Let’s begin with an understatement: the 2010s were a tumultuous period in college football.
When the decade began, Texas and Texas A&M were still locked in an ongoing rivalry with no end in sight, the Big Ten still had 11 teams, and the Big East and WAC still played football. The terms RPO and CFP were not in anyone’s vocabulary, and now those terms dominate the sport.
Furthermore, when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, 2010, Urban Meyer was in the process of taking a leave of absence from his dynasty at Florida, Nick Saban had yet to capture his first national championship at Alabama, Baylor was still a doormat in the Big 12, and Clemson was nothing more than a pretty good program.
So, yeah, things have changed.
All those changes combined to produce some epic games on the field. I’ve compiled my list of the 10 best from Jan. 1, 2010 through this writing and, honestly, this list could have easily expanded to a top 15, a top 50, a top 200. Ten is a good number; 10 games for 10 years.
These are my ten.
10. Ohio State 42, Alabama 35 (Jan. 1, 2015)
We all knew the College Football Playoff would work the moment it was announced. Heck, we all knew that decades before the powers that be allowed it to happen. But proof of concept arrived on Day 1, with this titanic clash of Hall of Fame coaches that never would have happened previously.
Hard as it is to believe now, but people entered this game doubting a team led by Ezekiel Elliott, Michael Thomas and Joey Bosa could stay on the field with a team quarterbacked by Blake Sims.
When the Buckeyes turned it over twice and Alabama built a 21-6 lead midway through the second quarter, those doubts appeared valid. Then Ohio State ripped off 28 straight points, marching 71, 77 and 75 yards on consecutive drives and then, after a punt, Steve Miller took a Sims pass and ran 41 yards for a touchdown, putting the Buckeyes up 34-21 late in the third quarter.
Alabama answered with a lightning quick 84-yard touchdown drive and, after posting three straight long touchdown drives, Ohio State’s offense now went three-and-out on three straight possessions. When the Buckeyes took over at their own 5 with 5:20 to play, it seemed Alabama had Ohio State where they wanted them. Then Ezekiel Elliott ripped through the Alabama defense, an 85-yard run that exorcised eight years of demons about how Ohio State couldn’t run with the SEC. Zeke didn’t just with them, he ran through and right by them.
Alabama immediately answered, and Ohio State went three-and-out for a fourth time in five chances. The Tide moved to Buckeye territory, and Sims’ Hail Mary was intercepted at the goal line.
The final meeting between coaching titans would go to Urban Meyer.
And the only reason this game even happened was because…
9. Baylor 61, TCU 58 (Oct. 11, 2014)
For a moment there, TCU-Baylor was the most intense rivalry in the country. That moment peaked here.
The Big 12 in the 2010s would get more outrageous than this. There was the 70-63 Baylor-WVU game of 2012 — WVU’s very first Big 12 game — that saw 19 offensive touchdowns and 1,507 scrimmage yards; the 2012 OU-WVU game where wide receiver Tavon Austin rushed for 344 yards in a 50-49 OU win; the epic 2016 Baker Mayfield v. Pat Mahomes shootout where the former threw for 545 yards and seven touchdowns and the latter 734 and five in a 66-59 loss; and the 59-56 OU-WVU game on Black Friday of 2018 that was the last gasp of the Holgo era in Morgantown.
But this game caused the conference to change its entire philosophy, as this outcome echoed for seasons to come — between two programs, two fan bases and two coaches that absolutely hated each other.
TCU led pretty much throughout. The Frogs jumped up 14-0 in the first quarter, played cat and mouse with Baylor through much of the next two frames before building its lead back up to 44-30 late in the third and then 58-37 on a pick-six by Marcus Mallet with 11:38 to play.
Baylor needed four plays to pull within two scores, then Gary Patterson — as he did at multiple points throughout the game — sent his kicking team on the field on a fourth and short, punting on a 4th-and-4 from the Baylor 48 with 8:02 left. The punt pushed Baylor back to its own 8-yard line, and the Bears needed only five snaps and 83 seconds to move all 92 yards. TCU’s offense, now in full meltdown mode, went three-and-out, and this time Baylor went 91 yards in five plays and 59 seconds — thereby erasing a 21-point deficit in 6:56 of clock time and over 23 total plays. (Baylor QB Bryce Petty would throw for 510 yards and 6 TDs, and Shock Linwood ran for 178. Baylor gained 782 yards and achieved 39 first downs on the day.)
TCU’s offense put a drive together and crossed midfield, but Trevone Boykin threw incomplete on second and third down, and this time Patterson kept his offense on the field for a 4th-and-3 from the Baylor 45 with 1:11 left. Boykin threw incomplete again.
Baylor was seemingly put in a tough position, facing a 4th-and-10 from the TCU 43 with 31 seconds left until, after a very similar play on TCU’s fourth down incompletion was deemed a no-call, the refs flagged TCU for pass interference, allowing Chris Callahan to boot a 28-yard field goal as time expired.
