Last night's epic title game between Florida State and Auburn marked the final BCS bowl game, the last of 72 postseason contests since the system was put in place prior to the 1998 season. The BCS was very far from perfect (if not downright corrupt), but over its lifetime it managed to put together more than a few excellent college football matchups. Were there some blowouts? Sure. Were there a few games in which it seemed like neither offense came back from Christmas break? You bet. But there were also many spectacularly entertaining classics that we're going to attempt to rank.
The following games are rated subjectively and pretty much arbitrarily on things like number of points scored, overtimes, star players doing star player things, and fun endings. Blowouts and great defense can be entertaining in their own right, but for this list we're focusing mainly on high-scoring, competitive (there's one 37-point exception) games. Also, the amount of entries from 2014 isn't recency bias but an acknowledgement that we were just blessed with the best overall group of BCS games in the system's history.
21) 2006 Orange Bowl: Penn State 26 Florida State 23 (3OT)
This game was far from pretty but is notable for two reasons: It was the only BCS game to reach triple overtime and also the final meeting between legends Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden. The game included an 87-yard punt return touchdown, a missed extra point, a safety, and an overtime session when neither team scored (really tough to do!) and had both teams combine to go 11-for-39 on third- and fourth-down conversions. The Big Ten champ Nittany Lions won on a 29-yard Kevin Kelly field goal in the third overtime after Florida State missed a kick earlier in the session. They finished third in the country, the best final ranking for Paterno over the last 17 seasons of his career.
20) 2012 Orange Bowl: West Virginia 70 Clemson 33
The sole blowout on our list, this was the equivalent of a college football team playing against an avalanche. Clemson was actually winning at the end of the first quarter, 17-14. The Mountaineers — led by a masterful Geno Smith, who finished with 407 yards and six touchdowns — started to roll in the second quarter, their lead cut to 28-20 after a Tigers field goal. The next time Clemson scored it made it 63-26. The final three minutes of the second quarter alone contained two Tajh Boyd turnovers and three WVU touchdowns, highlighting the middle of a 49-9 scoring run by Dana Holgorsen's offense. This game proved to be a turning point for both programs, but not in the way one would expect. West Virginia would go 11-14 over the next two seasons, while Dabo Swinney and Boyd would run off a 22-4 record with bowl wins over LSU and Ohio State.
19) 1999 Fiesta Bowl: Tennessee 23 Florida State 16
The inaugural BCS championship game pitted the Volunteers (12-0 and number one in the nation) against the Seminoles, who were favored despite coming into the game with an 11-1 record. Rocky Top jumped out early courtesy of the Tee Martin/Peerless Price connection and a Dwayne Goodrich pick six, taking a 14-9 lead to the half. (The margin could have been slimmer had Tennessee punter David Leaverton not made a touchdown-saving tackle on FSU return man Peter Warrick.) The lead extended to 23-9 in the fourth quarter, but after a Seminoles touchdown and a fumble by tailback Travis Henry when the Vols were attempting to run out the clock, Florida State had a shot to tie the game. However, Seminoles quarterback Marcus Outzen was picked off again, sealing the title for Tennessee. Price ended the game with 199 yards receiving on only four catches to help lead Rocky Top to their first national title in 31 years.
18) 2009 Fiesta Bowl: Texas 24 Ohio State 21
The 11-1 Longhorns – who many believed should have been in the title game over an Oklahoma team they’d defeated earlier in the year – were heavy favorites over the Buckeyes and played like it early, taking a 17-6 third quarter lead. The Buckeyes – with Terrelle Pryor platooning at quarterback with Todd Boeckman – rallied back, ripping off 15 straight points to take a 21-17 lead with just over two minutes remaining. Horns quarterback Colt McCoy went to work, eventually connecting with Quan Cosby for the 26-yard game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. McCoy was 41 for 58 on the night with 414 yards, while Cosby had 14 receptions for 171 yards and two scores. Texas finished fourth in the AP poll, but got their shot at the BCS title the following year.
