The College Football Playoff delivered a rare gem in the semifinals
What a decade the 2010s were in college football. It opened with conference realignment completely reshaping the sport's face, ushered in a playoff system, continued, ended and restarted the SEC's reign of dominance. Meanwhile, in the FCS, North Dakota State established the greatest modern dynasty in any sport by winning its eighth national title over the past nine years.
In 2010, an SEC quarterback put forth one of the best individual seasons ever; 2019 ended in much the same fashion. Some things changed, but others stayed remarkably similar.
One facet of college football that held true throughout the decade: Each Saturday delivered excitement, unpredictable and fun.
25 Best College Football Games of 2019 Season
25. San Jose State 31, Arkansas 24 – Sept. 21
At a time when the revenue college football programs generate seemingly garners as much attention as to how they perform on the field, San Jose State going into SEC country and stealing a win serves as a reminder that money doesn't play the game. An Arkansas program awash in Disney cash had no answer for Josh Love and Co. The Spartans' quarterback ripped the Razorbacks for 402 passing yards in a stunning upset that both added to the Mountain West's Power 5 pelt, and gave SJSU a nice primary prize to go with the reported $1.5 million payday to visit Fayetteville.
24. Appalachian State 34, North Carolina 31 – Sept. 21
No longer the FCS Cinderella that stunned Michigan in 2007, Appalachian State's proven itself a more-than-viable FBS program. Another Sun Belt Conference championship, a Top 25 ranking and two wins over Power 5 conference opponents this season speak to the Mountaineers' development as an FBS program.
But the memories of 2007 will always remain. To wit, Appalachian State sealed its win over North Carolina with a blocked field goal — just like it did at the Big House 12 years prior.
23. Eastern Michigan 34, Central Connecticut State 29 – Sept. 21
One week removed from beating a Big Ten opponent for the third time in as many years, Eastern Michigan faced a dangerous FCS opponent in Central Connecticut State. The Blue Devils won the Northeast Conference and embarked on the FCS playoffs with just one loss on its schedule. Were it not for a punt gone awry at The Factory, they would have been undefeated.
:18 seconds left, Eastern Michigan down 28-29, Central Connecticut punting.— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 22, 2019
And they do this, to win.
22. Georgia 23, Notre Dame 17 – Sept. 21
Georgia and Notre Dame brokering a historic home-and-home series was a decided win for college football. Installments in both South Bend and Athens met the hype and came down to the final possession. In this year's edition, the Bulldogs held off a fourth-quarter rally to score a measure of revenge for Notre Dame scoring the College Football Playoff berth Georgia sought a season ago.
21. Mississippi State 21, Ole Miss 20 – Nov. 28
While the impact from this game has been wildly exaggerated on social media — no, Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin are not the new head coaches because of the Egg Bowl's conclusion — there can be no doubt this game's final drive was a perfect distillation of what makes college football weird and fun.
20. Tulane 38, Houston 31 – Sept. 19
In recent years, the NFL has horned in on Thursday nights. The pro game might attract more eyeballs, but this contest demonstrates why the spirit of Thursday night football will always lie with the college game. A punter celebration, gutsy offensive play calls, and one of the season's most exciting end-of-game drives made this one of the best games of the 2019 campaign.
19. Memphis 54, SMU 48 – Nov. 2
College Gameday descended on Beale Street in a sign indicative of how far American Athletic Conference members Memphis and SMU have come after reaching dismal lows. SMU's 2019 season was the program's best since the NCAA-mandated death penalty of the late 1980s; Memphis continued a strong run that began after a 180-degree turnaround from a disappointing start to the decade.
With both sporting Top 25 rankings, the ostensible AAC West championship game brought the fireworks. No one shined brighter than Antonio Gibson en route to a Tigers win.
18. Auburn 26, Oregon 21 – Aug. 31
Two of the nation's premier defenses delivered on a physical game that saw Oregon squander opportunities to go up big in the first half, leading to a Bo Nix-engineered drive to score the win.
17. Oregon 35, Washington 31 – Oct. 19
Jacob Eason's third touchdown pass of the afternoon put Washington ahead by two touchdowns early in the third quarter, and things looked bleak for Oregon's College Football Playoff pursuits. From that point forward, the Ducks locked down defensively and the offense was on a mission.
Oregon's three touchdown drives after trailing 28-14 went 79, 75 and 70 yards, culminating with Justin Herbert's touchdown pass to Jaylon Redd with just over five minutes remaining. The comeback provided a fitting chapter in the hostile history between rivals Oregon and Washington.