Baylor won the game, but neither school won the war. TCU entered the final weekend of the inaugural College Football Playoff season ranked No. 3, only to fall to No. 6 as Ohio State leapfrogged both schools, and the Big 12 revived its championship game in 2017, three years after a Baylor-TCU rematch would have kept the eventual champion Buckeyes out of the field altogether.
8. Nevada 34, Boise State 31 (Nov. 27, 2010)
Chris Petersen’s best team at Boise State — heck, his best team ever — didn’t even win its own conference.
While this game didn’t mean quite as much as it could due to a game that happened earlier in the day (more on that later), his Broncos entered the game riding a 24-game winning streak (and they’d won 12 straight before that one loss) and ranked No. 4 in the country. Boise hadn’t seriously been challenged since fending off Virginia Tech in Washington, DC in a made-for-TV Labor Day opener, and this seemed more of the same as Boise carried a 24-7 lead deep into the third quarter.
But Colin Kaepernick — what ever happened to him? — pulled the Wolf Pack within 10 on a 18-yard touchdown run with 1:23 left in the third, and three minutes after that Rishard Matthews broke free for a 44-yard touchdown run, brining Nevada to within 24-21 with 13:01 to play.
A second straight Boise three-and-out set up a game-tying Nevada field goal with 5:14 left, but Boise immediately answered Doug Martin took a screen pass 79 yards to the house.
Nevada responded with the perfect drive: 14 plays, 79 yards, tying the game on a 7-yard pass from Kaepernick to Matthews while killing all but 13 remaining seconds. Moore answered with an even more perfect pass, a 54-yard dime to Titus Young that took the ball from Boise’s 37 to the Nevada 9 with one second left on the clock. Seriously, given the situation, the pitch and catch could not have been executed more perfectly. All Kyle Brotzman had to do was make a 26-yard field goal and Boise would escape.
He missed it.
Boise got the ball to open overtime, and the Broncos could not turn a 1st-and-goal into pay dirt, and this time Brotzman missed again, this time from 29 yards. Anthony Martinez’s 34-yarder was good, and Boise State tumbled from a possible national championship to a second place finish in the WAC.
Kellen Moore went 50-3 as the Boise State quarterback. His three losses: 17-16 to TCU, 36-35 to TCU, and this.
7. Florida State 34, Auburn 31 (Jan. 6, 2014)
This decade was so off the wall bonkers that a title game decided by a field goal at the buzzer (“This is for all the Tostitos”) didn’t make the list, and another title game that saw the SEC’s 7-year streak of national championships end on a touchdown pass with 13 seconds to play check in at No. 8.
Florida State rallied from a 21-3 deficit to take a 27-24 lead with 4:31 to play, lost that lead with 1:19 remaining, then regained it for good on a 2-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin with 13 seconds left in the game.
6. Alabama 26, Georgia 23 (Jan. 8, 2018)
Just think about how college football might look today if Alabama had trailed 13-7 at halftime.
Instead, the Crimson Tide trailed 13-zip to Georgia at the half of the 2017 national championship game, and Nick Saban made an astonishing move by inserting true freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the game for the second half.
Tua’s first drive went three-and-out, but his second went 56 yards for a touchdown. After Georgia went 93 yards to push its lead back to 13, the precious freshman seemingly ended Alabama’s comeback before it could begin as he was intercepted by Deandre Baker in Tide territory. Except Alabama’s Raekwon Davis got the ball back on the very next play, and even haded the Tide offense better field position than they had before the pick.
Given new life, Alabama notched a field goal to pull within 20-10 midway through the third quarter, then nudged the score to 20-13 on a second Andy Pappanastos field goal.
After yet another Georgia punt, the game reached another un-Saban-like inflection point, when he kept his offense on the field for a 4th-and-4 from the Georgia 7 with 3:49 to play. Tua rewarded that faith with a game-tying touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley. Georgia went three-and-out again on its next drive, but Alabama failed to win the game in regulation when — stop me if you’ve heard this before — a 36-yard field goal was no good.
Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship salvaged a third down sack of Jake Fromm by putting the Bulldogs up 23-20 with a 51-yard field goal in the top of the fist overtime, and Tua opened the bottom frame by taking an entirely needless 16-yard sack. But while Tua showed his youth in a bad way on first down, he more than made up for it on the next snap. Whereas plenty of veteran quarterbacks would have tried to get back to the original line of scrimmage to set up a 3rd-and-manageable, Tua went for all. He got it all, ending the game on an astonishing 41-yard toss to DeVonta Smith.
To date, no Saban assistant has ever been The Man in the game, and no one has come closer yet been denied so achingly as Kirby Smart was here.
Meanwhile, Tua spoke openly about how he might’ve transferred had he not played in this game. So, instead of USC quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, we now have Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts.