As the 2013-14 bowl season prepares to begin, to culminate with the last-ever BCS Championship Gsme between Florida State and Auburn (which might very well make a list like this next year), it's time to take a look back in history at 20 of the bowl season's best-ever games.
Quick notes before we start: this list is slightly skewed towards bowl games from the 2000s, mainly due to there being so many more bowl games than there used to be in the older days.
Most of the "older" generation games all have some semblance of national title ramifications, hence you won't see any "old school" Rose Bowl games here.
Other than that, I am, as always, open for debate, so let's get started:
#20: 2001 GMAC Bowl (Marshall 64, East Carolina 61 (2OT)
This is the only game on this list that you could consider to be not a "major" bowl, but in the interest of being fair & balanced, this game does still deserve a place on this list, even more than a decade later. For starters, this bowl game remains thr highest-scoring bowl game in history (though to be fair, the record for non-overtime games was set by Baylor and Washington in the Alamo Bowl two years ago). But this game makes this list where that Alamo Bowl doesn't because it had a 30-point comeback by the Thundering Herd, led by Byron Leftwich, who brought them back from a 38-8 halftime deficit just to get the game to OT tied at 51-51. Leftwich was opposed in this game by the guy who would often be his most direct competition on the Jacksonville Jaguars in David Garrard. But considering the relatively meaningless stakes in this one, I can't rank it any higher than the bottom of the list.
#19: 2004 Capital One Bowl (Georgia 34, Purdue 27 (OT)
Our second straight overtime game continues this list, although we are at least moving to New Year's Day for this one, which was a rematch of the 2000 Outback Bowl game these two teams played, which also went to overtime. And much like that game, this one saw a big comeback by one of the two teams, as Georgia raced out to a 24-0 lead only to see Purdue cut it to 24-10 at halftime before a scoreless third quarter merely set the stage for a wild ending. The Bulldogs, who entered this game after a disappointing loss in the SEC Championship Game, wound up having to hang on to win in overtime after racing out to that lead, as Purdue would recover a fumble and turn it into a game-tying field goal with 49 seconds left to send it to OT. Once in the extra session, Georgia would score on the opening possession and then get a game-ending interception off of Purdue quarterback Kyle Orton to win the game.
#18: 2000 Orange Bowl (Michigan 35, Alabama 34 (OT))
While everyone will agree that Tom Brady grew up to be perhaps the best quarterback of all time, but at the time of this game, he had yet to really even have a signature win at Michigan. But thanks to two separate 14-point comebacks (from 14-0 and 28-14 down), Brady led the Wolverines to an Orange Bowl win over the Crimson Tide in the first game on this list that pits Top 10 ranked teams against each other (Alabama was ranked 4th in the BCS coming into this game, Michigan 8th). Oh, and this also became the first known instance of "Kick Bama Kick", as Michigan was able to officially put this one in the win column when Alabama's kicker shanked an extra point that would've sent this game to a second overtime. But both teams suffered from kicking issues in this one, as Michigan's kicker had a field goal blocked that would have won the game at the end of regulation. Despite this being Brady's coming-out party, David Terrell was named the game's MVP.
#17: 1980 Holiday Bowl (BYU 46, SMU 45)
This is another game that had no real significance on the national stage, despite the Cougars winding up at 11-1 after thier literal last-second comeback win over the Mustangs in this one. But it was noteworthy for a number of other reasons, namely for being the first bowl win in BYU school history. That they took down Craig James, Eric Dickerson and the mighty Pony Express in this one, while at the same time being quarterbacked by Jim McMahon, gives it plenty of star power, and it was the first hint of what would lead the Holiday Bowl to its reputation as one of the most exciting bowl games. BYU would enter the fourth quarter trailing SMU, 38-13, only to score 27 4th quarter points, 21 of those in the final 2:33, to nip the Mustangs on a touchdown pass from McMahon with no time on the clock, the extra point giving them the win behind McMahon's 433 yards and MVP performance in a game that is still one of the best of all time after more than 30 years.
#16: 2011 Rose Bowl (TCU 21, Wisconsin 19)
This might seem like it deserves to be higher on the list, but despite the matchup pitting the third-ranked Horned Frogs and fourth-ranked Badgers, with no real national title implications to speak off, I can't consciously rank it ahead of any of those games on this list. But this game is still historically significant, as TCU became the first non-BCS automatic qualifier to play in the "Granddaddy of Them All", and, as it would turn out, the only one in the BCS era. Plus, it ended up being the last college game for both TCU quarterback Andy Dalton and Wisconsin's JJ Watt before they would take their talents to the NFL. And it also lived up to the Rose Bowl name, as TCU battled tooth-and-nail with the bigger, badder Badgers and their bruising running game, led by Montee Ball, forging a 14-13 lead at the half that would grow to 21-13 after three before Wisconsin answered with a touchdown only to have their two-point pass batted down at the line to preserve victory for the Frogs.
