College football's 100 best games of 2019: 20-1

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Friday, January 24, 2020

After four days of reliving the plot twists, near-misses and most randomly zany moments of the 2019 college football season, we get to the meat: Here are the 20 games that were the most entertaining, defined the national title race, gave us classic finishes we won't forget or a combination of the three. These are the 20 best games of the year.

20. Kansas State 48, Oklahoma 41 (Oct. 26)

Oklahoma was 7-0 and well on its way to another win when Manhattan magic took over. Kansas State scored 27 points in 12 minutes to turn a 20-14 deficit into a 41-23 lead, then expanded it to 48-23 early in the fourth quarter. It would take a miracle for OU to remain undefeated -- and the miracle almost came. CeeDee Lamb scored on a 70-yard pass play, then OU drove 90 yards in three minutes to make it 48-38. Gabe Brkic's 39-yard field goal with 1:45 left set up maybe the most memorable and definitely the most Zaprudered onside kick of 2019.

19. Arizona State 31, Oregon 28 (Nov. 23)

After its season-opening loss to Auburn, Oregon had to win out to have a shot at the College Football Playoff. The Ducks would have pulled it off if not for a trip to Tempe.Frank Darby scored twice to pace the Sun Devils, and Oregon faced a 24-7 deficit midway through the fourth quarter. The Ducks quickly scored twice, however, then forced a third-and-long with four minutes left. Oregon had all the momentum. But ASU had Brandon Aiyuk.

Oregon would score again with two minutes left, but it wasn't enough.

18. Kent State 30, Buffalo 27 (Nov. 14)

This was a historic season for Kent State. But before the Golden Flashes could score their first-ever bowl triumph, they had to dig out of a "down 27-6 with eight minutes left" hole against Buffalo. No sweat: They just pulled the "touchdown, onside kick, touchdown, blocked punt, touchdown" gambit. (Not sure why more teams don't think of that.) Xavier Williams scored two touchdowns in 27 seconds, and after the Flashes tied the game, they forced another Buffalo punt. Kent ran out the rest of the clock, and Matthew Trickett, who had minutes earlier recovered his own onside kick, nailed a 44-yard field goal. It was the start of a winning streak.

17. Nevada 34, Purdue 31 (Aug. 30)

Safe to say, the best game of Week 1 was not one we predicted. Purdue took an easy 24-7 lead on a Friday night in Reno, but the host Wolf Pack surged, scoring on a late 20-yard Carson Strong-to-Elijah Cooks pass to tie the game at 31. There was time for Purdue to still win in regulation, but Daniel Brown picked off Elijah Sindelar. Four plays and a spike later, Nevada had a chance to seal the comeback. And as we would learn after the game, freshman kicker Brandon Talton would have a chance to secure a scholarship with a 56-yard bomb.

Done and done.

16. Oklahoma 42, Iowa State 41 (Nov. 9)

In its first game after losing to Kansas State, OU led the entire way and held a 42-21 advantage heading into the fourth quarter. Things got weird in a hurry. ISU scored, and OU's CeeDee Lamb fumbled. ISU turned the ball over on downs but quickly forced an OU punt and set upSean Shaw's 33-yard catch-and-rumble score. ThenLawrence White picked off Jalen Hurts. Uh-oh. Brock Purdy found Charlie Kolar for a 13-yard score, and with 24 seconds left, ISU was a 2-point conversion away from a win.

The Cyclones would remain a 2-point conversion away.

15. Clemson 21, North Carolina 20 (Sept. 28)

Before Clemson could roll to its fourth national title game in five years, the Tigers had to survive a bumpy late-September trip to Chapel Hill against the kings of the close games. (Nine of UNC's first 10 games were decided by one score.) This one followed the upset script precisely: Inspired underdogs take an early lead. Champs tie the game but lose a fumble to set up another underdog score. Champs finally get on track and take a late lead, but the underdogs seemingly have fate on their side: They score with 1:17 remaining and elect to go for two points and the possible win.

Clemson was an unwilling participant in the upset script, however. Up 21-20, the Tigers stuffed UNC quarterback Sam Howell's 2-point conversion attempt and survived.

14. Tennessee 23, Indiana 22 (Jan. 2)

Indiana already had its first eight-win season since 1993 in the books. All the Hoosiers had to do to lock up a ninth win for the first time since 1967 was close out a wobbly Tennessee in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl. Up 22-9 with seven minutes left, they forced a punt. Their win probability was 97.7%.

They went three-and-out, however. Tennessee drove 82 yards in three minutes to make it 22-16. Then the Vols pulled off one of the most perfect surprise onside kicks you'll ever see. The result was basically set in stone from there. No #9WIndiana in 2019.

