Monday’s Rose Bowl between Georgia and Oklahoma was hailed as an instant classic. And rightfully so. It had everything you wanted in a great game: story lines, consequence, great athletes, great plays, and great theater. But was it the greatest game in the history of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS)/College Football Playoff (CFP) Era? It certainly benefits from the recency of memory, but it’s not the best. But where on the list does it fall? Let’s take a look.
Five Best Games of the BCS/CFP Era
How do you determine the best games? First and foremost, the game has to be exciting. There must be some compelling drama on the field. A tightly contested contest, with great athletes making great plays for instance. Or an incredible comeback. Some 9-6 games are compelling and some aren’t. Some 54-48 games are compelling, but some aren’t. You can distinguish the truly great games by the palpable feel you get when watching.
Secondly, there needs to be some interesting story lines. Many games are played every Saturday. To have that added emphasis there should be more than competing teams; there should be converging stories as well.
The game must have consequence as well. A 28-point fourth quarter comeback in a game between 3-8 teams is interesting — maybe even exciting — but it simply can’t break the barrier to be a great game. To be truly great, there must be something on the line.
Great games also have great athletes, great play, and often times have the added measure of meaning. There are many things that go into making a game great. There is no set formula. But these are the key components that separate the games below from the others.
We’ve selected only from the BCS/Host/New Year’s Six Bowl games. Only those games that the best teams in the nation played in at the end of the season. That gives us twenty full seasons (less Monday’s Championship Game) and 72 top-tier games to choose from.
Certainly there were numerous great games in other bowl games or during the regular season over that time. Ohio State and Michigan, Alabama and Auburn, and Baylor-TCU all gave us great match-ups. LSU and Oregon, Oklahoma and Ohio State, and USC and Notre Dame gave us some great inter-conference games as well. But we will stick to the prime time, post-season for our selections here.
Without further ado, here are the five best games of the BCS/CFP era:
2006 Rose Bowl: Vince Young Leads Texas Over USC; Ends The Trojans Dynasty
The “Granddaddy Of Them All” gave us the greatest game of the past twenty years — and maybe the greatest college football game of all time. USC came into the game on one of the greatest rolls in modern college football history. The Trojans had won 33 straight games, were defending national champions, were on their third straight Pac-10 Championship, and fourth straight BCS Bowl. In addition to that, they had two Heisman Trophy winners on the same team in quarterback Matt Leinart and running back Reggie Bush. This team had 11 players taken in the 2006 NFL Draft. It was a ridiculously talented team.
Texas, on the other hand, was a little bit different. They were still talented, six members of this team, including quarterback Vince Young, were drafted. And they were still successful — they had won the Rose Bowl the previous season by a point over Michigan, 38-37. But the Big 12 hadn’t really found its way yet, with Nebraska and Oklahoma dominating the first formidable years of the young conference. And with two successive college football dynasties preceding this season (Miami and USC), the Longhorns were still the decided underdogs.
The real story here was Young. The native Texan was the heart and soul of the Longhorns. The workmanlike mindset of head coach Mack Brown and the gutsy, do-it-all ability of Young contrasted sharply with the glitz and glamour of the high-powered Hollywood Trojans. There’s your story line.
The game itself was a fantastic three-hour display of football at its finest. No team lead by more than one score until USC took a 12 point lead with 6:42 remaining in the fourth quarter. That’s when the real drama began. Young scored on a 17 yard scramble with 4:03 left in the game to trim the USC lead to 38-33. The USC dynamic running back duo of Reggie Bush and LenDale White were unable to get two yards on a fourth-and-two with two minutes to play.
Young now had the ball with 2:03 to play and promptly marched the Longhorns down the field. Young was in on every single play of the drive, converting a third-and-12. With less than thirty second to play, at the nine yard line, Texas faced a fourth-and-five. Young took the snap, and scrambled to the right for a touchdown with :19 seconds left in the game. There’s the excitement.
The Longhorns ended the fourth longest modern winning streak in history and the USC dynasty. This game had everything a college game could ask for. Two great teams, chalked full of great athletes, making great plays on the sport’s biggest stage.
It’s the greatest game of the BCS/CFP era, and quite possible the greatest game in the history of the sport.
2. 2003 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State Needs Two Overtimes To End The Miami Dynasty
Before the USC dynasty, there was the Miami dynasty. The Hurricanes were defending national champions had reeled off 34 straight wins going back to the 2000 season. Much like the Trojans of the 2006 Rose Bowl, the Hurricanes were a roster of future NFL stars. Ken Dorsey, Willis McGahee, Andre Johnson, Frank Gore, Kellen Winslow II, Jonathan Vilma, Antrel Rolle, and Sean Taylor headlines the three-time Big East Champions.