#15: 2005 Capital One Bowl (Iowa 30, LSU 25)
In what was the last game that Nick Saban would coach at LSU before his failed stint as coach of the Miami Dolphins, the Tigers would find themselves on the wrong end of a last-second loss to Kirk Ferentz and his Hawkeyes. The teams played a typically tight SEC vs. Big Ten defensive struggle through three quarters, with Iowa holding a 17-12 lead, before the offenses on both sides opened up to the tune of 13 points a side in the fourth quarter, with two of the touchdowns coming in the final minute, first by LSU to give them a 25-24 lead, before Iowa QB (and game MVP Drew Tate) hit Warren Holloway on a 56-yard score as time expired to give Ferentz what is arguably still his biggest win as Iowa's coach in Saban's last collegiate game until taking over at Alabama, and taking over the college football world. It also gave the Capital One Bowl a game on this list for the second consecutive season.
#14: 2004 Sugar Bowl (LSU 21, Oklahoma 14)
In the first of the national title-deciding games on this list, and the first of four of those from the soon-to-be-departed BCS era, the Tigers and Sooners staged a Sugar Bowl showdown that wound up deciding what would turn out very much to be a disputed championship for the 2003 season. That's because due to the non-dominant fashion with which LSU handled OU, USC wound up with an AP title. But the game itself was a classic, albeit not an aesthetically pleasing one, as LSU's top-ranked defense put the shackles on the Sooners' record-breaking offense to give Nick Saban his first national title, one that he had to share, albeit, with USC, in the end, as well as giving LSU their first national title since 1958. But it ranks so low on this list one, for the controversy surrounding the split national title, and two, because there are far better BCS (and non-BCS, for that matter), national title games to put on this list.
#13: 2006 Orange Bowl (Penn State 26, Florida State 23 (3OT))
If we can get past for a minute the stench of the Jerry Sandusky case, in which the Nittany Lions had to forfeit every win from the Joe Paterno era, meaning that this win and another coming up soon on our list was effectively wiped out, it's easy to see why this Orange Bowl classic ranks on this list. For starters, you had the aforementioned Paterno matched up against Bobby Bowden for the first time since the last meeting between these teams, the 1990 Blockbuster/Carquest/Whatever-it's-called-now-Bowl. Not to mention that the three overtimes makes it the longest game, in football time, anyway, of the BCS era, and perhaps the longest in real time, too, clocking in at just over four hours. The two teams traded scores all night long, with no team ever having more than a one-score lead, until Bowden and FSU were once again victimized by a field goal going wide right in the third overtime, followed up by Penn State's game-winner to end this classic contest.
#12: 2011 BCS National Championship Game (Auburn 22, Oregon 19)
As the only BCS National Championship Game on this list, you'd probably expect it to rank a little higher, despite the lingering questions by some over the legitimacy of Cam Newton and the Tigers' title victory here. But as far as actual gameplay goes on this list, the game, while tight and exciting the whole way, was not a glowing endorsement of NCAA football at the highest level. Hey, I've got to use some set of rules to separate these games, after all. The headline going into this game, of course, was whether or not the Ducks and their gimmicky Chip Kelly offense could handle the rough & tumble defenses of the SEC. A scoreless first quarter would eventually give way to a second-quarter shotout that saw Auburn take a 16-11 halftime lead before Oregon would eventually pull even at 19 late in the fourth, setting the stage for the memorable finish that was Michael Dyer's 37-yard run that set up the game-winning field goal on the game's last play.
#11: 2009 Fiesta Bowl (Texas 24, Ohio State 21)
The 2009 Fiesta Bowl saw the Longhorns, who had lost out on a trip to the BCS National Championship Game on perhaps the most convoluted tiebreaker in college football (thank you for that, Big 12), matched up in a high-profile game with the Buckeyes. As a consolation prize for not playing the next night, the 'Horns played in their third scintillating BCS bowl of the just-ended Mack Brown era, and stole the win from the Buckeyes in the closing seconds. You wouldn't have known it, though, when the game was only 6-3 Ohio State at the half, but the Texas offense, led by Colt McCoy, scored two third quarter touchdowns to take a 17-6 lead into the fourth quarter, only to see the Buckeyes rally for 15 unanswered points to take a 24-21 lead. That set up yet another furious finish to a BCS-era game, as McCoy led the 'Horns down the field to the winning score, throwing it to Quan Cosby with 16 seconds left.
