College football 2013-14 season in review: Ranking the Top 25 games of the year
Another season has come and gone, so now we enter the long wait till next fall when the drama of a fresh college football season can begin anew. But before sinking into despair at the thought of the coming months, take some time to appreciate all that was incredible about the 2013-14 season. SI.com has ranked the 25 best games of the season.
Though any ranking on the subjective category of “best” undoubtedly ignites controversy and debate, these 25 offer an ideal combination of drama, importance and memorability — basically, everything the Iron Bowl represented. The rankings are filled with the moments that brought you to the edge of your seat or, in some cases, entirely off your seat in a fit of exuberance and disbelief.
Without further adieu, the top 25 games of the college football season:
25. Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41 (Oct. 19)
In retrospect, this game embodied SEC football in 2013. It was a shootout from the opening kickoff. It went back-and-forth until the final moments. And ultimately, Auburn emerged, winning this one after running back Tre Mason plunged across the goal line for the go-ahead five-yard touchdown with 1:19 remaining in the fourth quarter.
Johnny Manziel racked up 492 yards of total offense and five touchdowns (four passing, one rushing). Mike Evans made 11 catches for 287 yards and four scores. It wasn’t enough.
Every season has a few discernible turning points, moments that help explain why the season played out the way it did. This was one of them. After the game, Mason told reporters, “We did something a lot of people didn’t think we could do.” For Auburn, it was only the beginning. – Ben Glicksman
24. Clemson 38, Georgia 35 (Aug. 31)
A loss in this opening-weekend matchup could have spoiled the BCS title hopes of either Clemson or Georgia. That’s why this non-conference meeting in Death Valley was tabbed as the best game of college football’s first weekend. It lived up to the hype.
Tajh Boyd backed up his ACC Preseason Player of the Year designation by passing for three touchdowns and running for two more in the Tigers’ win. Clemson’s defense did solid work on Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray down the stretch, as well, holding the passer without a touchdown while picking him off once. Murray was also sacked four times.
The win stifled offseason concerns that the Tigers couldn’t build on BCS expectations by hanging tough in big moments. “In games like this, it’s always five or six plays that you’ve got to make,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters after the victory. “And we did.” – Zac Ellis
23. Georgia Southern 26, Florida 20 (Nov. 23)
If there was ever a game to epitomize the struggles of the Florida Gators in 2013, this was it. Florida dropped to 4-7, falling out of bowl eligibility for the year with its first-ever loss to an FCS opponent.
But beyond that, it was how the Eagles beat the Gators that was significant: with zero passing yards. So basically Jeff Monken’s team went General Sherman on Will Muschamp’s crew, marching yard by yard until Muschamp’s face twisted into an expression usually reserved for sucking on a lemon for three straight hours. – Martin Rickman
22. Ohio State 40, Northwestern 30 (Oct. 5)
It’s safe to say the narrative of this game has changed significantly in the three months since the Buckeyes and Wildcats squared off in Evanston on a rainy October night.
At the time, the narrow outcome – Ohio State trailed for much of the contest and only secured its victory when Northwestern, trailing by four, failed to convert on fourth-and-1 for the Ohio State 34 with 2:43 remaining – seemed to validate a previously undefeated Northwestern’s hopes of competing for a Big Ten title. Now, the Buckeyes can instead look back with relief that a Wildcats squad that wouldn’t win another game until Nov. 30 didn’t derail their season.
What was valid both then and now was the intensity of the battle between the Buckeyes and Wildcats, as the two traded the lead seven times. Ultimately Ohio State’s ground game was too much. Carlos Hyde racked up 168 yards and three scores on the ground, including what proved to be the game winner. – Colin Becht
21. Penn State 43, Michigan 40 4OT (Oct. 12)
No one seemed to want to win this one until Bill O’Brien made the call to go for it on fourth-and-1 rather than settle for a field goal and a fifth overtime. After Penn State and Michigan traded scoreless first and third overtimes in between a pair of field goals in the second extra period, O’Brien sent running back Bill Belton to the right side for a three-yard gain to move the chains on fourth down. Three plays later, Belton found a hole from two yards out for the game-winning score to send Happy Valley into a frenzy.
