Midway through the summer, the lingering COVID-19 pandemic threatened the 2020 college football season. The uncertainty of the offseason became a season of peculiarity, with some leagues starting in September and others in November. Games were postponed, lineups were altered, yet the campaign persisted.
One way or the other, the 2020 season played out to completion. Along the way, the athletes endured remarkable hardships not seen in a century. The following is a subjective ranking of 25 of the most exciting games of the season, but the players who took the field each week in every game deserve the utmost praise for making the season a reality.
25 Best College Football Games of 2020 Season
25. North Carolina 59, Wake Forest 53 – Nov. 14
Quarterbacks Sam Howell and Sam Hartman combined for 10 touchdown passes and two rushing scores in a contest so packed with offense, the Tar Heels and Demon Deacons combined for just 29 points fewer than their basketball counterparts produced in a meeting last February.
24. Coastal Carolina 34, Appalachian State 23 – Nov. 21
Appalachian State became the benchmark of greatness in the Sun Belt not long after moving up from the Football Championship Subdivision. So heading into that matchup, Chanticleers head coach Jamey Chadwell knew the significance of beating the Mountaineers. The teal turf was red-hot for this declarative Chants win, providing one of the truest big-game atmospheres of the 2020 season.
After a Reese White touchdown run, D'Jordan Strong made a pick-six indicative of how important defense was to Coastal's dream season.
23. Navy 27, Tulane 24 – Sept. 19
After being throttled in its opener against BYU, it looked like Navy was in for another long game when it went to the locker room down 24-0 against Tulane. Then the second half happened.
The Midshipmen showed a little of everything in their furious second-half comeback, including scoring a safety and forcing a tie on a rare touchdown pass. After their seventh and final defensive stop of the half, the Midshipmen regained possession and ate up the clock with 10 plays to culminate the final drive with a game-winning field goal.
22. Ball State 30, Western Michigan 27 – Dec. 12
A 17-point, fourth-quarter bonanza sealed Ball State's place in the MAC Championship Game, a prelude to the Cardinals winning their first conference title since 1996. Justin Hall's 175 receiving yards and two touchdowns stole the show, but he was very nearly overshadowed on a last-ditch Western Michigan effort following Jack Knight's go-ahead field goal.
21. USC 28, Arizona State 27 – Nov. 7
With three final-possession wins in its 2020 campaign, USC set an appropriate tone out of the gate with its remarkable rally against Arizona State. Bru McCoy made a fourth-down touchdown catch, then followed it up with the onside kick recovery to give the Trojans the ball with an opportunity to win.
20. Alabama 63, Ole Miss 48 – Oct. 10
Nick Saban's embrace of a 21st-century offense reached its peak in the Crimson Tide's national championship-winning 2020 season, and was pushed to the limit against the coordinator originally hired to implement it. Lane Kiffin left Alabama after a successful run as offensive coordinator, bridging the gap between a failed stint at USC and becoming one of the many Saban assistants to flourish post-Tuscaloosa at FAU.
His Ole Miss Rebels also gave Alabama much more a challenge than most former Saban assistants have when put up against the Crimson Tide.
19. Tulsa 34, East Carolina 30 – Oct. 30
After dropping multiple, high-profile near-misses in 2019, Tulsa was due some good fortune. The Golden Hurricane's path to the AAC Championship Game featured four single-possession wins, including a rally to knock off East Carolina the night before Halloween.
TK Wilkerson scored the second of his two touchdowns on the Golden Hurricane's final drive, which went 11 plays and wasn't without some controversy. The conference later put out a statement that a call on the drive was mishandled, which would have given ECU the win.
18. Texas State 47, Arkansas State 45 – Nov. 21
Texas State lost more than its share of heartbreakers in 2020: six games by 10 points or fewer, with four of those by a single possession. Just one week before beating Arkansas State, the Bobcats dropped a 40-38 decision to Georgia Southern. To say Texas State was due when it rallied from down 11 points in the fourth quarter to beat Arkansas State is an understatement.
It wasn't easy, as the Bobcats needed 20 fourth-quarter points, the last of which capped a drive that began with fewer than two minutes remaining.
17. USC 43, UCLA 38 – Dec. 12
The Pac-12 played the shortest of all the Power 5 schedules during the pandemic shortened season, but USC packed enough excitement in just a few contests to last a few falls. The Trojans' final victory came with a great defensive second half and the familiar combination of Kedon Slovis to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
16. Oklahoma 53, Texas 45 (4OT) – Oct. 10
The word "shootout" may no longer be an official part of the Red River Rivalry, but Oklahoma and Texas provided all the shootout one could ask for in a raucous, four-overtime contest. The Longhorns rallied from two touchdowns down in the fourth quarter, setting the stage for a Stoops to yet again put his stamp on a Sooners win in this storied series.
15. Stanford 48, UCLA 47 (2OT) – Dec. 19
Stanford's disappointing 2019 season included the program's first loss to UCLA since 2008. The Cardinal rebounded from that dismal campaign and an 0-2 start to 2020 with a flourish, winning their final four — including a shootout to give UCLA its receipt for the previous year.
The Cardinal needed two touchdowns in the final three minutes just to force overtime, both scored on Simi Fehoko receptions. The standout wide receiver also grabbed what proved to be the game-winner — just not before UCLA scored and went for two to avoid another extra period.
14. Cincinnati 27, Tulsa 24 (AAC Championship Game) – Dec. 19
One of the greatest seasons in Cincinnati Bearcats history added a fitting punctuation mark in conference play. On a rain-soaked field, the Bearcats outlasted a worthy effort from American Athletic Conference West Division counterpart Tulsa.
