College football is a huge draw in America, attracting stadium crowds in the tens of thousands as well as millions of TV viewers. Heightened inter-college rivalries and widely viewed, prestigious bowl games have earned college teams fans across the nation.
In the early part of the 20th century, college football became the most popular form of the game in the country. And despite the rise of the professional game, over the years, some incredible games and compelling moments have really stood out. These iconic photos capture 10 great occasions in college football history, including underdog wins, last-second touchdowns, outrageous plays, and crazy mistakes.
10. Miami Hurricanes vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers – 1984 Orange Bowl
The 1984 Orange Bowl, played on January 2, was a fiercely fought match-up between the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who were undefeated, and the Miami Hurricanes. Although the Hurricanes had only lost one game all season, it was a comprehensive 28-3 drubbing at the hands of rivals the Florida Gators in their opening fixture. Consequently, the Cornhuskers were expected to dominate the game.
However, remarkably the Hurricanes held their own, and with less than a minute left on the clock, the score was 31-30 in their favor. With time ticking away, Cornhuskers quarterback Turner Gill went for a two-point conversion that would have stolen the victory for Nebraska, but Hurricanes safety Ken Calhoun blocked the play, effectively winning Miami their first national title. The game has been described as one of the finest in college football history.
9. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets vs. California Golden Bears – 1929 Rose Bowl (Wrong Way Riegels)
On January 1, 1929, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets and the California Golden Bears squared off at the Rose Bowl. Over 66,600 fans turned up to watch what would go down as an iconic game in the annals of college football. In the end, though, it wasn’t who won or lost that would be remembered so much as a sprint towards the end zone – in the wrong direction.
With the score at 0-0 in the second quarter, Golden Bears center Roy Riegels picked up a Yellow Jackets fumble. However, according to his own account, Riegels was pushed and hit a tackler, which spun him around and made him lose his sense of direction. Riegels ended up running 65 yards towards his own goal line. It was only thanks to the efforts of his teammate quarterback Benny Lom that his progress was halted, and he was tackled at the 1-yard line. The blunder led to two extra points for the Yellow Jackets when the Golden Bears’ subsequent punt was blocked for a safety. This furthermore proved significant, as the final score was 8-7 in Georgia Tech’s favor.
Although Riegels went on to become an All-American and was eventually inducted into the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame and, posthumously, the University of California’s Hall of Fame, he is still best known as “Wrong Way” Riegels.
8. Texas Longhorns vs. Arkansas Razorbacks – 1969 (Game of the Century)
On December 6, 1969, the Texas Longhorns and the Arkansas Razorbacks played a legendary game at Razorback Stadium in Arkansas. Some 40 years on, it was still described as the “Game of the Century.” It was the last fixture in college football’s 100th year, and pre-game hype was huge: the game was tuned into on over 50 percent of television sets in the US. President Nixon was in attendance, as was then US representative George H.W. Bush.
The Longhorns were on an 18-game winning streak, while the Razorbacks had 15 consecutive victories under their belt. The intensity was high, but the Longhorns repeatedly turned over the ball and fell behind 14-0. However, desperate for the comeback, they fought their way to make it 14-8 in the final quarter. Then, after the Longhorns had picked off a Razorbacks pass in their own end zone before driving down to their own 43-yard line, Texas coach Darrell Royal called for a deep pass to Randy Peschel on a fourth-and-3. Covered by two men, tight end Peschel caught the pass over his shoulder, earning his team 44 yards. The Longhorns went on to score a touchdown two plays later to seal the historic 15-14 win.
7. USC Trojans vs. Michigan Wolverines – 1979 Rose Bowl (Phantom Touchdown)
Charles White was an explosive and powerful college (and professional) football player perhaps best known for his role in the 1979 Rose Bowl. White’s team, the USC Trojans, faced off against the Michigan Wolverines on January 1. In the second quarter, White dove towards the Michigan goal line from the three-yard line but fumbled the ball. He hit the ground in the end zone holding nothing but air. Although a Pac-10 official correctly signaled that possession had been turned over, a Big Ten official ran onto the field and ruled the play a touchdown.
The incident has gone on to be remembered as the Phantom Touchdown. “There was no way I got that ball into the end zone,” recalls White. “But what was I supposed to do? Say to the ref, ‘Excuse me, you made a mistake?’” USC went on to win the game 17-10.
6. Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Oklahoma Sooners – 1971 (Game of the Century)
On November 25, 1971, Thanksgiving Day, the Nebraska Cornhuskers played the Oklahoma Sooners at Owen Field in Norman, Oklahoma. The teams were evenly matched, and both took turns leading throughout the game.
The play of the day came when Cornhuskers halfback Johnny “The Jet” Rodgers returned a punt 72 yards downfield for a touchdown, bringing the score up to 14-3 in favor of Nebraska. The Sooners didn’t give up, though, and eventually crept ahead with a 31-28 lead. However, the Cornhuskers stuck with it, ultimately pulling off a memorable 35-31 victory. The match-up was another to earn the moniker, “Game of the Century.” The Cornhuskers then went on to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1972 Orange Bowl, helping them gain a solid, nationwide fan-base.