Had it not been for Christian Hackenberg and his exceptional crew of wide receivers (including a phenomenal catch at the one-yard line by Allen Robinson) racing the Nittany Lions 80 yards down the field in less than half a minute, Penn State wouldn’t have even seen overtime. – CB
20. Stanford 31, Washington 28 (Oct. 5)
Was Washington the real deal? That was the question heading into this October Pac-12 matchup. The Huskies started the season 4-0 but hadn’t faced a serious test until meeting the Cardinal in Palo Alto. Stanford’s Ty Montgomery made it a tougher challenge for Washington by accounting for 290 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, including a 99-yard return on the game’s opening kickoff.
The Huskies still outgained the Cardinals 489 to 279, rallied from 10 points down and faced an opportunity to tie or take the lead on their final possession. But officials overturned a Keith Price completion on fourth down that would have kept Washington’s last-ditch drive alive, and the Huskies turned the ball over on downs to close the contest. The win was Stanford’s 12th straight at home and solidified the fifth-ranked Cardinal’s spot as a legit threat for the Pac-12 title. – ZE
19. Fresno State 41, Boise State 40 (Sept. 20)
For years and years, Boise State was unshakeable under Chris Petersen. The Broncos hadn’t lost to the Bulldogs since 2005 and had won 11 of the last 12 meetings coming in.
So even though this ultimately wasn’t Boise State’s year (it finished 8-5), the game against Fresno State turned out to be arguably the best Friday night game of the season. The Broncos climbed out of a big hole to take a 40-34 lead, but Derek Carr did what he’d do often in 2013 – he made a bunch of throws and put Fresno State back on top.
The Bulldogs were poised to be the last BCS buster had it not been for a Nov. 29 loss to San Jose State; this game would’ve been a fitting handoff. – MR
18. Colorado State 48, Washington State 45 (Dec. 21)
Whether down by 22 late in the second quarter or down by 15 with less than three minutes to play, Colorado State never seemed to have much of a chance at winning the New Mexico Bowl. Instead, the Rams didn’t even need overtime to do so.
After Colorado State cut the deficit to eight with 2:52 remaining, linebacker Shaquil Barrett forced a fumble that led to a Kapri Bibbs score with 27 seconds remaining. Donnell Alexander then narrowly tipped the pylon on a Statue of Libery handoff to tie the game on the two-point conversion.
Misfortune struck Washington State again as Teondray Caldwell coughed up the ensuing kickoff, leaving just enough time for Jared Roberts to boot a game-winning 41-yard field goal. – CB
17. USC 20, Stanford 17 (Nov. 16)
The image of Coach O swinging the Trojan sword at the end of this one perfectly encapsulates the USC season after Orgeron became interim coach.
Football was suddenly fun again in the Coliseum, and every week was a surprise. The Trojans had to relearn what it felt like to be themselves, and Orgeron navigated that like a new age therapist helping a divorced individual remember life before marriage. And we all got to feel like we were a part of the reclamation. – MR
16. Oklahoma 33, Oklahoma State 24 (Dec. 7)
Bedlam more than lived up to its name on a frigid afternoon in Stillwater. Needing one last win to lock up a Big 12 title and a BCS berth, Oklahoma State seemed to have the realization of its dreams in sight when Desmond Roland broke the plane from a yard out with 1:46 left to give the Cowboys a 24-20 lead.
Instead, Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell, who began the day as the Sooners’ third-stringer, engineered a near-perfect two-minute offense, guiding Oklahoma 66 yards to the end zone with 5-of-8 passing for 57 yards on the drive. Bell found Jalen Saunders for a seven-yard score with 19 seconds remaining to propel the Sooners to the road upset, which later earned them a berth in the Sugar Bowl. – CB
15. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30 (Sept. 14)
Looking back, this ending still doesn’t make a lot of sense. Eighteen seconds remained in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin trailed Arizona State by two points. Badgers quarterback Joel Stave took the snap at the Sun Devils’ 13-yard line, bolted left, took a knee and gently placed the ball down in the center of the field to set up a field goal. Then, well, the game abruptly ended.
The root of the confusion: Arizona State claimed Stave’s move was a fumble. Several Sun Devils players tried to pounce on the ball, draining the clock as the referees pointed and signaled and generally did things other than facilitate Wisconsin’s next play. By the time Stave and company scurried back to the line of scrimmage, it was too late. Arizona State 32, Wisconsin 30. Final.