This was just the second BCS game for Ohio State, who would go on to play in more BCS games than any other team. The Big Ten had been in flux for a few years, with Purdue, Illinois, and Wisconsin leading the Big Ten the previous three seasons. The Buckeyes were the proverbial “David,” with only five players taken in the 2003 NFL Draft. Their biggest star, Maurice Clarett, would not be able to make his way to the NFL after his one season in Columbus.
Much like the 2006 Rose Bowl, this game was close throughout. Many people thought Miami would run away with this game, and kept waiting for that to happen. But it never did. Ohio State never trailed in the second half. Miami had to convert a 40-yard field goal as time expired in regulation to tie the game and send it to overtime. What more can you ask for in the season’s biggest game than free football?
Miami thought that they had won the game after an Ohio State incomplete pass on fourth down. But the referee in the end zone called a controversial pass interference penalty that allowed the Buckeyes to even the game a few plays later. It’s one of the most debated calls in college football history.
Clarett scored a touchdown for the Buckeyes in the second overtime. Another controversial pass interference call gave Miami a first and goal from the 2 yard line. Ohio State’s defense held the Goliath to one yard on the next four plays. A Dorsey pass feel incomplete on fourth down to end the game, and Miami’s three seasons dominance, 31-24
3. 2007 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State Topples Oklahoma
You want drama? This is the game. Had this game been for the national championship, it would easily be the greatest game in college football history. Oklahoma is one of college football’s true blue-blood programs. Boise State was an upstart program from the Mountain West Conference that plays on a blue field. Can you imagine Oklahoma playing on a blue field?
This was the prototypical David versus Goliath. Boise State didn’t have any players on their roster known across the country. The Sooners had Adrian Peterson, DeMarco Murray, and Sam Bradford on this roster, along with several more eventual NFL Players.
But more than the David versus Goliath story line, this was about the emergence of Non-Automatic Qualifiers. Boise State wasn’t the first non-AQ to win a BCS Bowl Game — that happened two years earlier when Utah beat Pittsburgh. But Utah beating Pittsburgh just doesn’t have the same impact of little Boise State slaying Oklahoma. It also didn’t have the offensive explosion of 85 total points. It also didn’t go to overtime.
Three touchdowns were scored in the final 1:26 of regulation. On the first, an Oklahoma touchdown, the Sooners required three attempts at the two-point conversion.
And then, if that wasn’t enough, Boise State ran two trick plays to win the game in overtime. It was all capped off by Ian Johnson‘s “Statue of Liberty” play on the winning two-point conversion.
Johnson would propose to his girlfriend on live T.V. following the game.
This game was simply bananas. With a marriage proposal. And meaning. Boise State, like Utah before them, would finish the season undefeated. When Florida beat Ohio State in the BCS Championship Game, that made Boise State the only Division 1 (FBS) undefeated team. From this game forward, the Non-AQ/G5 teams would get much better consideration from major decision makers in college football.
4. 2018 Rose Bowl: Georgia’s Defense And Running Game Outduels Baker Mayfield And Company
It’s easy to see why this game is an instant classic. The Rose Bowl. Two great teams. Two blue-blood programs. Oklahoma with the young coach and the energetic and sometimes controversial Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield. Georgia with second year tough guy coach Kirby Smart, a punishing rushing attack, and a staunch defense.
But don’t let the recency of this game fool you. It’s great — all-time great. But it’s not the greatest.
It wasn’t so much that there was poor defense played, it was that there was an insane amount of talent on the field. Georgia’s defense came to life in the second half, and Mayfield couldn’t quite make enough plays to keep Oklahoma’s dream alive. Freshman Jake Fromm calmly led the Dawgs down the field to tie the game near the end of regulation, and Georgia’s defense did the rest in the second overtime. The Dawg defense blocked a field goal and turned the ball over to Sony Michel and the offense. On third and long, Michel took the direct snap and went 18 yards to end the game.
The hype of a semifinal. The beauty of a Rose Bowl setting. The brashness of Baker Mayfield. The toughness of Georgia. It was like a grown man soap opera. And it didn’t disappoint.
5. 2013 Rose Bowl: Florida State Ends The BCS Era And The SEC’s Run Of Titles
Entering the 2013 season, the SEC had won seven straight BCS National Championships. People were getting tired of seeing the SEC hoisting the Crystal Football. And people knew that the BCS was ending, as well. Fittingly, Florida State was there at the end, just as it was there at the beginning. Only this time, they beat their SEC foe.