17) 2011 BCS Title Game: Auburn 22 Oregon 19
Everyone expected plenty of offensive fireworks from two of the most prolific spread attacks in the game, but a slew of first downs (51) didn't translate to the scoreboard in a tight battle for the crystal football. Two Cam Newton touchdown passes staked the Tigers to an early lead, but Oregon tied the game at 19 on a LaMichael James run followed by a Jeff Maehl two-pointer conversion. This left the Heisman winner two minutes and 33 seconds to win it for Auburn, but most of the damage on the final drive was done on the ground by freshman tailback Michael Dyer, who sprinted 37 yards to the Oregon 23 after it appeared he'd been tackled. (He hadn't.) Another long run by Dyer set up a 19-yard Wes Byrum field goal, which was good as time expired to give Auburn the title (and all the Tostitos). Newton became the second consecutive player (after Mark Ingram at Alabama) to win the Heisman and BCS title in the same season.
16) 2014 Rose Bowl: Michigan State 24 Stanford 20
The final Rose Bowl of the BCS era was a classic PAC-12/Big Ten matchup of top-five teams. Stanford sprinted out to an early 10-0 lead and looked like they were going to have an easy win, but the Spartan defense stiffened, as the only Cardinal touchdown after the first quarter came via pick six. With the game tied at 17, MSU quarterback Connor Cook — who had been benched earlier in the season during his team's only loss — led the go-ahead touchdown drive, finishing the day with 332 yards passing and two scores. Stanford got the ball back down four with three minutes remaining, but Mark Dantonio's defense achieved its second stop on fourth and short on the day, ending the Cardinal comeback bid. It was Michigan State's first Rose Bowl win since defeating USC in 1988 and their best finish since 1966.
15) 1999 Rose Bowl: Wisconsin 38 UCLA 31
UCLA was 10-1, coming off a regular season-ending loss to Miami that had cost them a shot at the title. Analyst Craig James called their opponent "the worst team to ever play in the Rose Bowl." Shockingly, James was incorrect, as tailback Ron Dayne rumbled for 246 yards and four touchdowns to pace Barry Alvarez's Badger offense. UCLA quarterback Cade McNown (third in Heisman voting that year) threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns but was sacked on fourth down to end the Bruins' final drive. The Badgers won despite giving up a then-record 538 yards of offense, with Dayne's effort helping to set the stage for his successful Heisman campaign the following season.
14) 2011 Rose Bowl: TCU 21 Wisconsin 19
TCU capped a perfect 13-0 season by knocking off the Big Ten champs in a tight battle of top four teams. The Badgers held TCU to only 301 yards of offense, but it was enough to muster 21 points, with most of the damage being done by quarterback Andy Dalton and his 247 total offensive yards. After TCU took a 21-13 lead early in the third quarter, the teams traded punts until the Badgers put on a 10-play, 77-yard drive capped by a Montee Ball touchdown run to get within two with two minutes remaining. Gary Patterson’s defense snuffed out the conversion attempt and the Horned Frogs ran out the clock, earning the first Rose Bowl win for a team from outside the major conferences.
13) 2010 BCS Title Game: Alabama 37 Texas 21
Do not let the score fool you, as two Tide touchdowns in the final 121 seconds ballooned the final result of a very weird game. Texas dominated early, stifling the Alabama attack and using a surprise onside kick to help establish a 6-0 lead. Unfortunately for the Horns, Tide lineman Marcell Dareus knocked senior quarterback Colt McCoy out of the game on Texas's fifth offensive play. The second quarter was all Tide, as a Dareus pick six gave Nick Saban's squad a 24-6 lead at the half. But Texas was not out of it yet, as freshman backup Garrett Gilbert connected on two touchdown passes to All-American receiver Jordan Shipley (McCoy's roommate, as everyone who watched a Texas game in 2008 or 2009 was constantly reminded) to make it a 24-21 game. The Horns defense got Gilbert the ball back with three minutes remaining, but a strip sack followed by a short Mark Ingram touchdown ended the comeback hopes. Alabama's first championship under Saban came from a familiar combination: Defense (five turnovers forced) and a strong running game (225 yards and four touchdowns by Heisman winner Ingram and future Doak Walker winner Trent Richardson). Alabama went on to win two more BCS titles, while Texas could never find a replacement for McCoy (Gilbert ended up transferring to SMU), eventually leading to Mack Brown's resignation in December of 2013.
