quarterback Dwayne Haskins began his Heisman candidacy in earnest, scoring all three of his touchdowns after the Buckeyes had fallen behind by two scores.
4. Old Dominion 37, Western Kentucky 34 – Oct. 20
A great finish can turn a memorable game into a legend. Such was the case for Old Dominion's comeback win over Western Kentucky. The Monarchs trailed by a touchdown when Blake LaRussa found Travis Fulgham for a game-tying, six-yard touchdown pass.
What ensued was... well, I am not sure words can do it justice.
3. Texas A&M 74, LSU 72 (7OT) – Nov. 24
The record-setting seven-overtime affair between SEC West foes LSU and Texas A&M included Ed Orgeron coaching each of the extra frames drenched in a premature Gatorade bath.
For as unusual as Orgeron's situation was, the real star of the night was Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond. He put on a performance for the ages to lead Texas A&M in an exhausting marathon that carved an immediate place in the annals of college football history.
2. Texas 48, Oklahoma 45 – Oct. 6
The long-running question "is Texas back?" — asked as often in derisive jest as it is earnestly — has never been closer to being a resounding yes than through the 2018 season. The win that may have first suggested the Longhorns are close to returning to their 2000s peak came in the Red River Rivalry against Oklahoma.
Now, even as Texas struggled in more recent years, the quintessential October classic has delivered several memorable games. But this one was especially magical, with both teams looking the part of Big 12 championship material. As such, they exchanged scores in a wildly entertaining, back-and-forth shootout.
1. Alabama 35, Georgia 28 – Dec. 1
A veritable heavyweight championship fight, Alabama and Georgia matched their instant classic from the previous season's national championship game almost to the letter by waging an unforgettable SEC Championship Game. That includes the dramatic performance of an Alabama quarterback thrust into the lineup in the second half.
Jalen Hurts replacing Tua Tagovailoa to lead Alabama from down two touchdowns provided a nice bit of symmetry, and a fitting final hurrah in Hurts' Crimson Tide career. The loss was a bit of bad deja vu for Georgia, which coughed up a similar lead against the Tide just 11 months earlier, and in the same building no less.