Jameis Winston was the star of this night. Auburn held a 21-10 halftime lead behind a staunch defense, but couldn’t hold on. After kicking a field goal to make it 24-20 with 4:42 to go in the game (Auburn’s first points since midway through the second quarter), Florida State’s Kermit Whitfield took the ensuing kickoff 100 yards to give Florida State its first lead since it led 3-0 early in the first quarter. Auburn wasn’t done, though. Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall and running back Tre Mason led a 75-yard drive that resulted i a touchdown, and 31-27 lead, with 1:19 remaining in the game.
That’s when Winston, the Heisman Trophy winner, went to work. Winston quickly drove the Seminoles down the field underneath Auburn’s ultra-prevent defense. On third and eight, with under 20 second remaining in the game, Winston’s incomplete pass was wiped out by another controversial pass interference call in a championship game, ala Ohio State-Miami in the 2002 Fiesta Bowl. This time, Florida State converted on the next play and secured the win, and the national championship, with a mere :13 seconds to spare.
In securing Florida State’s first title in 14 years, they also ended the SEC’s seven year run as BCS Champions. More importantly, Florida State and Auburn gave us one of the five greatest games of the the BCS/CFP era.
College football has an extensive catalog of great games. Its one of the things that make the game the greatest sport in the world. This is just snapshot of the best games of the most important bowls of the last twenty years. This doesn’t take into account the legendary Oklahoma-Nebraska games, the Red River Rivalry Shootouts, the Army-Notre Dame games, and all of those magical moments that occurred on random Saturdays on campuses across the nation.
Here are some of the games of the BCS/CFP era that were worthy, but didn’t quite make the cut.
- 2016 and 2017 CFP National Championship Games: Alabama-Clemson I & II: Not much that hasn’t been said about college football’s current top dog programs. From an on-side kick momentum changer to the Hunter Renfrow pick-play touchdown, both of these games were razor close.
- 2017 Rose Bowl: USC’s Comeback Against Penn State: This was a back-and-forth affair. After Penn State felt that they were slighted for the fourth CFP slot, the Trojans jumped on them early. USC took a 20-7 lead early in the second quarter. Penn State would take it from there, going on a 35-7 run through the third quarter to stake a 42-27 lead midway through the quarter. The Nittany Lions would hold a 49-35 lead as the last quarter began. USC would need 10 points in the last 1:20 of the game, including a Matt Boermeester 46-yard field goal as time expired to win the game 52-49. Until last Monday, it was the highest scoring Rose Bowl ever.
- 2005 Fiesta Bowl: Utah Makes The AQ Case: Utah becomes the first Non-AQ/G5 team to play in and beat an AQ/P5 team (Pittsburgh) in a BCS/CFP Bowl. While not quite Boise State-Oklahoma, it is certainly meaningful in its own right.
- 2018 Peach Bowl: UCF Beats Auburn To Become Peach Perfect: UCF is America’s darling team and the Knights go undefeated by beating the team that beat both of the teams in the CFP Championship Game. The Knights are claiming a national title. Is this the beginning of the end of the four-team playoff? Doubtful.
- 1999 Fiesta Bowl: Tennessee Opens The BCS Era Against Florida State: The Vols open the BCS era with Tee Martin leading the charge against the Seminoles, who would play in the championship game for the first three seasons, losing two. Maybe the biggest story of the inaugural BCS season was in conference championship week, when two other undefeated teams (Kansas State and UCLA) lost to avoid total chaos in year one.
- 2009 Sugar Bowl: Utah Routs Alabama; The Galactic Republic Rejoices: In one of the more improbable defeats in top-level football, Utah won its second BCS game, the Sugar Bowl against Alabama, in dominant fashion 31-17. People remember this game for one thing, and one thing only; the embarrassment that the Utes put on Alabama.
- 2016 Rose Bowl: Stanford’s Band Beats Iowa: This game makes the list not because of the football (Christian McCaffrey and Kevin Hogan were decent), but because of the band. Stanford‘s band did a halftime performance of “Farmer’s Only Dot Com” mocking the state of Iowa. To make it worse for Iowa fans, they were already down 35-0 at the half. Safe to say, the Stanford band is not welcome in Iowa.
- 2015 Sugar Bowl: Ohio State Runs Past Alabama: The two giants meet in the Sugar Bowl in a situation not unlike what we find ourselves in this year. Ohio State was a very controversial 4th seed, with Big 12 co-champions Baylor and TCU seemingly canceling each other out. Cardale Jones and Ezekiel Elliott made their names on this night and would go on to win the very first CFP National Championship.
Will the 2018 CFP National Championship make the list? What about next year’s games. Of course we will have to wait and see. But if history is any indication, the next instant classic is right around the corner.