The Greatest Games Ever Played

“Game of the Century”, “Instant Classic”, “Greatest Game Ever Played”. These are all titles that get flippantly thrown around in regards to college football games. There are a lot of great games throughout the 150 years of college football, but only a select few, should be considered the greatest games ever played. 

But what makes a college football game one of the greatest ever? I believe to be one of the greatest games ever, a game has to be between two great teams, playing for something special, in a back-and-forth game where the result is in doubt until the very end. Well that sounds great, but how do you define that description? What does great mean? What is something special? How much back-and-forth creates a back-and-forth?

There needs to be a set of standards that a game must meet in order to be fulfill that maxim. These standards though must be elite for a game and be considered one of the greatest college football games every played. Therefore, below are the the 5 elite standards a college football game must meet for it to be considered one of the greatest games ever. 

1. Both teams must have 1 loss or less

Simply, the game must be between two elite, great teams. These teams might lose 1 game, but a team with 2 losses in college football isn’t great. In order for a game to be a classic, the game needs to be between 2 great teams. In college football, if a team has 2 losses or more, there’s almost an 100% chance their not playing for a national championship, and are probably out of the running for a conference championship as well.

2. Both teams must be ranked

Not only do both have to have 1 or 0 losses, but both teams must be ranked, and ranked high. Upsets are exciting, I get it. I love a good upset. They change the landscape of college football for the season. While upsets are thrilling, they aren’t the greatest games of all time. Why? Because both teams aren’t elite.  A top college football game of all time has to be between two elite teams. While App State’s upset over Michigan in 2007 was one of the greatest upsets of all time, it wasn’t one of the greatest games of all time.  

3. The game has to mean something

Even if both teams are ranked unbeaten, the game needs to have meaning for both teams. It needs a timeless story line to it, or championship implications. Similar to the reason for standard #2, no matter how entertaining the game is played, the title of “greatest game ever played” can’t be between any two undefeated, ranked, schools in September or October. There are 3 ways a game can “mean something:”

  1. The game needs to be a major rivalry, for both teams. What seems like the annual Week 1, top-10 matchup of Oregon losing a close game to an SEC school in Dallas does not fit the bill for standard #3, no matter how entertaining. Not Michigan-Michigan St or Georgia-Tennessee either. I’m talking about OU-Texas,  Michigan-Ohio State, Georgia-Florida, Alabama-Auburn.
  2. The game can clinch a spot in a championship game. If it’s a conference game where the winner clinches their birth in the conference championship game, it “means something.”
  3. The game is a championship game or a major bowl game. If it’s not a conference championship or national championship, it needs to be one of the New Year’s 6 bowls. 

4. There needs to be at least 2 lead changes in the second half

The game needs to be close. It needs to stay close. There’s a lot of exciting games where a team comes from behind to win, maybe even from a big deficit. Or maybe a team blows a 24 point lead but barely hangs on to win by 3. But sometimes those leads can evaporate so quickly that the game lacks the intensity and emotion of a game that stays close and the lead changes hands throughout the second half. That’s just a different level of tension and nerves. That is why there needs to be 2 lead changes in the second half. Both teams need to take the lead at least once. Both teams, fans, coaches and players need to experience being ahead and behind in the second half.

Watching a large lead disappear, or a team barely hold to a lead the whole game can be fun, but we’re talking about the greatest games of all time here. There needs to be that nervous tension throughout the entire game, and the way to guarantee it’s there is to have a back-and-forth second half.

5. The deciding, final score needs to occur with 2 minutes or less left in regulation

To be one of the greatest college football games of all time, the game obviously needs to have an great finish. 

Picture this: even if a game fits all the criteria above – unbeaten, top-10 teams, national championship game, 2 lead changes in the second half. The final score occurs 3 minutes left on the clock, one team can take the lead, stop their opponent on downs, get the ball back, have a 3-and-out, punt, then turn the trailing team over on downs again, then end the game with a kneel down or two. 

That ending made that game lose some of it’s excitement and luster. With 3 minutes left, While still a great game, it now lacks the exciting ending which is a must for a game to be considered one of the best ever. 

These are the five elite standards a college football game must meet or exceed to be considered one of the “greatest college football games of all time.” In closing here is one example, in my opinion the greatest game in my lifetime:

January 4, 2006: 2005 National Championship – Rose Bowl Game

  1. Both the Texas Longhorns and USC Trojans were both 12-0 heading into the game
  2. Both teams were ranked: USC #1, Texas #2
  3. It was the National Championship at the Rose Bowl, the game had plenty of meaning
  4. There were 4 lead changes in the second half.
    • 3rd 10:36: USC 17-16
    • 3rd 8:34 Texas 23-17
    • 3rd 4:07 USC 24-23
    • 4th 0:19 Texas 41-38
  5. Vince Young scored with 19 seconds left in the game for the deciding score.

Remember, to be one of the greatest games ever, a game has to be between two great teams, playing for something special, in a back-and-forth game where the result is in doubt until the very end.

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