Instant classic: Alabama-Clemson crash-lands on top 10 title games list
(ESPN) — After a yawner of a bowl season, college football needed a little drama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T.
We got more than a little drama, as Alabama had to fight back in the fourth quarter and thenhold on to defeat Clemson 45-40 in a game that featured a little bit of everything — heroic performances by both quarterbacks, enormous plays on special teams and a breakout game for the ages by a player who hadn’t scored a touchdown all season.
The gold standard for national title games remains Texas’ 41-38 win over USC a decade ago in the 2006 BCS Championship Game at the Rose Bowl. Hard to believe it has been 10 years since that classic.
What we witnessed Monday night in Glendale, Arizona, was the perfect segue to take a little stroll down memory lane —and merited a re-ranking of any top 10 list. Which national championship games, or those bowl games that led to a national championship for a team, were most memorable?
We’ve taken the liberty of ranking the top 10, updating it with the Alabama-Clemson thriller, based on a number of factors, including entertainment value, dramatic finishes, great performances, memorable plays, surprising upsets and any other interesting and/or historic elements about the game itself. In other words, don’t look for any yawners or runaways in this list, regardless of how attractive the matchup might have looked coming into the game.
Here’s what we came up with:
1. Texas 41, USC 38
BCS National Championship: Jan. 4, 2006
Few games live up to the hype, but this one did — and then some. Vince Young delivered a performance for the ages in a back-and-forth thriller at the Rose Bowl, capping an unbeaten 2005 season for the Longhorns and giving them their first undisputed national championship in 36 years. Young passed for 267 yards, ran for 200 more yards and scored three touchdowns, including the game winner with 19 seconds to play when he darted into the end zone from 8 yards out on fourth down. The game produced more than 1,100 yards of total offense, but it was a fourth-down stop by Texas that set up the winning drive. The Trojans, boasting both the 2005 Heisman Trophy winner, Reggie Bush, and the 2004 Heisman winner, Matt Leinart, had their 34-game winning streak snapped and were denied a third straight national title.
2. Miami 31, Nebraska 30
Orange Bowl: Jan. 2, 1984
Miami opened the floodgates on its spree of national championships with its first in the 1983 season. The Howard Schnellenberger-led Hurricanes were playing in only their second bowl game since 1967 and looked right at home (on their home turf) with the upset of the No. 1-ranked Huskers, who entered the game as a 10-point favorite. Nebraska battled back from a 17-0 deficit and pulled within 31-30 with 48 seconds left and could have tied the game with the extra point. That was before overtime was introduced in college football, and the Huskers could have still possibly been voted national champion in the polls had the game ended in a tie. But coach Tom Osborne elected to go for the two-point conversion and the win. Miami’s Ken Calhoun broke up Turner Gill’s pass, and the legend of The U was born.
3. Ohio State 31, Miami 24 (2OT)
BCS National Championship: Jan. 3, 2003
A controversial pass-interference call in the end zone is what a lot of people remember about how the 2002 season ended, but the title game featured one twist after another, dramatic turnovers, a bunch of lead changes and a true freshman, Maurice Clarett, scoring the game-winning touchdown. The Hurricanes, an 11½-point favorite, had their 34-game winning streak snapped, and to this day feel they were robbed. They thought they had won it in the first overtime when Craig Krenzel ‘s fourth-down pass from the 5 fell incomplete. The Miami players had already spilled onto the field to celebrate, but a late pass-interference flag came flying out from the back of the end zone on Glenn Sharpe, who was covering Chris Gamble on the play. The Buckeyes had new life and took advantage to win their first national title since the Woody Hayes era.
4. Alabama 45, Clemson 40
CFP National Championship: Jan. 11, 2016
In one of those back-and-forth games nobody wanted to end, Alabama won its fourth national title in the past seven years by outlasting a determined Clemson team that simply wouldn’t quit. The Tigers’ last-ditch onsides kick sailed out of bounds, and only then could the Crimson Tide exhale. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson was brilliant with 478 yards of total offense, but the game turned in the fourth quarter after Alabama had tied the game at 24-24.Nick Saban, who knows a thing or two about winning on these stages, called for an onsides kick that the Crimson Tide recovered. Two plays later, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard caught his second touchdown pass of the game after not catching any all season, and Kenyan Drakefollowed up a few minutes later with a 95-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to completely change the complexion of the game. As good as Watson was for the Tigers, Alabama quarterback Jake Coker was clutch in the second half and finished with 335 passing yards and two touchdowns.