13. Illinois 24, Wisconsin 23 (Oct. 19)

Wisconsin was 6-0 and on a collision course for a huge game with unbeaten Ohio State the next week. The Badgers were 29-point favorites at Illinois and led 20-7 late in the third quarter when everything went awry. Reggie Corbin's 43-yard touchdown run got the Illini within six, and after a UW field goal, Josh Imatorbhebhe's 29-yard TD catch made it 23-21. Wisconsin ran out the clock and survived, right? Nope. Tony Adams picked off a Jack Coan pass with 2:32 left, Illinois ran down the clock, and James McCourt nailed a 39-yard field goal at the buzzer. Then he posed for, frankly, a Pulitzer-worthy celebration photo.

12. Memphis 54, SMU 48 (Nov. 2)

What a Saturday for the Memphis football program. GameDay was in town for this battle between the 7-1 Tigers and 8-0 SMU, and the teams put on one hell of a fireworks show. Memphis' Antonio Gibson scored on a 50-yard pass, 97-yard kick return and 78-yard run, and the Tigers took a 16-point lead into the fourth quarter. But a relentless SMU scored 24 points in the final stanza, and Memphis had to keep responding. It wasn't until Preston Brady had recovered an onside kick with 2:05 remaining that Tiger fans could finally breathe easy.

11. Tulane 38, Houston 31 (Sept. 19)

The game that inspired Houston to tank the rest of the season. The Cougars exploded out of the gates, scoring on 75- and 28-yard touchdown passes, then going up 28-7 on a nasty 35-yard D'Eriq King run early in the second quarter. But Tulane locked the Coogs down from there, scoring the next 24 points and taking the lead midway through the fourth. Houston kicked a game-tying field goal with 21 seconds left in regulation, but there would be no overtime. Tulane gained 18 yards on a fake-kneel trick play, thenJalen McCleskeytook it from there.

10. Oklahoma 34, Baylor 31 (Nov. 16)9. Oklahoma 30, Baylor 23 (Dec. 7)

This year's two best Big 12 games might have also been the conference's two most important games. First, in Waco, Baylor raced to a 28-3 lead over Oklahoma early in the second quarter (a Super Bowl LI special) but misplaced its offense. The Bears went three-and-out three times and turned the ball over twice, leaving the door open just enough for the Sooners. Brayden Willis' short touchdown tied the game with 5:25 left, then OU's Gabe Brkic nailed the winning field goal with 1:45 remaining.

The second game between the two -- the Big 12 championship in Arlington, Texas -- didn't feature a dramatic comeback but was even more gripping. Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer left the game with a concussion early, and the Bears used every trick they possibly could to stay close. BackupGerry Bohanonfound Tyquan Thornton to tie the game late in the second quarter, and after OU had gone up 10, third-stringer Jacob Zeno and Trestan Ebner connected for a gorgeous 81-yarder. Despite a nearly 200-yard advantage for OU, John Mayers' 27-yard field goal sent the game to an improbable overtime.

The magic ran out, however. OU's Rhamondre Stevenson scored, Baylor went four-and-out, and OU lifted the Big 12 trophy for the fifth straight year.

8. Hawaii 45, Arizona 38 (Aug. 24)

This was arguably the most thrilling Week 0 game in the history of Week 0. It featured 1,134 total yards, and only a series of red zone stops kept it at 83 total points. It was everything you would want in minimal-stakes college football, right down to a heart-stopping finish.

Hawaii raced to leads of 14-0, 21-7 and 35-21, and Arizona responded each time. A 53-yard Lucas Havrisik field goal cut the Warriors' lead to 45-38 late, and when the Wildcats got a late chance to tie, they drove 83 yards in just 51 seconds. Unfortunately, they needed 84 yards.

7. LSU 45, Texas 38 (Sept. 7)

Though Texas would go on to suffer a disappointing season, this Week 2 headliner felt like it had title stakes at the time. And in a humid and pressure-packed environment, LSU's Ed Orgeron proved both what he had in Joe Burrow and his new offense and how much he had committed to using them. After a wild contest featuring a pair of early goal-line stands and a rousing Texas comeback to turn a 20-7 LSU lead into a 30-28 teeth-gnasher, LSU faced a dilemma. Up 37-31 with under four minutes left, do you go into four-minute-drill mode, running the ball and milking the clock? Or do you go for the jugular?

LSU chose the latter, and after a near-interception and a sack, Burrow dropped back to pass on third-and-17 and found Justin Jefferson, who not only caught the ball at the sticks but turned upfield and clinched the game with a 61-yard score.

6. Washington State 54, Oregon State 53 (Nov. 23)

Rarely do you see each team blow a double-digit fourth-quarter lead, but it happened in Pullman. With Oregon State one win from its first bowl in six years, Wazzu surged ahead 42-32 midway through the final period. But OSU scored, recovered a surprise onside kick, scored again, picked off a pass and scored again, all in about three minutes, to go up 53-42. Bowl eligibility in sight!

Nope. Wazzu scored, and a fourth-down attempt at an OSU game clincher fell incomplete. The Cougs had 1:10 left to score and used 1:08 before Max Borghi plunged in for the winner. OSU finished 5-7.

The wildest part: This wasn't the wildest game Wazzu played in 2019.

