Continuing our decade in review series by looking at the 10 best games of the 2010s. Nos. 6 through 10 can be found here.
Like it or not, Nick Saban was the sun that the rest of the college football universe revolved around in the 2010s. His Crimson Tide Killing Machine didn't win the title every year, but they entered the final weekend in November in the thick of the title hunt in all but two years of the 2010s.
Rivalry Saturday of 2010 was truly a once-a-decade event: where the anti-SEC faction of the college football fandom rooted for the Crimson Tide.
5. Auburn 28, Alabama 27 (Nov. 26, 2010)
Remember how crazy the hoopla around Cam Newton and this 2010 Auburn team was? Surely you recall that crazy message board rumor that somehow Cam's season was going to lead to the exposure of a scandal involving Auburn's endowment that would get the entire university booted from the SEC. I know that that rumor made the rounds because I heard it repeated verbatim from the lips of a powerful college football executive. Remember how Alabama's PA announcer got himself fired for playing "Take the Money and Run" before this game? I do. I remember.
And for the first quarter and change, it seemed the underdog Crimson Tide would end the hype around this team, once and for all.
Alabama -- to this day, probably Nick Saban's most talented team -- came out on absolute white-hot fire: a 71-yard touchdown drive, a three-and-out, an 81-yard touchdown drive, a three-and-out, a 61-yard touchdown drive, and a third Auburn three-and-out. At the 12:22 mark of the second quarter, Alabama appeared headed for a 28-0 knockout punch as Mark Ingram streaked down the sideline, but Antoine Carter gave the hustle play of the decade in chasing Ingram down and punching the ball free.
Still, Alabama forced another Auburn punt and later pushed the lead to 24-0.
Auburn finally got off the mat with a 36-yard touchdown pass from Cam to Emory Blake, but Alabama appeared primed to erase that score with a 1st-and-goal from the Auburn 7. However, Nick Fairley sacked and stripped Greg McElroy, and the Alabama lead remained 24-7 at the half.
When Cam hit Terrell Zachery for a 70-yard touchdown on the second play of the third quarter, the formula for the remainder of the game was clear to see. In this heavyweight fight, Alabama had punched itself out without landing a knockout blow, and now Auburn was getting bodyblows in on its punched-out opponent.
The Tide gained all of 58 yards in the second half, scoring only after forcing an Auburn fumble on a punt return. Cam pulled Auburn within 24-21 with 4:25 to play in the third quarter, and landed the knockout blow on a 7-yard toss to a dancing Philip Lutzenkirchen with 11:55 to spare.
Perhaps Auburn would've been done for good if the deficit ballooned all the way to 28-0 or 31-7, but it didn't, and the most infamous title run of the decade lived to see another day.
4. Clemson 35, Alabama 31 (Jan. 9, 2017)
On the surface, it simply does not get any better than a national championship game where the lead changes hands with one second left on the clock.
Alabama held leads of 14-0 and 24-14, but the Tide defense simply could.. not... get... off... the... field. Clemson snapped the ball 99 times, 77 of them runs or passes by Deshaun Watson, who accounted for 463 yards and four touchdowns.
In foreshadowing to another championship-week yanking, Nick Saban memorably "released" Lane Kiffin to the Florida Atlantic job in between the Peach Bowl and this game, and newly-installed play-caller Steve Sarkisian could not keep Alabama's offense on the field, going just 2-of-15 on third down.
Clemson took a 28-24 lead with 4:38 to play, Jalen Hurts put Alabama back on top with a 30-yard run with 2:07 to play, and Watson completed one of the most accomplished careers in college football history with a perfect final pass -- a 2-yard toss to 14th-year sophomore Hunter Renfrow with one second left in the game.
3. Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48 (Jan. 1, 2018)
This was more than a game. It was a battle of wills, a question of philosophy, a tempest for what football had always been versus what football was about to become, as the defense-first, run game-second champions of the SEC met the offense-first, offense-second champions of the Big 12.
Georgia had no answers at first, as Lincoln Riley called perfect play after perfect play after even more perfect play. When CeeDee Lamb tossed to a how-did-he-get-that-open Baker Mayfield to give OU a 31-14 lead with six seconds left in the first half, it seemed Riley was halfway to flipping football on its head forever. To that point, Oklahoma had run 41 plays for 375 yards, punting once.
But that's where the magic stopped. Riley chose to squib kick, and allowing Georgia to pull within 14 on a 55-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal.
When OU went three-and-out to open the second half and Nick Chubb immediately ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run, it was obvious this football game had morphed from a track meet back into, well, a football game.
Oklahoma punted on its first three second-half possessions and threw a pick on its fourth, and by the 13:57 mark of the fourth quarter Georgia owned a 38-31 lead that felt like 58-31.
OU punted yet again on its next touch, but then the much maligned Sooner defense (are you allowed to say "Sooner defense" without the phrase "much maligned" immediately preceding it?) forced a three-and-out of its own, and a suddenly the OU offense was the OU offense again, putting together a 6-play, 88-yard drive that tied a game that felt so slanted against them just five minutes earlier.
And then -- a gift from heaven, as a Sony Michel fumble hopped into the arms of Steven Parker, who tightroped the sideline and returned the ball 46 yards for a touchdown, putting the Sooners back in the lead. Now, Oklahoma just needed to hold on for the final 6:52 and the game was theirs.
Georgia went 59 yards in seven plays -- converting a 3rd-and-10 for a 16-yard gain -- to knot the game at 45 with 55 seconds left.