Cole Smith drilled a field goal as time expired, ending a run that lasted nearly four minutes after JuanCarols Santana tied the game on a touchdown reception from Zach Smith.
13. Kansas State 38, Oklahoma 35 – Sept. 26
Bob Stoops restored Oklahoma to national prominence after a dismal '90s for the Sooners. His time in Norman was a fitting reflection of his time working with Bill Snyder at Kansas State, transforming the once-downtrodden program into a consistent winner. Even as Oklahoma surged to championship levels under Stoops, the teacher Snyder still schooled his successful student now and then — yet, Snyder's Wildcats never won back-to-back games against Stoops-coached Sooners.
Chris Klieman, meanwhile, oversaw back-to-back shockers against Lincoln Riley's Sooners. The 2020 edition was made all the more shocking given the high-profile loss K-State suffered just a few weeks earlier.
12. Arkansas State 35, Kansas State 31 – Sept. 12
Jonathan Adams caught the last of three touchdown passes with 38 seconds remaining to put Arkansas State's own stamp on the Saturday that the Sun Belt ran roughshod over the Big 12. Adams snagged two scores in the fourth quarter, starting off the period with another red-zone catch.
This was the perfect introduction to a stellar season for Adams, who went for more than 1,100 yards and scored 12 touchdowns for the Red Wolves.
11. Oregon State 41, Oregon 38 – Nov. 27
Dessert on Thanksgiving weekend arrived a day late, as the former Civil War provided a tasty treat. Jermar Jefferson played the best game of his standout career, gaining 226 yards to power the Beavers to the biggest win of Jonathan Smith's tenure. Chance Nolan's goal-line dive scored a victory for Oregon State will be remembered in Corvallis for years to come — even with no fans in attendance at Reser Stadium.
10. Georgia 24, Cincinnati 21 (Peach Bowl) – Jan. 1
After running the table in the regular season to its first outright conference championship since the Big East days, Cincinnati got its shot against heavyweight Georgia in the heart of SEC country. Despite losing by a field goal, the Bearcats proved their worthiness in a physical slugfest.
In something of an ironic twist, it was the SEC team, Georgia, that rode its offensive firepower to the win. JT Daniels showed out on a big stage, setting the table for a potential breakout 2021 campaign.
9. Texas A&M 41, Florida 38 – Oct. 10
A wild fourth quarter culminated in Seth Small's field goal as time expired, scoring Texas A&M arguably its biggest win of the Jimbo Fisher era. The two tams combined for 27 points in the fourth quarter, including the second of Isaiah Spiller's two scores in a standout, 174-yard rushing performance.
8. Louisiana Tech 31, Southern Miss 30 – Nov. 14
Tim Jones was outstanding for Southern Miss, catching eight passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns, but Louisiana Tech's Griffin Hebert matching Jones with two scores made the difference — in particular, his second scoring grab with just 14 seconds remaining. Luke Anthony found Hebert for the game-winner, capping a Bulldogs rally from down 27-10 midway through the third quarter.
7. Indiana 36, Penn State 35 (OT) — Oct. 24
Michael Penix Jr.'s touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion just before the end of regulation powered Indiana into overtime.
The Hoosiers' rolling the dice in the first frame produced another big-time Penix run, good by just inches.
6. Iowa State 37, Oklahoma 30 – Oct. 3
A season to remember for Iowa State, which included the program's first-ever trip to the Big 12 Championship Game and an emphatic Fiesta Bowl win over Oregon, arguably reached its peak with a thrilling, fourth-quarter comeback to beat conference juggernaut Oklahoma.
Breece Hall rushed for the game-winner, sealed when Isheem Young's interception slammed the door on the Sooners' final drive.
5. Ohio State 42, Indiana 35 — Nov. 21
It wasn't all smooth sailing for Ohio State on its way to the national championship game. After building a big lead against Indiana, the Hoosiers nearly completed the most furious rally of the campaign with a 28-7 outburst. Michael Penix Jr. was electric in the kind of game that fits the old Vince Lombardi quip: "We didn't lose, we ran out of time."
4. Western Michigan 41, Toledo 38 – Nov. 11
Despite arriving late to the 2020 season, it didn't take long for the Mid-American Conference to get right down to #MACtion. In its typical midweek spot, the league delivered great action. Western Michigan specifically delivered the best game-winning play of 2020 when Kaleb Eleby faked a spike then found Jaylen Hall to cap a 20-point fourth quarter.
3. LSU 37, Florida 34 – Dec. 12
In a fog-blanketed Swamp, a thrown shoe on a would-be punting situation eliminated Florida from College Football Playoff contention.
Though memorable for this moment, the back-and-forth affair, culminating in a long field goal to win it for the Tigers, was one of the most exciting games of the season.
2. Notre Dame 47, Clemson 40 (2OT) – Nov. 7
Notre Dame's one-year membership in ACC football produced an incredible shootout with College Football Playoff implications. Although Trevor Lawrence was unavailable, D.J. Uiagalelei acquitted himself nicely with 439 passing yards and three total touchdowns. It was ultimately the Kyren Williams show, however, as the Fighting Irish running back went off for three touchdowns.
1. Coastal Carolina 22, BYU 17 – Dec. 5
No other game quite encapsulated the oddities of the 2020 season like this "Mormons vs. Mullets" showdown of non-Power 5 programs, angling for inclusion in the College Football Playoff conversation. The two brokered a 23rd-hour agreement for the Cougars to come to Conway, and the result was an unforgettable, prime-time matchup with a finish for the ages.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.
(Top photo courtesy of goccusports.com)