Alabama’s 26-23 overtime win over Georgia last night to win the College Football Playoff has been granted immediate status as an “instant classic.” Where does this game rank in the larger pantheon of the best college football national championship games. In this article, we’ll lay out the historical context and then try to place ‘Bama-Georgia in its proper place.
College football is unique among all sports in that we have to precisely define eras, since the methodology for determining the national champion has undergone so many changes over the years.
Our starting point is 1976, a watershed year for college football, in that it was the first year where both polls, writers and coaches, waited until after the bowl games to conduct their final poll. Prior to ‘76, the coaches did their final vote in December. The writers modernized in 1965, but prior to this, bowls were basically just an exhibition game.
Thus, I don’t mean to disrespect any of the great college football games that took place prior to 1976—for example Nebraska’s epic 35-31 win over Oklahoma on Thanksgiving Day in 1971 that ultimately settled the #1 ranking. But it was a different world. And, to be even more frank, one I didn’t have the good fortune of watching in person. So for reasons both professional and personal, the scope of this piece is restricted to 1976 going forward—which is still forty-plus years, which is more than a generation’s worth of fans.
Here then, is how the ensuing four decades-plus would break down…
1976-94: Conference Tie-Ins
The bowls might be deciding a champion but they were often restricted at getting #1 and #2 to play each other with every major conference locked into sending its champion to a major bowl. The SEC went Sugar, the Big Ten & Pac-10 went Rose, the old Southwest Conference (Texas, Arkansas, etc) was tied to the Cotton and the Big Eight (Nebraska, Oklahoma) were committed to the Orange.
The only way to get a 1 vs. 2 matchup was if an independent was involved—and this was an age with a lot of good independents, Notre Dame, Penn State, Miami, Florida State being the most prominent. Or if somehow the Big Ten and Pac-10 ended up in the top two spots. This system ended in 1994 after the great Nebraska-Penn State debate when both teams were clearly the top two in the country yet couldn’t play, because by now the Lions were in the Big Ten and committed to the Rose.
1995-1997: The Bowl Alliance
The conferences got together and got rid of most of the tie-ins, with one notable exception. The love triangle between the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose Bowl was untouched, so this new format wouldn’t have helped ‘94 Penn State. But the other conferences came together and agreed that their highest two ranked teams would play in a predetermined bowl. In ‘95, it worked well with #1 Nebraska demolishing #2 Florida in the Fiesta Bowl. The next two years saw the Rose Bowl impact the final vote.
1998-2005: The Bowl Championship Series
The “BCS” entered the college football lexicon as the Big Ten, Pac-10 and Rose finally came into the system described above. Every year since 1998 it has been guaranteed that the top two teams in the final regular season polls would get a crack at the national championship. The first Rose Bowl impacted was 2001, when they were the title game host and Miami crushed Nebraska. The following year was another threshold moment, when #2 Ohio State did not go to Pasadena, but instead to the Fiesta Bowl where they denied Miami a repeat title.
2006-2013: BCS Plus One
Basically the same system as described above, except for the fact that one bowl would now host two games. The first would be its standard “bowl game” and the second would be labeled “The BCS National Championship.” The first instance was in 2006. Tempe was the host and the Fiesta Bowl was one of the great non-championship bowl games ever played, with Boise State beating Oklahoma in overtime. A few nights later, the same venue saw Florida pummel Ohio State for the national title.
2014-2017: College Football Playoff
That brings us to the system we have today, with two bowls serving as designated semi-finals and the championship game being played on the second Monday of January.
I’ve selected twelve games from the 1976-2017 time period as candidates for the best championship game. Six of them have come in the post-1998 period when the title game was clearly designated as such. Three were bowl games that were clearly marked as #1 vs. #2. Another was a bowl game that wasn’t 1 vs. 2, but events prior to kickoff made it a championship game. And two were regular season games between teams that finished 1-2 in the final polls and were so good that they have to be mentioned in any serious conversation about the best college football national championship games.
Here they are, listed chronologically…
1978: Alabama-Penn State: This Sugar Bowl battle was settled by the greatest goal-line stand in the history of college football. Alabama stopped Penn State to preserve a 14-7 win. The Lions had recovered a fumble in the fourth quarter and were poised to tie the game before Crimson Tide linebacker Barry Krausse stepped up with an all-time great stop.
1983: Miami-Nebraska: Miami’s big upset had been set up by second-ranked Texas and fourth-ranked Illinois losing earlier in the day, along with third-ranked Auburn churning out a 9-7 win in the Sugar Bowl that didn’t excite anyone. Trailing 31-24 and facing 4th-and-8, Nebraska almost saved their dream season by scoring a touchdown, but the Hurricanes stopped the two-point try. “The U” had arrived.
1986: Penn State-Miami: Two independents at the top of the polls allowed the Fiesta Bowl to become a major player, as they were the bowl that could pair the two teams up. Miami was the favorite and the roster was laden with future NFL talent (Vinny Testaverde, Michael Irvin, Alonzo Highsmith, Bennie Blades and Jerome Brown, just to name a few). Penn State pulled off the upset of the ages, intercepting Testaverde five times, the last time on the goal line to preserve the 14-10 win.