#10: 1979 Cotton Bowl (Notre Dame 35, Houston 34)
Two words put this game just into the top half of this list: Joe Montana. And while you're at it, you can add the words "chicken soup game" to his name. Because when it comes to the 1979 Cotton Bowl Classic, the words "Joe Montana" and "chicken soup game" are synonymous with each other. Notre Dame scored the first 12 points of the day on this bitter New Year's Day in Dallas, but trailed Houston 20-12 at the half, and were without Montana, who was reportedly being treated for chills and a fever caused by the cold conditions, returning miraculously in the fourth quarter to lead Notre Dame back from a 34-12 deficit to a 35-34 win, throwing a tying touchdown on the game's last play, with the Irish winning it with an extra point after the game clock had already expired, leaving the Cougars as the ones feeling a little sick after witnessing an early edition of "Montana Magic" up close and personal.
#9: 2005 Rose Bowl (Texas 38, Michigan 37)
In the first of Texas' two consecutive Rose Bowl appearances (the other one is much, much, MUCH, higher on this list), saw them doing battle with the traditional Big Ten opponent, Michigan. And if the following year's Rose Bowl game was his crowning achievement, then this game should (and probably has) go down in history as Vince Young's coming out party. Want even more reasons why this was historic, other than being Texas' first trip to the Granddaddy? It was, and still is, the only meeting these two schools have ever had on the football field, and then there's the whole matter of it having been decided by a single point. The Wolverines took a 31-21 lead into the game's final quarter, and, led by the game's defensive MVP LaMarr Woodley, had done a respectable job bottling up Young and his Longhorn mates, until 17 fourth quarter points by Texas led to UT's Dusty Mangum hitting a field goal as time expired to win it after Young had moved them into position.
#8: 1979 Sugar Bowl (Alabama 14, Penn State 7)
As previously mentioned, this is the second of Penn State's appearances on this list that officially no longer exist. Which would probably be good news for Nittany Lions fans, since this matchup of the top-ranked Nittany Lions and second-ranked Crimson Tide marked Penn State's first attempt to win Joe Paterno a national title, only to have it taken away from them by Bear Bryant and his Tide with a last-minute goal line stand that still ranks as one of the most impressive in the history of college football today, some 35 years later. And as you would expect from legendary coaches like Bryant and Paterno, the game, which was billed as Penn State's defense against Alabama's offense, didn't disappoint, with the first score not coming until seconds before halftime. With the score at 14-7 in the fourth quarter, the Tide famously stonewalled Penn State on four straight plays from the 1 yard line and went on to give Bryant his fifth national title while Paterno continued to wait for his first.
#7: 1997 Rose Bowl (Ohio State 20, Arizona State 17)
While not directly a game for the national title, this dandy Rose Bowl between the fourth-ranked Buckeyes and second-ranked Sun Devils had national title aspirations for the Devils, who had already beaten defending national champion Nebraska in the regular season. Plus, the Sun Devils, with Jake "the Snake" Plummer leading their offense and Pat Tillman leading them on defense, seemed to have had the clear talent advantage. But no one told the Buckeyes that, and they would hold a 14-10 lead going into the final quarter of play behind the serviceable play of quarterback Joe Germaine and their defense, led by Shawn Springs and Andy Katzenmoyer. But as is often the case with a team that you let hang around, despite Arizona State taking a 17-14 lead in the fourth, they never could put the Buckeyes away, and eventually Germaine would find Davis Boston for the winning score with 19 seconds left, ending ASU's title hopes, as well.
#6: 1994 Orange Bowl (Florida State 18, Nebraska 16)
In 1994, Bobby Bowden and his Seminoles were still looking to take the next step from perennial contender to national champion. And when they found themselves face-to-face with Tom Osborne and his Cornhuskers in a battle for the national championship, it had all the makings of everything that great games are made of. Despite being the unbeaten team in the game (Florida State had suffered a loss to Notre Dame), the Cornhuskers came in both ranked behind Florida State at #2 and as underdogs by as many as 17 points. After kicking a field goal to give them a 16-15 lead with 1:18 left, the Huskers relied on their defense to close the deal for them, only to see the Seminoles rally, aided by a kickoff out of bounds, to the lead with 21 seconds left, hanging on when Nebraska, aided by penalties on the Seminoles, would miss a field goal as time expired. Which also makes this game the height of irony, as well as give them their first national title.