12) 2014 Orange Bowl: Clemson 40 Ohio State 35
A Miami shootout where defenses were optional until the final two possessions, Clemson's Tajh Boyd put on a show with 505 yards of offense and six total touchdowns, finding star receiver Sammy Watkins an absurd 16 times for 227 yards and two of those scores. The Ohio State backfield of Braxton Miller and Carlos Hyde kept them in the game, and after two fourth-quarter lead changes, a Boyd pick with 1:27 left gave the Buckeyes a chance to win their first postseason game under Urban Meyer. The comeback was thwarted on the second play of the drive by a Clemson interception, the Tigers' fourth takeaway of the evening. This was the first time in history that Ohio State lost a football game when scoring 35 or more points.
11) 2014 Sugar Bowl: Oklahoma 45 Alabama 31
Brian Phillips at Grantland simply described this game as "funny," which is a perfect description for what turned into an almost surreal evening in New Orleans. The Crimson Tide were two touchdown favorites and came out looking like it, scoring a touchdown on four plays, then intercepting quarterback Trevor Knight on the Sooners' first possession. Following that, everything started turning up Sooner. Heisman runner-up and "Sports Illustrated" cover boy A.J. McCarron was all out of sorts in his final collegiate game, throwing two picks, getting sacked seven times (five by Geneo Grissom and Eric Striker, unholy terrors who plagued the Tide all night long), and losing a fumble in the final minutes that led to a game-clinching defensive touchdown by Oklahoma. Knight was brilliant, throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns, while Alabama freshman tailback Derrick Henry made quite an impression, gaining 161 yards of offense and scoring two touchdowns on only nine touches. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this game came from the stands, as one Alabama fan took out her displeasure at the result on a group of Oklahoma partisans.
10) 2012 Rose Bowl: Oregon 45 Wisconsin 38
Just a good, old-fashioned, back-and-forth football game that featured over 1,100 yards of total offense. For the Big Ten champion Badgers, it was quarterback Russell Wilson (314 yards of offense, three total touchdowns), tailback Montee Ball (164 yards rushing), and the wide receiver duo of Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis (223 receiving yards, two scores) doing the damage. The Ducks countered with quarterback Darron Thomas (268 yards passing and three touchdowns) and ridiculous games from the tailback combo of LaMichael James (159 yards and a touchdown) and De'Anthony Thomas (155 yards and two touchdowns on a mere two touches, good for a sturdy 77.5 average yards per carry). The Ducks trailed by three entering the fourth quarter, but wide receiver Lavasier Tuinei's second touchdown catch of the game and a forced fumble from their defense helped them take the lead. On the final drive Wilson led the Badgers down to the Oregon 25, but time expired when he spiked the ball with only two seconds left, the game ending on a booth review.
9) 2006 Sugar Bowl: West Virginia 38 Georgia 35
In the only Sugar Bowl ever played outside of New Orleans (due to the Superdome being damaged by Hurricane Katrina), the SEC champion Bulldogs were heavy favorites in the Georgia Dome, a mere 70 miles from Athens. The Mountaineer freshmen backfield duo of Pat White and Steve Slaton were not impressed, establishing a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter. The Bulldogs fought back, riding the arm of quarterback D.J. Shockley to close the gap to three points twice in the second half. Georgia got the stop it needed with just under two minutes remaining, but on fourth and eight from midfield, Rich Rodriguez called a successful fake punt, and the Mountaineers were able to run out the clock. Slaton broke Tony Dorsett's Sugar Bowl record with 204 rushing yards (and three touchdowns, including a pair of 52-yarders), while this was the first of four bowl victories for White.