1987: Miami-Florida State: A regular season game in October where Florida State broke out to 19-3 lead. Then they fell behind 26-19, before a couple of spectacular catches got them in the end zone. They went for the win and the pass was batted down. Neither team lost the rest of the season. The ‘Canes were champs, the ‘Noles had made their biggest splash yet on the national stage and set the stage for the early 1990s when this rivalry would be the hottest in all of sports.
1988: Notre Dame-Miami: “Catholics vs. Convicts” is the subject of 30 For 30 documentaries and books, even thirty years after the fact. Notre Dame’s 31-30 win on October 15 signified their return to prominence under Lou Holtz and both teams blew through their remaining schedules and bowl games. For Miami, there were two ironies—they had lost by the same score they’d beaten Nebraska by in 1983, and their final failed two-point conversion was almost identical to Florida State’s in the 1987 game—a pass to the right corner of the end zone is underthrown and batted down.
1993: Florida State-Nebraska: These were the top two teams in the AP poll and it was a wild finish. Florida State took the lead 18-16 on a late field goal aided by a couple shady 15-yard penalties on Nebraska. The Cornhuskers completed a pass into Seminole territory and the clock appeared to run out. Bobby Bowden had Gatorade dumped on him. Then the officials put one second back on the clock and Nebraska was able to try a 45-yard field goal. A badly shanked kick saved Bowden from the ignominy of being the first coach to lose a title while bathed in celebratory Gatorade.
2002: Ohio State-Miami: The Buckeyes win in two overtimes, 31-24. Hurricane fans remain furious over a pass interference call in the end zone in the first overtime where the flag was thrown extremely late—so late that Miami players were already celebrating. Ohio State fans counter with reminders of a missed call on a big punt return in the fourth quarter, when Hurricane return man Roscoe Parrish stepped out of bounds, but it was not noticed and there was no recourse to instant replay. It set up the tying field goal
2005: Texas-USC: Vince Young led the Longhorns from a 38-27 deficit in the fourth quarter to pull out a 41-38 win. Young got a big assist from then-Trojan coach Pete Carroll. Facing a 4th-and-2 at midfield with about a minute to go, a 38-33 lead and Texas out of timeouts, Carroll decided to go for it. The Longhorns stopped Lendale White and drove the short field for the win. The media praised Carroll’s “boldness” rather than point out that a punt would have put Young in the position of driving 80-90 yards in a minute with no timeouts .
2010: Auburn-Oregon: Auburn running back Michael Dyer made the play of the game. With the score tied 16-16 and overtime looking likely, Ryder appeared to be tackled near midfield. Instead, he somehow planted his hand, kept his balance, got back up and raced into field goal position. The Tigers and Cam Newton won it, 19-16.
2013: Florida State-Auburn: This time, Auburn was on the wrong end of a classic. The Five-Minute Frenzy that ended this game remains one of the truly great finishes of all-time. Auburn had blown a 21-3 lead, then got it back late in the fourth quarter before Jameis Winston led one final drive to give FSU the championship.
2016: Clemson-Alabama: DeShaun Watson makes his mark on history, leading Clemson back from a double-digit deficit, not once, but twice. The final touchdown in the 35-31 win comes with one second left, right on the heels of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts appearing to score the winning TD on a 30-yard dash .
2017: Alabama-Georgia: Tua Tagovailoa takes his place in the history books. The true freshman and backup quarterback comes in for Hurts trailing 13-0 at the half and still trails 20-7 deep in the third quarter and 20-13 late in the fourth quarter. He completes an impossible fourth-down throw (was he even looking where he was throwing) to tie the game. Then he leads what should have been a game-winning drive before a shanked field goal sets up overtime. Finally, after taking a bad sack in OT, he rifles the walkoff to Devonta Smith, down the left sideline.
HOW WOULD YOU RANK THEM?
This is where beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I have a bias in favor of games that were tight throughout, which puts matchups like this year’s, along with several others, at a disadvantage. If we did a separate category for “Best Comeback In A College Football Championship Game”, those would rank higher. But for best games, start to finish, I want one that was tight the whole way. So with that in mind, here is TheSportsNotebook’s official ranking of the best college football national championship games ever played…
1) Penn State-Miami (1986)
2) Ohio State-Miami (2002)
3) Miami-Nebraska (1983)
4) Notre Dame-Miami (1988)
5) Alabama-Penn State (1978)
6) Texas-USC (2005)
7) Alabama-Georgia (2017)
8) Clemson-Alabama (2016)
9) Florida State-Auburn (2013)
11)Florida State-Nebraska (1993)
12)Miami-Florida State (1987)
For the most part, explaining my selections would mostly involve recapping what I already wrote about the games, but there is one inconsistency that should be explained. I ranked the Auburn-Oregon 2010 and Florida State-Nebraska 1993 games lower than one might have expected, given my announced criteria about the games being close throughout. Specifically, based strictly on that criteria, they shouldn’t be behind Texas-USC 2005 or Florida State-Auburn 2013.
But they are and here’s why—I didn’t think the 2010 or 1993 games were particularly well-played. 1993, in particular, was an egregious display of sloppiness and bad officiating. And yes, as one who has sympathies for Notre Dame, it still galls me the Irish weren’t voted #1 after beating FSU in the regular season. In the ‘10 games, I don’t know if it was just me, but I couldn’t get excited watching the game until Dyer made his big run.
That’s the list of the greatest college football national championship games ever played. However you rank them, this year’s Alabama-Georgia game has to be in there and it’s unique place in history will always be the amazing role played by Tua Tagovailoa.