The 10 Most Dramatic Bowl Games of All Time

Every true fan of college football, regardless of whether they’re an ardent supporter of the BCS or an advocate of a playoff, can’t get enough of late December and early January. Bowl season is the most wonderful time of the year, when a veritable buffet of games is at your fingertips. Given the sheer amount of bowls in existence — 35 for the 2010 season — there are sure to be a few dramatic moments that’ll carve their place in college football lore. The following games have done just that, as evidenced by their endless airings on ESPN Classic. Hopefully, if we’re lucky, we’ll see one this year worthy of supplanting the lowest-ranking game on this list.  

1. 2006 Rose Bowl — Texas 41, USC 38: Defending champion USC was dubbed “the greatest college football team of all-time” by some media members during the ’05 season despite its apparent vulnerabilities and the presence of an equally talented Texas team. During the second half of the BCS Championship Game, the Trojans seemed to be on their way to meeting the hype, leading by 12 with 6:42 remaining in the contest. But Vince Young’s presence ensured the Horns were never out of it. After he ran in a 17-yard touchdown with 4:03 left, the Longhorns defense made a dramatic fourth-down stop on an up-the-middle run by LenDale White, who had gashed them all evening long. Young proceeded to orchestrate a 56-yard drive that ended on an eight-yard, fourth-down touchdown run with 19 seconds remaining. He passed for 267 yards and ran for 200 in the game, and all three of his touchdowns came on the ground. His memorable performance helped earn Texas its first national title in 35 years.

2. 2003 Fiesta Bowl — Ohio State 31, Miami 24: The ’03 BCS Championship Game wasn’t supposed to be close. The vaunted Miami Hurricanes were the defending champs, while the upstart Ohio State Buckeyes overcame a few close games to remain undefeated and in contention. The game had everything — a nasty knee injury suffered by Hurricanes star running back Willis McGahee, Maurice Clarett’s awesome strip of Sean Taylor after an interception that put the Buckeyes in control of the game, a game-tying Miami 40-yard field goal as time expired in regulation, two overtimes, and of course, a controversial fourth-down pass interference call at the end of the first overtime that cost Miami the title. The Canes’ 34-game winning streak was ended and second-year Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel was only beginning his successful career with the storied program.

3. 1984 Orange Bowl — Miami 31, Nebraska 30: Miami’s great run of success that spanned two decades started in the ’84 Orange Bowl. The Canes played ahead of the undefeated and favored Huskers for most of the game, but Tom Osborne’s squad rallied and put itself in position to win the game. In the fourth quarter, backup I-back Jeff Smith scored two touchdowns, the latter of which occurred on a fourth-and-eight pitch from Turner Gill with less than a minute left, bringing the Huskers to within a point of tying the game. Then, Osborne made perhaps the gutsiest call of all-time, deciding to go for two, the win and the undisputed national championship. Gill’s pass was broken up and the Canes went on to win their first of five national championships. Earlier in the game, Osborne made another memorable call, successfully executing the trick-play known as the fumblerooski. Never before has a coach been so praised after a loss.

4. 2007 Fiesta Bowl — Boise State 43, Oklahoma 42: The ’07 Fiesta Bowl was a classic David versus Goliath matchup. Oklahoma had just won its fourth Big XII Championship under Bob Stoops. Boise State, the WAC champion, had just earned its first BCS bowl appearance. The Broncos stunned the Sooners and most of the nation by dominating most of the game. Midway through the third quarter, the Broncos held a commanding 28-10 lead after Marty Tadman’s interception return for a touchdown. But the Sooners made ferocious comeback, scoring the next 25 points. The game was seemingly over after Jared Zabransky’s pick-six to Marcus Walker with 1:02 left, but the Broncos regrouped and completed the first of the their memorable plays — a hook-and-ladder with seven seconds remaining that led to the tie. At the end of the first overtime, the Broncos responded to an Adrian Peterson touchdown by scoring on a touchdown throw made by backup receiver Vinny Perretta. Ian Johnson’s subsequent two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play capped of a huge win for the little guys.

5. 1973 Sugar Bowl — Notre Dame 24, Alabama 23: Two of football’s elite programs and elite coaches met for the first time during the ’73 Sugar Bowl. Both Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide and Ara Parseghian’s Fighting Irish were undefeated and loaded with All-Americans. The game lived up to the billing, as the teams exchanged leads during most of the game. Early in the fourth quarter, the Tide took a 23-21 lead after a trick play in which halfback Mike Stock connected with second-string quarterback Richard Todd from 25 yards out. Bill Davis failed to make the extra point, which enabled Notre Dame to go ahead with 4:26 remaining. It was the sixth and final lead-change of the game. The Irish sealed the deal with 2:12 left after an ultra-risky 36-yard pass — from inside their own five yard line — from quarterback Tom Clements to receiver Robin Weber. Notre Dame proceeded to finish No. 1 in the AP Poll while Bama, previously No. 1, dropped to No. 4.