8) 2000 Orange Bowl: Michigan 35 Alabama 34 (OT)
The only BCS matchup that pitted two future NFL MVPs against one another, Crimson Tide running back Shaun Alexander ran amuck on the Wolverine defense, rushing for 161 yards and three scores. He was matched by Michigan quarterback Tom Brady, who had four touchdown passes on the day, including three to Orange Bowl MVP David Terrell. After Alabama blocked a Michigan field goal attempt at the end of regulation, Brady hit tight end Shawn Thompson for a touchdown on the first play of overtime. Bama quickly answered, but a missed extra point by kicker Ryan Pflugner gave the Wolverines the one-point victory.
7) 2012 Fiesta Bowl: Oklahoma State 41 Stanford 38 (OT)
A few months before both were selected in the first round of the NFL draft, Andrew Luck and Brandon Weeden aired it out in Glendale in a battle of top four teams with 11-1 records. Luck tossed for 347 yards and two touchdowns, complemented on the ground by Stepfan Taylor's 177 yards and two scores. On the other side, Weeden kept targeting Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon, who finished the game with eight catches, 186 yards, and three touchdowns. After Oklahoma State tied the game at 38 on a Joseph Randle run, Luck got the ball back with two and a half minutes to go. He sliced his way down to the Cowboys 25, but David Shaw (in his first season as head coach after taking over for Jim Harbaugh) went conservative, setting up a 35-yard field goal attempt by Jordan Williamson that missed as time expired. In overtime, Williamson missed again, allowing Cowboys kicker Quinn Sharp to hit a 22-yarder to complete the best season in Oklahoma State history.
6) 2000 Sugar Bowl: Florida State 46 Virginia Tech 29
The final score doesn't come close to indicating the quality of the second BCS championship game, an electric duel between Seminole wide receiver Peter Warrick and Hokie quarterback Michael Vick. In the second quarter, Warrick returned a punt 67 yards for his second touchdown of the game, giving the favored Noles a 28-7 lead. Vick responded, rattling off four scoring drives that put the Hokies ahead 29-28. FSU quarterback Chris Weinke (who would win the Heisman the following year) took over in the fourth, connecting on two long touchdowns to seal the victory. Warrick was named player of the game, with six catches for 163 yards, three total touchdowns, and a two-point conversion grab. Vick and the Hokies lost despite accruing 503 yards of offense and 24 first downs to the Seminoles' 359 and 15, but they allowed a blocked punt and coughed up three fumbles. Bobby Bowden's squad became the first team to ever go wire-to-wire as number one, carrying the preseason ranking all the way through to their bowl victory.
5) 2005 Rose Bowl: Texas 38 Michigan 37
A torrid affair that marked Vince Young's first of two successful visits to Pasadena. Michigan had built a ten-point fourth-quarter lead on the arm of Chad Henne, who connected for four touchdown passes (three to Braylon Edwards, who finished with ten catches and 109 yards). But as USC would discover the following year, leads were not safe against Young in the San Gabriel Mountains, as he accounted for 372 yards of offense and five touchdowns. Michigan took a 37-35 lead with 3:04 remaining on a Garrett Rivas field goal, but their defense couldn't slow the Horns QB, who set up a 37-yard Dusty Mangum kick as time expired to give Texas the win.