5. Illinois 37, Michigan State 34 (Nov. 9)

With just a smidge over 30 minutes remaining in East Lansing, Michigan State led Illinois 28-3. (There's that score again.) But if the game was over, no one told the Illini. Josh Imatorbhebhe scored on a 46-yard bomb on the final play of the second quarter, then caught a short pass and raced up the right sideline for an 83-yard score early in the fourth. It was 31-24 when Illinois recovered a fumble inside the MSU 10, but the Illini turned the ball back over. Then, when they scored with 4:53 left, they missed the tying PAT.

It looked like the magic had run out. It hadn't. On a late fourth-and-17, Brandon Peters and Imatorbhebhe hooked up again for a huge conversion. Then, on fourth-and-goal in the final minute, MSU was called for pass interference. Finally, after coming close to both completing the comeback and watching it all crumble away, the Illini closed the deal with a 5-yard pass from Peters to Daniel Barker.

4. Auburn 48, Alabama 45 (Nov. 30)

Here's what it took to officially knock Alabama out of the College Football Playoff race for the first time:

  • Field goals of 43, 43, 44 and 52 yards from a kicker (Anders Carlson) who otherwise went 4-for-11 from over 40 yards this season.
  • A 29-yard pick-six by Smoke Monday ... and a 100-yarder from Zakoby McClain.
  • Two perfect touchdown drives from an otherwise glitchy offense -- a seven-play, 75-yarder just after Alabama had taken the lead in the second quarter, and an 11-play, 77-yarder after Bama had done the same in the fourth quarter.
  • One last dose of special-teams nonsense: a 30-yard miss from Bama's Joseph Bulovas with 2:00 left.

Was it a recipe that one can reliably replicate? No, though this wasn't the first time Auburn has pulled off Iron Bowl magic in Jordan-Hare Stadium. And besides, the Tigers only had to do it once.

3. UCLA 67, Washington State 63 (Sept. 21)

Somehow Illinois-Michigan State wasn't the wildest comeback of the season.

For one magical, ridiculous evening in Pullman, it all came together for Chip Kelly and the Bruins ... but only after Wazzu had taken complete and total control. Down 49-17 in the third quarter, quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson caught fire. He set up a touchdown with a 36-yard pass to Jaylen Erwin. UCLA forced a fumble, and Thompson-Robinson found Chase Cota for a 37-yard score. After a punt, Demetric Felton took a short pass 94 yards for the score. Wazzu fumbled again, and UCLA scored to make it 49-46 early in the fourth quarter.

On it went. Wazzu scored, but UCLA responded, then scored on a punt return. WSU took the lead back and forced a turnover on downs ... only to lose yet another fumble and set up the go-ahead points. In Wazzu's last gasp -- at about 3 a.m. ET -- Keisean Lucier-South sacked and stripped Anthony Gordon. One last fumble to punctuate a fumbled lead.

2. LSU 46, Alabama 41 (Nov. 9)

For all intents and purposes, LSU won this game in the final minute of the first half, whenClyde Edwards-Helaire plunged into the end zone from a yard out, Patrick Queen picked off a Tua Tagovailoa pass and Edwards-Helaire scored again, all in the span of 20 seconds. A 19-13 lead became an insurmountable 33-13.

What made this game great, however -- besides the top-five rankings and obvious title stakes, beyond the backstory (LSU hadn't beaten Bama since 2011) and beyond the star power on the field and sideline -- was how relentlessly Alabama indeed tried to surmount it. The Tide twice cut the lead to one score and forced LSU to keep scoring to survive. LSU and Joe Burrow (31-for-39 for 393 yards and three touchdowns) obliged, flipping a 33-27 lead to 39-27, then turning 39-34 into 46-34. After one last Bama bomb, the Tigers recovered the make-or-break onside kick and advanced from this battle of 8-0 teams the 9-0 victor. Best of all, the win gave ESPN's Marcus Spears the opportunity for a victory lap.

1. Clemson 29, Ohio State 23 (Dec. 28)

It was the only game so good I decided to score it like a 12-round title fight.

It featured star moments from virtually every one of the game's stars:Trevor Lawrence's absurd 67-yard gallop. Justin Fields' huge fourth-down, fourth-quarter touchdown pass. Travis Etienne's touchdown explosions.J.K. Dobbins' 68-yard run (followed soon after by a 64-yard run). Isaiah Simmons' tiptoeing interception. A hurry and half-sack (later overturned) by Chase Young with Ohio State trying to seize control of the game in the second quarter.

It contained a lingering waft of controversy thanks to refs having to make two of the hardest types of calls (a less-than-100 percent-clear targeting call and a vital catch-or-no-catch ruling). That never hurts for making a lasting impression.

It gave us all the plot twists a great game should feature -- a 16-0 start from Ohio State, a 21-0 run by Clemson, three second-half lead changes (with a fourth prevented only by a last-minute interception) -- and on a national semifinal stage. The most talented players in the country, playing in one of the most important games, and putting on a lasting show. Can't ask for much more than that from college football.

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