The difficulties of the 2020 college football season made for a somewhat muted campaign. After enduring the struggles of the pandemic, 2021 more than made up for lost time.
The past season was among the very best in recent memory, delivering an autumn full of fantastic finishes, monumental upsets, and even a national title game befitting the intensity of the year.
Dozens more games could have made the following rankings. However, the next 25 helped make the 2021 season what it was.
25 Best College Football Games of 2021 Season
25. Charlotte 31, Duke 28 – Sept. 3
The fledgling Charlotte football program has reached a variety of milestones in recent years, and the 49ers ushered in the 2021 season with another: Their first defeat of a Power 5 program.
The back-and-forth, opening weekend contest set a fitting tone for the incredible campaign, culminating in Chris Reynolds throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to Shadrick Byrd in the waning moments.
24. South Dakota 23, South Dakota State 20 – Nov. 13
For the sake of brevity, this top 25 focuses exclusively on the FBS — with this one exception. Check out how South Dakota toppled its in-state rival and perennial Missouri Valley Football Conference power South Dakota State, and you'll understand why.
23. Jacksonville State 20, Florida State 17 — Sept. 11
OK, one more amazing finish from an FCS team (albeit one transitioning to FBS in the coming years). More than a decade after beating Ole Miss in Oxford, Jacksonville State again knocked off a regional power in dramatic fashion. Zerrick Cooper dropped a dime to Damon Phulyaw-Johnson and the Gamecocks wide receiver did the work from there.
22. San Diego State 33, Utah 31 (4OT) — Sept. 18
Mountain West Conference programs have made a habit of knocking off Power 5 competition, and San Diego State has been particularly adept at it. The Aztecs scored two wins against Pac-12 opponents in 2021, including against its eventual champion, Utah.
This renewal of an old WAC/MWC rivalry included a 100-yard Jordan Byrd kickoff return touchdown, saw Utah score two touchdowns in the final four minutes of regulation to force overtime, and end with the Aztecs victorious despite amassing 44 passing yards.
The loss proved transformative for Utah, too, as SoCal product Cameron Rising took over at quarterback and eventually led the Utes back to Los Angeles County in the postseason.
21. Alabama 24, Auburn 22 (4OT) – Nov. 27
Nick Saban's embrace of up-tempo offense in recent years has made the Crimson Tide as exciting as they are physical, and produced the last two Heisman Trophy winners (one could argue the 2021 Heisman belonged to a defensive member of the Tide, but that's a discussion for another time).
The point is, Auburn holding Alabama without a point for 3.5 quarters is one of the greatest achievements of the season — and end up being for naught as Bryce Young took over to lead a consequential comeback in the Iron Bowl.
20. Wyoming 50, Northern Illinois 43 – Sept. 11
In one of the strangest back-and-forths of the season, Wyoming jumped to a 28-10 lead by halftime, extended it to a 42-16 advantage in the late third quarter... then had to rally in the closing minutes.
Northern Illinois scored four unanswered touchdowns from 4:34 in the third quarter to 4:56 in the fourth, taking a 43-42 lead. But the Cowboys marched down the field on their final possession and scored the touchdown and two-point conversion to close out one of 2021's weirdest games.
19. Fresno State 40, UCLA 37 – Sept. 18
Fresno State has built its reputation over the last two decades on big upsets of Power 5 opponents. The 2021 Bulldogs added their mark on the program's illustrious history, doing what LSU couldn't a few weeks earlier by winning in the Rose Bowl.
Jake Haener electrified, culminating in a game-winning drive for the ages.
18. Oregon 35, Ohio State 28 — Sept. 11
The 2021 campaign was largely disappointing for the Pac-12 from a national perspective, but Oregon's impressive win at Ohio State was a decided high watermark for the conference in recent years.
The Ducks' offensive line dominated, paving enough holes that CJ Verdell rushed Oregon to a win despite C.J. Stroud going off.
17. NC State 34, North Carolina 30 – Nov. 26
Twenty combined points in the final 7:44 made for one of the season's best finishes. North Carolina took two different two-possession leads in the second half, the second with just 2:12 to go.
But in a span of 26 seconds, Devin Leary found Emeka Emezie for touchdowns of 64 and 24 yards to power NC State to an incredible win.
16. Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State 37, Notre Dame 35 – Jan. 1, 2022
One of the most memorable seasons in Oklahoma State football history had a fitting ending, as the Cowboys rallied from a 28-7 deficit on the strength of three Spencer Sanders touchdown passes to Tay Martin, and the stout defense producing three drives that started deep in Notre Dame territory.
In total, Oklahoma State scored 30 unanswered points in a span that stretched from late in the second quarter into late in the final period.
15. North Carolina 58, Wake Forest 55 – Nov. 6
Wake Forest put up borderline basketball scores all season long, but the Demon Deacons walked a dangerous tightrope in these shootouts. The high-scoring formula finally cost Wake in a Tobacco Road tilt with North Carolina.
Sam Hartman's 66-yard touchdown pass to A.T. Perry opened up a three-touchdown Demon Deacons lead, but Ty Chandler took over in the fourth quarter with a trio of touchdown rushes. North Carolina's 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter gave the Heels the necessary cushion to weather Wake's final score with 37 seconds remaining.
14. Kansas 57, Texas 56 (OT) – Nov. 13
Kansas football wins over blue-blood programs are rare enough that the Jayhawks' overtime defeat of Texas warrants ranking on its own. But for KU to rally after giving up a lead — which cost the Jayhawks just a few weeks prior against Oklahoma — and a former walk-on fullback scoring the game-winning two-point conversion only makes this that much more worthy of the spotlight.
And that Jared Casey was able to capitalize on the moment with an Applebee's commercial just makes the moment that much sweeter.