5. Penn State 14, Miami 10
Fiesta Bowl: Jan. 2, 1987
Who could forget the Hurricanes famously showing up at the bowl site that year wearing military fatigues? They were loaded with future NFL talent and had outscored foes by a 420-136 margin en route to a perfect regular season under Jimmy Johnson. But the Nittany Lions spoiled Miami’s party by forcing seven turnovers and winning what would be Joe Paterno’s last national title. Penn State was held to just 162 total yards (with the Hurricanes gaining 445), but the Nittany Lions intercepted Heisman Trophy winner Vinny Testaverde five times. The final interception came with 18 seconds to play, when linebacker Pete Giftopoulos picked off Testaverde’s fourth-down pass at the goal line, scrambled around for a few seconds and then dropped to his knees.
6. Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23
Sugar Bowl: Dec. 31, 1973
In the first meeting ever between the two storied programs, Notre Dame held off Alabama to win the Sugar Bowl and finish undefeated in what was also a matchup of legendary coaches — Notre Dame’s Ara Parseghian and Alabama’s Bear Bryant. The game was played on New Year’s Eve, and Notre Dame led 14-10 at the half thanks to a 94-yard kickoff return. But Alabama rallied to go ahead 23-21 on a halfback pass for a touchdown to quarterback Richard Todd. The extra point was missed, however. Notre Dame answered with a field goal, the sixth lead change of the game. Bryant elected to punt late, and Alabama pinned the Irish at the 2. But on third down, Sugar Bowl MVP Tom Clements hit Robin Weber with a 36-yard pass with 2:12 left to seal the Irish victory.
7. Texas 21, Notre Dame 17
Cotton Bowl: Jan. 1, 1970
The Longhorns won the 1969 national championship with a grind-it-out, clutch drive that remains the stuff of legend in Austin. Trailing 17-14, Texas plowed 76 yards in 17 plays, with Billy Dale taking an option pitch from James Street and scoring on a 1-yard touchdown run with 1:08 to play. Twice during the drive, the Longhorns went for it on fourth down and converted, highlighted by split end Cotton Speyrer’s diving catch on fourth-and-2. Notre Dame still had time to stage its own rally, but Tom Campbell intercepted Joe Theismann with 38 seconds left to cap the Longhorns’ perfect season.
8. Alabama 14, Penn State 7
Sugar Bowl: Jan. 1, 1979
Barry Krauss etched his name into Alabama lore forever with his fourth-down stop of Penn State running back Mike Guman at the 1-foot line. All these years later, they still talk with reverence in Tide Town about the greatest goal-line stand in school history. It was the first of back-to-back national championships for the Crimson Tide and the last two under Bryant. Joe Paterno, meanwhile, would have to wait a few more years for his first national title — despite having unbeaten, untied teams in 1968, 1969 and 1973.
9. Nebraska 24, Miami 17
Orange Bowl: Jan. 1, 1995
Tom Osborne won his first of three national titles in a four-year span as the Huskers rallied from a 17-9 fourth-quarter deficit. Quarterback Tommie Frazier, who had not played in more than three months after developing blood clots in his legs, was the hero for the Huskers. Frazier started the game, but after Nebraska fell behind 10-0, he was replaced by Brook Berringer, who had started seven of the Huskers’ final eight regular-season games. But Frazier returned in the fourth quarter to lead the tying and winning drives on his way to finishing with a 33-3 record as a starting quarterback at Nebraska.
10. Georgia 17, Notre Dame 10
Sugar Bowl: Jan. 1, 1981
Herschel Walker burst onto the scene in 1980 as a true freshman, “running over people” as the late Larry Munson would growl on the radio, and his final act that season came in the Sugar Bowl. Despite his shoulder popping out of joint on the game’s first possession, Walker rushed for 150 yards and two touchdowns on 36 grueling carries to lead the unbeaten and No. 1 Bulldogs to their only national title. Georgia needed every one of those yards, too. The Bulldogs completed just one pass in the game, which came in the final minutes to help run out the clock.