Facing a 3rd-and-2 from his own 45, Riley called a bizarre fade to running back Rodney Anderson, a low percentage pass where the odds prevailed, and the game went to overtime.
OU forced a field goal in the top of the first, and Riley played oddly conservative, calling wide receiver Jordan Smallwood to take a snap under center on 3rd-and-1 and then, when that play inevitably failed, asking his defense to get another stop by kicking a 4th-and-1 field goal.
The college football gods punished that decision when Austin Seibert's 27-yard field goal in the top of the second overtime was blocked, and Michel's 27-yard touchdown run sent Georgia home to Atlanta, where their own heartbreak awaited in the title game.
2. Ohio State 30, Michigan 27 (Nov. 26, 2016)
Oh, how history might be different if Wilton Speight committed just one goal line disaster.
Michigan had this game. They had it in their hands for almost the entire 60 minutes.
In fact, at the 3:38 mark of the third quarter, Michigan took possession of the ball with a 17-7 lead after Speight had already given 14 points away -- first, on an interception that Malik Hooker returned 16 yards for a touchdown, then a fumble at the Ohio State 1-yard line. But this time, with a 10-point lead in hand and Ohio State's offense accomplishing next to nothing, Speight committed his third turnover, an interception Jerome Baker return to the Wolverine 13, which later turned into Ohio State's second touchdown.
Tyler Durbin missed a game-tying 21-yard field goal with 7:01 to play, but Michigan went three-and-out, and Durbin's second-chance 23-yarder sent the game to overtime.
Both teams scored touchdowns in the first extra session, but Ohio State forced a field goal in the top of the second. Then, facing a 4th-and-1 from the 16, Urban Meyer kept his offense on the field and JT Barrett picked up the first down by that much. Curtis Samuel ended the game one play later.
Jim Harbaugh famously disputed The Spot afterward, but the damage had been done. To this date, this game is still an albatross that hangs around the entire Michigan program's neck, as Harbaugh is still 0-for-Ohio State, 0-for-the Big Ten championship and 0-for-the College Football Playoff thanks to this game.
1. Auburn 34, Alabama 28 (Nov. 30, 2013)
Consider this game would have an argument to belong on this list before Nick Saban got that extra second put back on the clock. Alabama was No. 1 and looking to end the BCS era with an unprecedented third straight national championship. Auburn was No. 4 and looking for a national championship of its own, a year removed from a 3-9 season and in the midst of its own manifest destiny, having won the Prayer at Jordan-Hare two weeks prior.
Auburn led 7-0 early, then Alabama roared to a 21-7 lead late in the first half before Auburn answered with a 7-play, 81-yard touchdown drive in 2:08, all on the ground.
The Tigers tied the game on their first touch after halftime, and Cade Foster failed to give Alabama a lead early in the fourth with the second of four missed Alabama field goals on the day. An Auburn punt pinned Alabama at the 1, but AJ McCarron immediately hit Amari Cooper for a 99-yard score, putting the Tide up 28-21 with 10:28 left.
Gus Malzahn went for it on a 4th-and-1 at his own 35 with 8:28 to play, but Nick Marshall was stuffed and Auburn's goose appeared cooked. However, Alabama soon faced its own 4th-and-1 and Nick Saban, having lost total faith in his kicker, kept his own offense on the field. TJ Yeldon was stuffed, and Auburn had new life.
The Tigers went three-and-out after Marshall overshot a streaking Ricardo Louis, and this time Alabama's knockout drive resulted in a 4th-and-12, giving Saban no choice but to send Foster out for his third field goal try. This one was blocked.
Taking over at its own 35 with 2:00 to play, Auburn moved bizarrely slow, as if it had all the time in the world. The clock ticked down to 1:40, to 1:00, to 0:40 with Auburn still a ways away from the end zone. The Tigers moved as if they had an ace up their sleeve, and they did -- an RPO where Marshall lured two Tide defenders toward him, fearing a run, when he loaded up and tossed to a wide open Sammie Coates, who scored the equalizer with 32 seconds left.
Alabama quickly darted from its own 29 to Auburn's 38, but the game appeared headed for overtime when Yeldon ran out of bounds as time expired. Then fate took over: Saban got the second put back on, Adam Griffith's 57-yard field goal was short, and Chris Davis sprinted into the pages of college football lore.
The scene was the play of the decade in the game of the decade, a spectacle instantly rivaled by Doug Flutie's Hail Mary and the Stanford band play. It was the type of moment only college football can produce, closing a game only college football can stage. It was history, and it unfolded right before our eyes.
Honorable mention: Auburn 43, Georgia 38 (Nov. 16, 2013); UCF 49, South Florida 42 (Nov. 24, 2017); Alabama 32, Georgia 28 (Dec. 1, 2012); Army 14, Navy 13 (Dec. 9, 2017); Iowa State 37, Oklahoma State 31 (Nov. 18, 2011); Texas A&M 29, Alabama 24 (Nov. 10, 2012); Texas 27, Texas A&M 25 (Nov. 25, 2011); Boise State 17, TCU 10 (Jan. 4, 2010); Virginia 39, Virginia Tech 30 (Nov. 29, 2019); Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30 (Sept. 6, 2010); Michigan State 17, Ohio State 14 (Nov. 21, 2015); Alabama 45, Clemson 40 (Jan. 11, 2016); Texas A&M 74, LSU 72 (Nov. 25, 2018) and hundreds of other games that could keep this paragraph going ad infinitum.