13. Michigan 32, Nebraska 29 – Oct. 9
Any number of Nebraska games could make this ranking — and in the Big Ten edition, the Cornhuskers are repeatedly spoken for — but this nightcap to the historic Oct. 9 slate is the best representation of a heartbreaking season.
Nebraska rallied from a 13-0 halftime deficit to take a 22-19 lead into the fourth quarter, pulled back ahead midway through the final period, and took possession in a 29-29 game with three minutes to go. But then came Brad Hawkins.
12. College Football Playoff National Championship Game: Georgia 33, Alabama 18 — Jan. 10, 2022
The final score might cloud just how exciting this season's national title game proved to be. After a lackluster SEC Championship Game in which Alabama cruised, Georgia regrouped and played some of its best ball of the season.
In particular, Stetson Bennett rose to the challenge with two of the most clutch touchdown passes ever thrown in a championship contest.
11. Oklahoma 55, Texas 48 – Oct. 9
The Red River Rivalry is such an important pillar of college football history, both in the distant and immediate past. That it set the tone for one of the sport's greatest days ever is all too fitting.
Bijan Robinson's early dominance of the Oklahoma defense was overshadowed with Caleb Williams' move to quarterback. Williams led the Sooners on a wild comeback , while Kennedy Brooks rushed for two crucial touchdowns late in the fourth quarter to seal the win.
10. Michigan State 37, Michigan 33 – Oct. 30
Football, more than any other sport, is only won through collective efforts. A dominant pitching performance or shut-down goaltending can make up for offensive deficiencies in baseball or hockey, and LeBron James has built a basketball career around elevating the players around him to championship level.
And Kenneth Walker III's incredible effort against Michigan wouldn't have been without excellent play from the offensive line against one of the most tenacious and talented defenses in the country. But on the afternoon of Halloween Eve, Walker looked like a one-man show.
9. Oklahoma State 37, Oklahoma 33 – Nov. 27
The future of Bedlam may be in doubt with Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC soon. If the longstanding rivalry does conclude as an annual affair, the Cowboys can hang their hats on winning one of the series' most exciting installments ever.
OU's always-potent offense challenged Oklahoma State's excellent defense to a degree few opponents could in 2021, but the Cowboys buckled down in the fourth quarter to give Spencer Sanders and Jaylen Warren the room needed to mount a comeback.
8. Big 12 Championship Game: Baylor 21, Oklahoma State 16 – Dec. 4
Literal inches decided the Big 12 title in 2021, and likely altered the College Football Playoff field in immeasurable ways. The conference that was long the standard-setter for high-scoring, modern offense — for better or worse — was shaped by defense this past season. Thus, it's only right an outstanding defensive play determined the championship.
7. Appalachian State 30, Coastal Carolina 27 — Oct. 20
Arguably no game in the 2021 season better captures everything that makes college football special: Two teams focused not on an arbitrary playoff at season's end, but winning regional bragging rights in their conference; an exciting back-and-forth with big plays; a raucous crowd cheering on a comeback; and a field storming.
Appalachian State and Coastal Carolina seem to have a rivalry budding, which is a decidedly great thing for the Sun Belt.
6. NC State 27, Clemson 21 (2OT) – Sept. 25
NC State's run of heartbreaking finishes in Top 25 contests loomed over Raleigh like a billy goat in Chicago. But what set up like the quintessential blown opportunity for the Wolfpack instead resulted in a heart-stopping win over the ACC's standard-bearer.
5. Houston 44, SMU 37 — Oct. 30
This rivalry dating back to the Southwest Conference days has produced plenty of high-scoring contests, but few ever stack up to the pulse-pounding excitement of the 2021 edition. The second half featured four lead changes, a tie with 30 seconds remaining, and then... a near walk-off kickoff return.
4. UTSA 34, UAB 31 — Nov. 20
Under head coach Bill Clark, UAB has matured into an unlikely standard-bearer for Conference USA. That UTSA had to go through the Blazers en route to the West division title is no surprise, and neither is UAB giving the Roadrunners one heckuva fight.
The two exchanged big plays, including a 54-yard Frank Harris touchdown pass to Zakhari Franklin and a 74-yard Dylan Hopkins strike to Trea Shropshire, and it was a nail-biter down to the final seconds. Harris found Oscar Cardenas on the rare football buzzer-beater. The play emulated something you'd see on a basketball court so much that Harris even tossed a hook shot of sorts.
3. Ole Miss 52, Arkansas 51 — Oct. 9
Sam Pittman's roll of the dice to go for two points gave this wild SEC West shootout a befittingly intense finish akin to a March Madness buzzer-beater.
The Rebels and Razorbacks were neck-and-neck virtually all game, with the gap only extended beyond one possession for four brief minutes early in the third quarter. There were five ties across each of the four periods, and three touchdowns were scored over the final 1:22.
2. Rose Bowl Game: Ohio State 48, Utah 45 – Jan. 1, 2022
Jaxon Smith-Njigba's record-setting performance capped an incredible edition of the Rose Bowl Game that proved, even as the College Football Playoff encroaches on the game's traditions, the Granddaddy of Them All remains at the pinnacle.
The Buckeyes and Utes — playing in their first Rose Bowl — exchanged haymakers for all 60 minutes. It was an exhilarating, emotional entry into the illustrious history of college football's first bowl game.
1. Texas A&M 41, Alabama 38 — Oct. 9
The best day of the 2021 season reached a crescendo with the best game of the 2021 season. Texas A&M's upset of Alabama was a ridiculous roller-coaster ride that included game-changing special-teams plays, both teams mounting comebacks in the second half, and Jimbo Fisher becoming the first former Nick Saban assistant to beat a Saban-coached team.
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.