January 15, 2011
Revisiting the best (and worst) of the season. Today: Wrapping up the series with the year's most intense, memorable and enthralling games.
10. Alabama 24, Arkansas 20. No. 1 Alabama rolled into SEC play in late September still flying the banner of preseason myth, and actually enhanced its aura of indefensibility by rallying from a 17-point hole on the road – the first and only double-digit comeback in the Tide's 29-game regular season win streak. After falling behind 20-7 on a 48-yard Razorback field goal with 5:04 to play in the third quarter, 'Bama dominated the final 20 minutes with three straight scoring drives for 17 unanswered points, two Heisman-killing interceptions of Ryan Mallett and a clinching 4th-and-1 run from its own 43-yard line to extend the streak … for two more weeks, before its next road trip, to South Carolina.
9. TCU 21, Wisconsin 19. It wasn't exactly a barnburner after the Horned Frogs and Badgers combined for 24 points in the first 15 minutes – the highest-scoring first quarter in Rose Bowl history – but any Granddaddy that comes down to a swatted pass to tie with two minutes to play has to make the cut, especially when it seals a perfect season for a team less than two decades removed from being shut out of the "Have" conferences in the newly formed BCS. Wisconsin fans, having just watched their oversized offense run nine times on the ten plays that made up the Badgers' 67-yard march to TCU's lead to 21-19, still think the decisive two-point conversion was a strange time to convert to the spread.
8. Wisconsin 31, Iowa 30. Before Wisconsin could stake a claim to its third of the Big Ten title, it had to escape a harrowing road trip that featured six second half lead changes and two clutch fourth-down conversions on a 15-play, 80-yard, seven-and-a-half-minute drive for the Badgers' game-winning touchdown – a lunging effort by backup running back Montee Ball that barely crossed the goal line with 1:06 to play. The Hawkeyes' response came up short when Adam Robinson was tackled in bounds at the Wisconsin 35 as time ran out, much to the jubilation of the visitors.
7. LSU 30, North Carolina 24. The Tar Heels came into the game with half their starting lineup on ice under suspicion of various improprieties, and played like it for most of the first half, falling behind 30-10 after two quarters. That score held through a scoreless third, until – this being a big game involving a Les Miles-led outfit on national television – things got interesting.
First, UNC snapped a brutal offensive drought with a 97-yard bomb from quarterback T.J. Yates to Jheranie Boyd, the longest play in school history. A few minutes later, Yates took the Heels 67 yards for another score to cut LSU's lead to six, 30-24. Carolina came away with the subsequent onside kick, only to give the ball back four plays later when Yates was blindsided by blitzing cornerback Tyrann Mathieu – only to get it back again when Stevan Ridley fumbled at the end of a clinching first-down run to the UNC 29 with 1:17 to play. Given yet another life, Yates connected on five straight passes to drive the Heels within six yards of the tying (and likely winning) touchdown, only to have his final two throws fall incomplete as the clock expired on the Tigers' first great escape of the year.
6. Boise State 33, Virginia Tech 30. The other melodrama of opening weekend came two nights later, on Labor Day, with the Hokies charging out of a 17-0 hole to go ahead 27-26 late in the third quarter; a field goal extended the advantage to 30-26 midway through the fourth. AFter trading punts, the Broncos went to work on the first great two-minute drill of the year:
Virginia Tech's answer fell short on a sack and three incomplete passes, and the Broncos' ill-fated BCS push was off and running.
5. Michigan 67, Illinois 65. Middling Big Ten football has never been as exciting as it was on Nov. 6, when the Wolverines and Illini thrilled (and nearly killed) the 111,000-strong crowd with the most spectacular offensive explosion/defensive catastrophe in the history of Michigan Stadium. The final damage: 1,237 yards and 133 points on 17 touchdowns and three field goals over the course of four quarters and three overtimes. Somehow, it ended on a defensive stop, courtesy of the maligned Wolverine D forcing Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhasse to scramble and throw the ball away on the mandatory two-point attempt to tie in the third extra frame.
The win was a high point for Michigan, snapping a a 12-game losing streak to Big Ten teams that aren't Indiana and returning the Wolverines to bowl eligibility in the process. From there, they failed to top 28 points again in any of their last four games, continued to exhibit the most porous defense in the conference and subsequently welcomed a new coach last week. If only every game could have been a triple-overtime shootout…
4. Auburn 22, Oregon 19. A rusty first quarter prevented the back-and-forth shootout everyone imagined the BCS Championship Game would be, and even the dramatic ending supplied by Michael Dyer's controversial run couldn't quite raise it to the level of all-time classics in 2003 (Ohio State's overtime upset of Miami) and 2006 (Texas' fourth quarter rally to upend USC) in BCS lore. For much of the night, two of the most dominant offenses of the regular season looked out of sync.
