Wednesday, January 04, 2006

2005: Greatest College Football Season Ever?

Seriously, after that Rose Bowl, can you think of one single season so jammed with instant classic, down-to-the-wire, heart-stopping games?

Just look at the top 10 games of the season (this is thrown together off the top of my head, there are plenty of games that deserve to be on this list which will be overlooked)

10) West Virginia-Georgia, Sugar Bowl

The Mountaineers were the king of the "They Don't Belong" Crowd. It was supposed to be a sweet cherry on top victory lap for the Bulldogs in front of a virtual homecrowd in the temporary Sugar Bowl site of Atlanta. And the game did start off as a rout - in favor of a blazing Mountaineer team that raced to a 28-0 lead. But DJ Shockley refused to quit and pulled the Dawgs all the way back, closing to 38-35 late in the 4th. The game wasn't decided until Rich Rodriguez made the "balls-of-steel" decision to fake punt on 4th down to clinch the victory, and WVU had earned some respect with the most unexpected upset of the bowl season.

9) Penn State-Florida State, Orange Bowl

Wanted: a field goal kicker. No experience required. In a marathon battle that recalled the greatest NFL game ever played (the Dolphins-Charger '82 overtime playoff thriller), PSU and FSU kept their respective coaches up WAY past their bedtime in a triple overtime test of wills and patience. The game featured ridiculously punishing defense, a punt return TD, a bonehead safety, and not one, not two, not three, not four, but FIVE missed kicks to end regulation and into overtime. JoePa and Bobby B probably dialed down their desire to "coach 'till they drop" afterwards.

8) UCLA-Stanford, October 29th

There's always one game that offers no pre-game indication of greatness in these lists. Stanford was a mild stumbling block for the Bruins as they trucked towards a battle of the unbeatens with USC. But the Cardinal had them on the ropes for three and half quarters, seizing a 24-3 lead with just 8:26 left. But UCLA's pair of Drews, QB Drew Olson and RB Maurice Drew, led a furious comeback that culminated with a 23-yard TD pass in overtime to preserve the undefeated season. The Bruin Magic would finally expire in late season meltdowns versus Arizona and USC, but nobody could deny them the thrill of victory on that night.

7) Auburn-Georgia, November 12th

The Forgotten Team of 2004, Tommy Tuberville and the Tigers refused to give in despite numerous chances for Georgia to seize control of the game. Then they stunned the crowd in Athens with a fumble return TD for a 28-27 lead. Georgia rallied with a field goal, but Auburn pulled off one last magic trick, getting a 62-yard pass completion on a fourth down...which was then fumbled but recovered by Auburn just inches before it rolled out of the endzone, therefore preserving field position at the 3-yard line. John Vaughn nailed a 31-30 victory with a chip shot as time expired in a truly crazy SEC game.

6) USC-Fresno State, November 19th

The ultimate David-Goliath matchup, on a night when Reggie Bush clinched the Heisman by simply refusing to be tackled, pushed out of bounds, or stopped in any way, shape, or form. Despite the SuperMan performance, Fresno State's aggressive passing attack wouldn't go away, matching the Trojans score for score on a wild night. QB Paul Pinegar had one last chance to get the Bulldogs into overtime, but the Trojans assured the 50-42 victory by intercepting Pinegar in the red zone with less than a minute to play.

5) LSU-Tennessee, September 26th

The Volunteers' season sure went down the tubes, but not before one night of glory under the command of former LSU signal-caller Rick Clausen. The vaunted UT defense collapsed in the first half, spotting the Tigers a 21-0 lead. Enter Clausen and 17 fourth quarter points, followed by a Gerald Riggs touchdown run in overtime to spoil the long-delayed home opener for the Tigers. It says a lot about the importance of college football when FireLesMiles.com was up the next day...two games into his tenure at LSU.

4) Texas-Ohio State, September 10th

The first ever meeting between two of college football's all-time great powers didn't dissapoint in a primetime battle at the Horseshoe. Vince Young stayed calm and cool as he rallied the Longhorns against the insanely good Buckeye defense. Ohio State had several chances to put the game away and may have disrupted their offensive rhythm by rotating Troy Smith and Justin Zwick, but still led late. Young's daring fade pass to the endzone (and Limas Sweet's acrobatic "Can You Believe He Came Down in Bounds?" catch) sealed a 25-22 win for UT.