5. BYU Cougars vs. SMU Mustangs – 1980 Holiday Bowl (Miracle Bowl)
The 1980 Holiday Bowl gave the BYU Cougars their first bowl game win in all the years since Brigham Young University was established in 1875. On December 19, 1980, the Cougars came head to head with the SMU Mustangs at California’s Jack Murphy Stadium for the Holiday Bowl – and throughout most of the game, things didn’t look good.
With only four minutes left, the score was still 45-25 in favor of the Mustangs, and Cougars fans began pouring out of the stadium. Still, the Cougars would not accept defeat. Jim McMahon quickly threw a pass for a touchdown; and then the Cougars recovered an on-side kick, going on a drive that resulted in a one-yard touchdown – and narrowed the score to 45-39.
But it got better. With a mere 13 seconds left on the clock, the Mustangs punted the ball, only for Cougars defensive back Bill Schoepflin to pull off what has been called the “Miracle Block,” giving McMahon the chance to launch a final a 41-yard pass on the last play of the game. On cue, tight end Clay Brown leaped above three Mustangs defenders for the “Miracle Catch.” Appropriately, the 1980 Holiday Bowl was re-christened the “Miracle Bowl” in honor of the Cougars’ almost unthinkable comeback.
4. USC Trojans vs. UCLA Bruins – 1967 (O.J. Simpson’s 64-Yard Touchdown)
A lot was riding on the November 18, 1967 showdown between the UCLA Bruins and the USC Trojans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum stadium, including the National Championships, the Heisman Trophy and a chance to play in the Rose Bowl.
Come the fourth quarter, with just over 10 minutes left, the game was tied at 14-14. It was then that Trojans quarterback Toby Page called a pass play but noticed that the Bruins linebackers were dropping back into position to cover. Page audibled “23 blast!” prior to the snap and then handed the ball to young running back O.J. Simpson. Simpson ran left, was helped by a block from his fullback, and then cut through to the center of the field, sprinting a full 64 yards for the touchdown and, ultimately, the victory. A junior at the time, Simpson didn’t win the Heisman Trophy that year, although he did claim it the next year as a USC freshman.
3. Boston College Eagles vs. Miami Hurricanes – 1984 (Miracle In Miami)
FOX Sports writer Kevin Hench considers the 1984 fixture between the Boston College Eagles and the Miami Hurricanes one of the most memorable encounters in sporting history, and chances are he isn’t alone. The game was played on November 23 at the Miami Orange Bowl. And although the Eagles went into an early 14-0 lead, come the very end of the game they were trailing 45-41.
By this point, Eagles quarterback Doug Flutie had already thrown the football 45 times, but he didn’t let that phase him. With six seconds left on the clock, Flutie’s incredible Hail Mary pass traveled 63 yards in the face of 30 mph winds, arched over the defense, and dropped right into the arms of wide receiver Gerard Phelan – who scored to win the game for the Eagles 47-45. The pass was called the “Miracle in Miami,” and the game was dubbed “Hail Flutie.”
2. Michigan Wolverines vs. Ohio State Buckeyes – 1969 (The Ten Year War)
On November 22, 1969, the Michigan-Ohio State game drew a record crowd of almost 103,600 fans to Ann Arbor’s Michigan Stadium. Under Coach Woody Hayes, the Ohio State Buckeyes had won 22 games in a row and were considered the number one team in the country. With new coach Bo Schembechler at the helm of a team that had seen better days, the Michigan Wolverines were regarded as clear underdogs.
But although the Buckeyes led 12-7 in the second quarter, the Wolverines soon turned the tables, and the Buckeyes fell behind. What’s more, the Wolverines kept going until the final whistle, winning the game 24-12 and earning a place in the history books with one of college football’s biggest upsets ever. The game sparked a rivalry between Michigan and Ohio that became known as The Ten Year War.
1. California Golden Bears vs. Stanford Cardinal – 1982 (The Play)
November 20, 1982 marked the 85th “Big Game” match-up between the Stanford Cardinal and archrivals the California Golden Bears. The game was held at California Memorial Stadium, and it will forever be remembered for its finish.
With four seconds left in the game and the scoreboard reading 20-19 in favor of the Cardinal, a Stanford win seemed certain as they took the kickoff. However, Golden Bears player Kevin Moen picked up the squib kick by Cardinal placekicker Mark Harmon, and five lateral passes followed in quick succession. Incredibly, the 144-piece Stanford band had assumed that the game was over and took to the field – but the ball was still alive. Moen himself caught a blind pass, the last of the five, from Mariet Ford and slammed into trombone-player Gary Tyrrell as he scored the winning touchdown. The Golden Bears won the game 25-20, and “The Play,” with all its controversy, earned its place in college football – and indeed American sporting – history. The incident has been debated and analyzed by experts for years.