16. LSU 42, Clemson 25 – Jan. 13, 2020 (College Football Playoff National Championship)
Although this countdown features games that were ultimately more competitive, the College Football Playoff National Championship is worthy of inclusion for a variety of reasons. LSU's resounding win ended Clemson's winning streak that dated back to the 2017 season, and Joe Burrow put a fitting exclamation mark on one of the greatest individual seasons in college football history.
15. Illinois 37, Michigan State 34 – Nov. 9
The Illini trailed Sparty 31-10 heading into the fourth quarter, but Josh Imatorbhebhe's 83-yard touchdown reception from Brandon Peters ignited a rollicking 15 minutes. Reggie Corbin scored less than four minutes later, and a Sydney Brown pick-six made it a one-point game. Illinois held Michigan State to a field goal on a drive into Illini territory, setting up the dramatic conclusion when Peters found Daniel Barker with just five seconds left.
The win secured Illinois its first bowl bid under Lovie Smith.
14. Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23 – Oct. 19
In a game that Las Vegas had Illinois slated as a 30-point underdog, its defense held Wisconsin a full touchdown-and-extra-point under that mark. The Illini defense really came through when, after a Josh Imatorbhebhe touchdown reception to pull the Illini within two, Tony Adams snagged an interception near midfield.
Illinois' subsequent drive into Wisconsin territory and a game-winning field goal by James McCourt sealed the program's biggest win under Lovie Smith.
13. Oregon 37, Washington State 35 – Oct. 26
Coinciding with Oregon's slide from the apex of the Pac-12 in 2015, the Ducks began a four-year losing streak to Washington State. The Cougars started this run at Autzen Stadium with an overtime victory. Getting back to the top of the conference required the Ducks getting that particular monkey off their backs.
But when Mario Cristobal made the call to punt and put Oregon's outstanding defense on the field at its own 10-yard line, Anthony Gordon led a 90-yard touchdown drive to give Washington State a one-point lead with just a minute left. But a big kickoff return from Mykael Wright and a long reception for Juwan Johnson set the stage for Camden Lewis' streak-ending field goal.
12. Nevada 34, Purdue 31 – Aug. 30
Nevada scored half of its 34 points in a wild, fourth-quarter rally that did not truly begin until the final seven minutes remaining. Brandon Talton's final three points from 56 yards out to secure the win were the most memorable.
With a 27-yard touchdown strike in the final minute to force a tie, and the last of five Purdue turnovers moments later to give Nevada back the ball, the Boilers learned in that final minute why you don't turn your back on the Wolf Pack.
The moment was made all the more remarkable when Nevada head coach Jay Norvell announced Talton was receiving a scholarship in the locker room during the postgame celebration.
11. Pitt 35, UCF 34 – Sept. 21
UCF came into Pittsburgh riding the longest regular-season winning streak in college football, having not lost since 2016. And, the Knights appeared poised to add to the streak when rallying from a halftime deficit with 21 third-quarter points, and a field goal in the late fourth quarter that gave them a six-point lead.
But in a rare showing of Pittsburgh-Philadelphia solidarity, the Panthers ran a variation on the famed Philly Special with quarterback Kenny Pickett lining up wide to catch the game-winning touchdown.
10. Minnesota 31, Penn State 26 – Nov. 9
A November showdown between a top-10-ranked historic powerhouse and an undefeated program enjoying its best season in decades, Minnesota and Penn State offered the dramatic backstory of an epic.
And the on-field product matched up to the underlying themes.
Minnesota stormed ahead by two touchdowns in the first half and energized the home crowd, but Penn State chipped away at the deficit. Journey Brown's late fourth-quarter touchdown preceded the Nittany Lions regaining possession, down five points and needing only a touchdown with or without the extra point to win. Jordan Howard's end-zone interception, however, prevented the comeback.
9. SMU 43, Tulsa 37 (3OT) – Oct. 5
Tulsa endured plenty of heartbreak in 2019, perhaps none more gut-wrenching for the Golden Hurricane than giving up a 30-9 lead to SMU. The Mustangs stormed back with a three-touchdown fourth quarter, forcing overtime after drives of 92, 73 and 80 yards. Tulsa missed a pair of field goals in overtime, opening the door for SMU to escape on a James Porche touchdown run.
8. UCLA 67, Washington State 63 – Aug. 23
Anthony Gordon passed for a record nine touchdowns... and lost. Washington State also led by 32 points midway through the third quarter. From that point on, the two teams combined for 64 points; UCLA was responsible for 50 of them.
Now, if you enjoy defense, this game was the antithesis of "best." Otherwise, this was a spectacle not to be forgotten.