#5: 1987 Fiesta Bowl (Penn State 14, Miami 10)
This game is known by many for Miami's changing into military fatigues midflight so they could come off their flight to Arizona as if they were ready to go to war. It also marked the first high-profile matchup in the Fiesta Bowl's history, benefitting from both the top-ranked Hurricanes and second-ranked Nittany Lions being without a conference affiliation at the time, freeing them up to be snapped up by the Flesta, who also had no conference affiliations. That the game itself lived up to the hype of the "good guy" Penn Staters, led by Joe Paterno, and the thuggish "U", led by Jimmy Johnson, was icing on the cake here. Penn State's physical defense harassed Miami all day, particularly Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who threw five interceptions on the day, including one in the red zone with 18 seconds left to seal the upset for Penn State and give Paterno a national championship.
#4: 2007 Fiesta Bowl (Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42 (OT))
This game should hardly come as a surprise to anyone reading this, despite it not having any national championship implications. Because, really, other than that, what did this game lack? The series of fantastic events started when the heavily-favored Sooners, who had been well behind the upstart Broncos all night, scored 25 unanswered points to take a 35-28 lead in the fourth quarter, the last points coming on a pick six off of Jared Zabransky, only to see Boise get it to OT on a hook & lateral play to tie the game. And then, of course, we were just getting started. From the OU score on the first play of overtime to Boise scoring, and then winning on the "Statue of Liberty" two point play, this game had it all. Did I mention the storybook ending where the hero of the game proposes to his cheerleader girlfriend on the 50 yard line after the game? Yup. Not a lot to hate on here. Unless you're a Sooner.
#3: 1984 Orange Bowl (Miami 31, Nebraska 30)
But it doesn't compare in importance to any of our final three entries. And speaking of games that come down to a two-point conversion, this game between the Hurricanes and Cornhuskers, and their legendary coaches, Howard Schnellenberger and Tom Osborne, did exactly that and won the 'Canes a most unexpected title in the process. Osborne's Nebraska team came in ranked #1, and Miami at #5, but when faced with a decision at the end of the game whether or not to play for a tie and leave it in the voters' hands (remember, this is WAY before the BCS), Osborne fatefully decided he was going to go for two and the win. That decision resulted in quarterback Turner Gill's pass being knocked to the Orange Bowl grass and Miami stealing a national title away from the heavily favored Cornhuskers, thanks to the #3 and #4 ranked teams losing earlier bowl games to give the Hurricanes a shot. It was also Schnellenberger's last game at Miami before he left for the USFL.
#2: 2003 Fiesta Bowl (Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT))
And now we have the BCS-era game with perhaps more controversy than any other finish to any other game on this list. Looking back on it, it's a real shame, too, since this game pitted the wire-to-wire regular season #1 Hurricanes and the second-ranked Buckeyes, who didn't have the overpowering array of sheet star power that the defending champion Hurricanes did, but made up for it with a stifling defense and the occasional fits of brilliance from Maurice Clarett. Still though, Miami came into the game as a double-digit (and clear) favorite, and it was a surprise to many when the Buckeyes were able to stay with them all night, and actually leading Miami, 17-14, in fact, as the fourth quarter began. Miami's tying field goal was the only score of the fourth, and after the teams traded scores in the first overtime period, the Buckeyes would go on to win in the second OT after being aided by a late, and many will say bogus, pass interference flag to score the upset.
#1: 2006 Rose Bowl (Texas 41, USC 38)
If most everybody that talks about a game calls it the greatest college football game ever played, then I am certainly not going to be one to offer a differing opinion. Which is why none of you reading this should be surprised that this game between the Longhorns and Trojans is at the top of this list. This was at the height of USC's powers, obviously, and they were going for a third straight national title with a win here over the second-ranked, Vince Young-led Longhorns, who, as seen earlier in this list, had made a previous Rose Bowl appearance a year before, but returned with a chance to take down college football's preeminent power of the time. From Vince Young to Reggie Bush to Matt Leinart, this game had all the star power you could ever want in a title game, and ended with Young leading Texas on a drive for the ages to take down USC and win Mack Brown his only national title, and was also the 800th win for the Texas program. Yup. This one had it all.