4) 2007 Fiesta Bowl: Boise State 43 Oklahoma 42 (OT)
The best finish on this list — perhaps the best finish in bowl history — came in a game that didn't seem particularly special at first. The undefeated Broncos built a 28-10 lead over a sloppy Sooners team that been favored by a touchdown, but Bob Stoops's team rallied to tie things up (although the two-point conversion took three tries after a pair of penalties on the first two attempts). Then things got ridiculous. On the first play of the ensuing drive, Oklahoma snagged a pick six to take the lead, a 15-point swing in less than 30 seconds. Now trailing, Chris Petersen reached into his bag of tricks on fourth and 18 to pull out a hook and ladder, good for a 50-yard game-tying touchdown. Things didn't slow down in overtime, where Adrian Peterson scored a 25-yard touchdown on the first play of the Oklahoma possession. Boise used a halfback pass to get into the end zone on fourth and goal, then Ian Johnson took a Statue of Liberty handoff for the game-winning two-point conversion. As if the action on the field wasn't entertaining enough, Johnson proposed to his head cheerleader girlfriend during the postgame interview.
3) 2014 BCS Title Game: Florida State 34 Auburn 31
In its final game, the BCS almost gave us its finest. The underdog Tigers sprinted out to a 21-3 lead, as Gus Malzahn's spread shredded the vaunted Seminole defense and Heisman winner Jameis Winston looked like a redshirt freshman, coughing up a fumble and struggling to find receivers. But a fake punt and a touchdown from the Noles helped stunt the momentum (and "SEC" chants from the crowd) while Jimbo Fisher's defense found its footing in the second half. After FSU crawled back to make it 21-20 in the fourth, the remainder of the game was just a series of haymakers. An Auburn field goal was countered by a Levonte Whitfield 100-yard kick return to give Florida State a 27-24 lead. Unfazed, Tiger tailback Tre Mason (who ran for 195 yards on the night) bullied his way to the end zone with 1:31 remaining to put Auburn back in control. But Famous Jameis shined against his toughest competition, putting on a seven-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard strike to Kelvin Benjamin. With only 13 seconds remaining, Auburn couldn't muster one last miracle and the Noles took the final BCS crown.
2) 2003 Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State 31 Miami (FL) 24 (2OT)
The Hurricanes were the defending champs, riding a 34-game winning streak into the desert to face the double-digit underdog Buckeyes. The talent featured in this game remains almost unbelievable, as it included 18 future first-round NFL draft picks, with their combined skills leading to a little bit of everything:
· Maurice Clarett scoring two touchdowns and forcing a fumble after a Sean Taylor interception.
· A Cane offense that featured Andre Johnson, Willis McGahee, Kellen Winslow II, and Roscoe Parrish.
· The Buckeyes defense derailing that seemingly unstoppable Cane offense by forcing five turnovers.
· A gutsy field goal kick to force overtime.
· A goal line stand in double overtime to seal Ohio State's first title since the 1970 season.
1) 2006 Rose Bowl: Texas 41 USC 38
The granddaddy of all granddaddies, this game pitted defending champ USC and their Heisman-winning backfield of Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush against Maxwell winner and Heisman runner-up Vince Young. The stars all came out to play for the Trojans, with Leinart throwing for 365, Bush accruing 177 yards from scrimmage, wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett snagging ten catches for 121 yards, and beefy tailback LenDale White churning out 124 yards and three scores. That helped the men of Troy establish a 12-point lead late in the fourth quarter, but it wasn't enough against Young, who was spectacular. He ended up with 467 yards of offense (267 passing, 200 rushing), and after Mack Brown's defense rose up for a fourth-down stop on White near midfield, Young ran his way into the history books, winning Texas their first title since 1970. Four of the players from this game (Young, Bush, Leinart, and Horns safety Michael Huff) would be top 10 draft picks a few months later.
A few runners up that just missed the cut and could easily be on this list: 2009 Sugar Bowl (Utah vs. Alabama), 2011 Sugar Bowl (Ohio State vs. Arkansas), 2012 Sugar Bowl (Michigan vs. Virginia Tech), 2008 Fiesta Bowl (West Virginia vs. Oklahoma), 2014 Fiesta Bowl (UCF vs. Baylor), 2001 Orange Bowl (Oklahoma vs. Florida State), 2004 Orange Bowl (Miami vs. Florida State), 2009 BCS Title Game (Florida vs. Oklahoma), 2001 Rose Bowl (Washington vs. Purdue).
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