7. Oklahoma 34, Baylor 31 – Nov. 16
One could make a compelling case that this was not just the best Big 12 game of 2019, but the most exciting contest of the entire campaign. With plenty of build-up, prime-time billing on the ABC national telecast, and College Football Playoff positioning at stake, the stakes were high in Waco.
Charlie Brewer's four touchdowns set the initial pace, as it seemed Baylor was headed to the signature win of Matt Rhule's tenure. Instead, trailing 31-10 at halftime, Alex Grinch's defense buckled down and Jalen Hurts went Hero Mode in a wild Oklahoma comeback for the ages.
6. North Dakota State 28, James Madison 20 – Jan. 11, 2020 (FCS Championship)
While the rest of this countdown focuses on the FBS for the sake of brevity — we might be here all day including such games as Stony Brook's wild win over Rhode Island, decided on a fourth-down touchdown run from the 50-yard line, or Southeastern Louisiana's playoff shootout defeat of Villanova — the FCS National Championship Game is too good to exclude.
What were clearly the two best teams in the FCS battled back-and-forth in a game with jaw-dropping trick plays, plenty of future NFL talent on both sides, and a goal-line stand in the final seconds that made the difference in going to overtime and not.
5. Oklahoma 30, Baylor 23 (OT) – Dec. 7 (Big 12 Championship)
The Big 12 Championship Game became a de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal by virtue of Utah's loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 title game preceding the Baylor-Oklahoma rematch. And this certainly provided the dramatics one might associate with a playoff game.
The Sooners jumped to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and seemed ready to make quick work of the Bears, given the streak Oklahoma had dating back to the previous encounter. But their first matchup also served notice that a lead wasn't safe. Baylor just had to make two rallies from down 10 points, the second in the fourth quarter to set up overtime.
Given the stakes and the back-and-forth nature, it's tough to ask for more from a championship game. This wasn't just the best game of the 2019 Big 12 season, but arguably the best Big 12 Championship Game since the Texas-Nebraska epic a decade earlier.
4. LSU 46, Alabama 41 – Nov. 9
Throughout the decade, Alabama has been the gatekeeper of SEC greatness. LSU marched in Tuscaloosa and kicked open the gate with a second-quarter onslaught, scoring 17 consecutive points to lead by three touchdowns at halftime.
But did anyone think it was going to be that easy? Of course not. Not with Najee Harris rolling up 146 yards on the ground and DeVonta Smith accounting for 213 of Tua Tagovailoa's 418 passing yards. The Crimson Tide pulled within six and five points on three occasions in the fourth quarter, but LSU's ability to respond each time showed off this team's championship resolve.
3. Auburn 48, Alabama 45 – Nov. 30
So it wasn't quite the Kick-Six, but Auburn ended another classic Iron Bowl with a special teams miscue.
For Alabama to roll up 45 points on one of, if not the best defense in college football was remarkable. Mac Jones throwing for 335 yards and four touchdowns on that defense, and Najee Harris going off for 146 yards, is astounding. For both of those statistics to not result in an Alabama win is downright mesmerizing.
And all that takes a backseat to the clock stoppage that allowed Gus Malzahn to run out his field goal unit before halftime and tack on three points that ultimately added to the difference. An Alabama miss to end the game provided a symmetrical book-end.
2. Oregon 28, Wisconsin 27 – Jan. 1, 2020 (Rose Bowl Game)
There cannot be a more perfect cap to a Pac-12 season than an excellent Rose Bowl Game. There have been better Rose Bowl Games out of the 105 previous, including two in this decade alone with USC-Penn State and the College Football Playoff semifinal between Georgia and Oklahoma. The Granddaddy of 'Em All also hosted the greatest college football game ever played in 2006 between Texas and USC.
However, there may not be a weirder installment when one factors in a kickoff return for a touchdown and punt-snap fumble returned for a score. Oregon's thrilling rally to win by one point marked an appropriate culmination in the career of Justin Herbert. That his game-winning touchdown run came just moments after Brady Breeze forced a fumble with the stadium still buzzing from "Shout" only adds to the magic.
The College Football Playoff has encroached on a variety of college football traditions. This year's Rose Bowl Game showed that the first bowl game's mystique endures in the new era.
1. Clemson 29, Ohio State 23 – Dec. 28 (Fiesta Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal)
In its six-season history, the College Football Playoff has been largely bereft of compelling and competitive semifinals. Not the case with the 2019 Fiesta Bowl.
The same bowl that hosted these same teams in one of the ugliest blowouts of the playoff era this time featured two contenders in a showdown that came down to literally the final play. Clemson's win wasn't without controversy, but Trevor Lawrence finding Travis Etienne on the game-winning touchdown is an iconic moment that will endure in the annals of college football history.
(Top photo courtesy of Clemson Football Facebook page)