In the end, though, Casey Matthews' effort to punch the ball from Cam Newton's hands and Oregon's subsequent drive for the tying touchdown/two-point conversion brought the scene to a fever pitch for the final five minutes, which happens to be just the way Auburn likes it: After Dyer's phantom sprint into field goal range, Wes Byrum's game-winning kick from 19 yards out on the final snap – his third walk-off game-winner of the year – will survive as one of the most-replayed plays in Auburn and BCS history.3. LSU 33, Florida 29. For a few minutes, it looked like the drama in the Swamp would break for Florida: Down 26-14 early in the fourth quarter, the Gators rallied for two touchdowns – first on an 88-yard kickoff return by Andre Debose, then on a five-yard Mike Gillislee plunge to cap a 10-play, 80-yard march – to go ahead, 29-26, with 3:15 to play. But there is no drama in football like Les Miles drama, and with a reasonable game-tying field goal attempt in hand on the ensuing drive, the Hatter's gusto for the jugular stunned even his own team:
If the fake field goal attempt with 35 seconds on the clock doesn't work – if the ball isn't guided along the 42-yard line on an invisible rope that keeps it from becoming an incomplete forward pass, if it doesn't bounce perfectly into Josh Jasper's waiting arms at full speed, if Jasper's 171-pound frame doesn't go lunging past two of Florida's defensive starters for a first down – then half the LSU student body tries to burn Miles' house down.
But of course, it does work, because it is too insane not to work. LSU scored the winning touchdown three plays later to move to 5-0.
2. Nevada 34, Boise State 31. Boise kicker Kyle Brotzman was the scapegoat of the year in the end for critical misses on chip shots at the end of regulation and again in overtime. But he was only there because the Broncos had uncharacteristically blown a 24-7 halftime lead, yielding 17 straight Wolf Pack points in the third and fourth quarters after most of the country had drifted off to sleep.
When BSU counterpunched on a 79-yard catch-and-run by Doug Martin to regain the lead at 31-24, Nevada methodically stormed back with a 14-play, 79-yard march for the tying touchdown with 13 seconds remaining in regulation – the Pack's fourth consecutive scoring drive, more than anyone else had managed against the Broncos in an entire game since Virginia Tech in the season opener. And then, seemingly resigned to staggering into overtime, Kellen Moore and Titus Young delivered a little 11:59 miracle for all the Cinderellas out there:
… only to have the coach turn back into a pumpkin a minute later, when Brotzman's flubs brought Boise's 25-game winning streak and darkhorse BCS hopes to a thudding, anticlimactic end. Even in gut-wrenching defeat, though, at least they made it interesting – and Nevada made its good fortune count by finishing off the best season in school history, by far.
1. Auburn 28, Alabama 27. Auburn's improbable run to the top of the polls was built on drama – the Tigers had trailed by at least 10 points in three of their 11 wins going into Tuscaloosa, and won two others on the final snap of the game – but Nov. 26 was the ultimate gauntlet: Down three touchdowns. On the road. To the defending national champions. In front of a hostile, 100,000-strong crowd baying for your blood. Against a top five defense selling out on every play to neutralize your bread-and-butter. With the national championship on the line. And … go.
If it was a heavyweight fight, it might have been stopped after the first quarter, when the Crimson Tide ripped off three touchdowns on their first three possessions as Auburn's vaunted offense stumbled through three straight three-and-outs. Even as the Tigers began to get their feet under them in the second quarter, the defense was holding on for dear life, managing to force a pair of fumbles and a field goal on three more red zone trips by the Tide offense, keeping the score within a manageable 24-7 at the half. At that point, 'Bama had already outgunned it rival by almost 300 yards, 409-119.
Cue the violins and poignant voiceover. Auburn opened the third quarter with a 70-yard bomb from Cam Newton to Terrell Zachery on the second snap of the half, sparking what may go down as the most triumphant 30 minutes in Tiger history. Newton added his second touchdown pass later in the quarter, and added his third – a seven-yard, go-ahead throw to Philip Lutzenkirchen, put Auburn up 28-27 – less than four minutes into the final frame. The battered defense took it from there, handcuffing 'Bama on its final two possessions to seal the perfect regular season, Newton's Heisman landslide and the largest comeback – from 24-0 down – ever recorded by a team that went on to appear on the BCS title game. If it's possible to relish a regular season victory more than the championship itself, this it.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.