3) Penn State-Michigan, October 15th

One week after the statement win against Ohio State, Penn State was suddenly a trendy pick (along with still undefeated Alabama & UCLA) to be a thorn in the BCS' side. But a tough rivalry game at the Big House still awaited. The Nittany Lions' appeared to break the spirit of the Wolverines with 15 points in 17 seconds thanks to a rushing TD and a fumble return TD, followed by a gutsy fake extra point for an 18-10 lead in the fourth quarter. Michigan answered with a Mike Hart touchdown run and field goal to reclaim a 21-18 edge with just 3:45 to play. But how clutch is Michael Robinson? The Big Ten's Offensive Player of the Year directed a 13-play, 81-yard drive without the benefit of a timeout, and saved the game with a scramble on 4th and 7 for a first down. He took it in himself to give Penn State a 4-point lead with just 53 seconds left on the clock. Then the mayhem began - the Nittany Lions' first mistake was giving Steve Breaston a chance on the kickoff return. He brought the ball to midfield, giving hope to Chad Henne and the Michigan offense. But despite some heroics from the youngster, his comeback bid fell short as the final pass deflected away from Breaston in the endzone...or had it? The officials determined one second remained on the clock, and Henne found Mario Manningham on the game's FINAL final play for a 27-25 stunner. Meanwhile, at the exact same time, just down the road in South Bend...

2) Notre Dame-USC, October 15th

...the "Game of the Year, Period" for 2005 was coming to an even more dramatic and even more bizarre finish. USC-Notre Dame is always special, with 7 Heismans and 11 National Titles adorning the trophy case of each team. But on this particularly golden afternoon, in the Mecca of college football, the two storied programs outdid themselves. Despite the pluck of first-year coach Charlie Weis, conventional wisdom said the Irish simply didn't have the speed, depth, or physical skills to beat the Trojans. Maybe USC would win nine out of every 10 times. But the Irish sure played like October 15th was going to be that "one game". It featured a little bit of everything - monster hits, dazzling Reggie Bush runs, a Tom Zbikowski punt return TD, ballsy 4th-down attempts deep in their own territory for each team. Like two heavyweights, they battled back and forth for 60 incredible minutes, neither able to knock the other out. Each blow was met with another of equal force and passion. With 5:04 remaining, after Bush's third touchdown of the day, Brady Quinn seized the moment on the Notre Dame turf, going a perfect 4-for-4 and culminating a perfect drive with a 5-yard touchdown run for a 31-28 lead. As a matter of fact, it was too perfect - the Irish left 2:04 on the clock, and Matt Leinart took advantage. 4th-and-9, a 27 game winning streak not only on the ropes but practically through them, he executed a perfect play to get USC down to the 13-yard line with an audibled fade to Dwayne Jarret...BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. At the 2-yard line, the clock at :23 seconds and ticking, Leinart went for the endzone himself and got jolted by Corey Mays. 6,5,4,3,2,1---game over. Notre Dame had won...but again, was anything for certain on this day? The officials determined (correctly) that the ball had been knocked out of bounds by Mays, and placed it at the one-yard line (not as definitively correct; the spot will forever be in dispute thanks to less than perfect replay angles) with seven seconds to play (again, sketchy - it looked like about 10 seconds should have remained, but perhaps 7 was simply USC's lucky number). What happened next needs no words...but I offer them anyway. USC did what champions feel compelled to do. They went for the win and got it, Leinart falling into the endzone with a helpful shove from Bush for an unthinkably brilliant (or sickening, depending on your allegiance) 34-31 win. What kind of doozy of football game would it take to possibly top this?

1) USC-Texas, Rose Bowl

Why, of course, the early front-runner if not already the slam-dunk winner of the "Game of the Year, Period" Award for 2006. The most anticipated National Championship in history. The game we THOUGHT we were going to see a year ago between USC and Oklahoma. The game that produced the most sensational performance by a quarterback in a championship setting, ever. The game that perhaps marks the end of an incredible run by an incredible team. A game that featured five lead changes and over 1000 total yards, not to mention 32 points in the 4th quarter alone. A game where a team gunning for history gets denied by half a yard on 4th down. A game which culminates on 4th down at the 8-yard line, 27 seconds to go, everything in the balance.

In short, the greatest championship game ever played in the history of college football.

In the paraphrased words of Sports Illustrated:

This is why we put up with it. Put up with a system of picking a champion that only a computer could love, with the road trips and the commercials and the agonizing waits, with the nasty recruiting battles and the internet trash talk. With the jersey popping and the "What Are You Smoking?" officials, with Beano and Lee, with the mascot stealing and the rivalry jabbing. We put up with all it, in fact we embrace all of it, for moments like these. Moments that only college football can give us.

2005, the Greatest College Football Season Ever? You be the judge. Best not leave this stuff to the computers.

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