6. 1963 Rose Bowl — USC 42, Wisconsin 37: The ’63 Rose Bowl featured the first No. 1 versus No. 2 matchup in a bowl game, so it was, in effect, an early national championship game. Trailing 42-14 in the fourth quarter, the second-ranked Badgers made a ferocious comeback, scoring 23 unanswered points and reducing the Trojans lead to six points. Ron Vander Kelen threw for 401 yards and orchestrated key drives that enabled Wisconsin to get back in the game. Despite outgaining USC 32-15 in first downs and 486 to 367 in total yardage, the Badgers fell short and Trojans coach John McKay secured his first national championship in just his third season with the program.

7. 1965 Orange Bowl — Texas 21, Alabama 17: When two mammoth programs like Texas and Alabama come together, there’s bound to be drama. The ’65 Orange Bowl matched-up Darrell Royal and the ’63 national champion verses Bear Bryant and the ’64 national champion. It was the first primetime college bowl game, making stakes even higher as everyone involved knew it would be must-see TV. The Horns jumped out to an early 14-0 lead after tailback Ernie Koy Jr. ran for a 79-yard touchdown and quarterback Jim Hudson connected with receiver George Sauer on a 69-yard touchdown pass. Alabama quarterback Joe Namath, who hadn’t started the game due to a knee injury he suffered in practice, was sent in by Bryant to right the ship. He immediately led an 87-yard touchdown drive in which 83 yards were through the air, and eventually brought the Tide within four points of Horns. The game’s most significant play came in the fourth quarter, when Texas made a goal line stand in which Joe Namath was met head-on by linebacker Tommy Nobis, apparently short of the endzone. Namath finished the game and his college career with a valiant effort, tallying 255 yards and two touchdowns.

8. 1980 Holiday Bowl — BYU 46, SMU 45: Although the Holiday Bowl has never been considered a first-tier bowl, it has certainly provided some heart-stopping games through the years. The ’80 edition brought together two very different teams. Brigham Young, the Mormons who did things the right way, led the nation in total offense, passing offense and scoring. Southern Methodist, who would receive the death penalty later in the decade, featured an unstoppable running attack led by Eric Dickerson and Craig James. The duo combined to run for 335 yards against the Cougars defense, enabling the Mustangs to establish a comfortable lead. With just four minutes left in the fourth quarter, SMU led 45-25 and BYU was preparing to punt on fourth and long to concede the game. Quarterback Jim McMahon, however, had other plans, throwing for a touchdown pass instead. The Cougars proceeded to recover the onside kick and score another touchdown. Down 45-39, BYU forced SMU to punt on the next possession, and Bill Schoepflin’s block put the ball on SMU’s 41-yard line. The game culminated with a miraculous Hail Mary completion from McMahon to tight end Clay Brown as time expired. The extra point gave BYU the victory, capping off a 21-point rally in the final two minutes and 33 seconds of the game.

9. 1979 Cotton Bowl — Notre Dame 35, Houston 34: The legend of the Comeback Kid began in the icy ’79 Cotton Bowl — also known as the Chicken Soup Game. Notre Dame quarterback Joe Montana, who was suffering from the flu, battled hypothermia during the game as his body temperature plummeted to just 96 degrees. In order to warm up, he was taken back the Notre Dame locker room, covered with blankets and given warm chicken soup. That facilitated his return midway through the fourth quarter, when the Irish were trailing the Cougars 34-12. The team then proceeded to score 23 unanswered points, including Montana’s game-tying touchdown pass to receiver Kris Haines. The extra point, which took two tries due to a penalty, won the game for the Irish, completing the most dramatic Cotton Bowl of all-time.

10. 1987 Fiesta Bowl — Penn State 14, Miami 10: Very few games in the history of college football have received the hype and anticipation of the ’87 Fiesta Bowl. Previously considered a minor bowl game, it had maneuvered to accommodate the match-up between undefeated independents Miami and Penn State, which were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 respectively. The two teams couldn’t have been more different and that was especially evident during the lead-up to the game. During Miami’s flight to Arizona, the team changed into military-style fatigues. Penn State players, on the other hand, wore suits and ties to the pregame steak-fry. It was at that event that Miami defensive tackle Jerome Brown revealed his fatigues and attempted to lead a walk-out after Penn State punter Joe Bruno made jokes at the Canes’ expense during a skit. The game proved to be a close-fought contest despite Miami outgaining the Nittany Lions 445 yards to 162. Trailing 14-10 with 3:07 left in the game, Heisman-winning quarterback Vinny Testaverde began to lead the Canes downfield, eventually moving inside of Penn State’s five yard line with 45 seconds remaining. On fourth-and-goal, Testaverde’s pass into the endzone was intercepted by linebacker Pete Giftopoulos, ending the game and securing the national championship for Joe Pa and Penn State. The pick was Testaverde’s fifth, Giftopoulos’ second, and Miami’s astounding seventh turnover of the game. Despite the sloppy play, the telecast earned the largest TV audience in the history of college football.

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