The rest of the game was great, too, if markedly less controversial. Melvin Gordon broke an 80-yard touchdown run. Marion Grice ran for four scores. More than anything, though, this game gave us the indelible image of Sun Devils defensive tackle Will Sutton sprinting the length of the field in pure, unbridled celebration. He was crazed, confused, chaotic and elated. Madness. Perfect. – BG
14. Auburn 59, Missouri 42 (Dec. 7)
The SEC title game was a matchup of dream seasons. Auburn had somehow put its winless SEC campaign in 2012 behind it and survived with only a single loss in the SEC West. Missouri, meanwhile, had taken advantage of a wide-open SEC East and reeled off 11 regular-season wins.
But the matchup in the Georgia Dome was all about Tre Mason. The eventual Heisman finalist set SEC title game records for rushing yards (304), carries (46) and touchdowns (four) as the Tigers sunk Missouri and all but clinched a spot in the BCS title game thanks to Ohio State’s loss that same night.
The supposed “team of destiny” appeared destined for a championship only one season after winning three total games. – ZE
13. Oklahoma 45, Alabama 31 (Jan. 2)
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Alabama was supposed to be angry, roll over an overmatched Sooners team and head into the offseason still steaming because of the Iron Bowl result, ready to seek and destroy everything in its path in 2014. The actual result seems like some kind of Nyquil-induced dream.
Trevor Knight didn’t really throw for four touchdowns and make the Crimson Tide defense seem mortal, did he? Did we all just imagine Bob Stoops turning the corners of his mouth up like Disney’s Stitch, learning how to smile for arguably the first time?
The shocking Oklahoma win also induced an unforgettable Alabama fan reaction. – MR
12. Michigan State 34, Ohio State 24 (Dec. 7)
Ohio State never felt invincible. Even though it won the first 24 games of coach Urban Meyer’s tenure, it never possessed an air of overpowering dominance quite the way Alabama did. The Buckeyes were the beneficiaries of an underwhelming Big Ten schedule — not an inevitable, robotic death trap that crushed opponents and absorbed their souls.
Still, when Ohio State lost, it came as a surprise. The Buckeyes were in the Big Ten championship, just one win away from a berth in the BCS title game. Michigan State raced to a 17-0 lead. Ohio State stormed back and went up 24-20. Then Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller failed to convert a crucial fourth-and-two in the fourth quarter, and Michigan State tailback Jeremy Langford scampered 26 yards to the end zone to send Sparty to the Rose Bowl.
Meyer took the defeat about as well as most of us would have — in silence, with a sad slice of Papa John’s pizza to ease the pain. Meyer is the everyman. – BG
11. UCF 38, Louisville 35 (Oct. 18)
Before Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson were household names, they were the sparks of an upstart UCF squad that knocked off then-No. 8 Louisville, a team many assumed would cruise to an undefeated season in the weak AAC. Midway through the third quarter against the Knights, everything seemed to be falling into place for Teddy Bridgewater and the Cardinals, who led 28-7. However, UCF roared back with a rushing score from Johnson and two touchdown passes from Bortles — one to Johnson and a game-winner with 23 seconds left — to stun Louisville at home.
It was instead the Knights who completed an unblemished AAC campaign en route to a Fiesta Bowl victory. – CB
10. South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 2OT (Oct. 26)
The sound was unmistakable. In many other circumstances the resounding cross between a clang and a boing of a football hitting an upright would’ve elicited a snort, a chuckle, a Verne-like chortle. But coming in double overtime – a made kick by Andrew Baggett would’ve forced a third – it was the audible expression of pure pain.
The miss gave Missouri its first loss of the season and ended up muddling the SEC East race until the end of the season. This also was a perfect example of Connor Shaw doing Connor Shaw things, something college football will miss more than it knows now that he’s gone. – MR
9. Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42 (Sept. 14)
Game of the Century, Part II? Plenty of hype surrounded this matchup beginning immediately after Texas A&M’s shocking upset of Alabama in 2012.
This time, the No. 1 Crimson Tide traveled to Kyle Field to take on Heisman winner Johnny Manziel and the sixth-ranked Aggies. Any expectations of a defensive matchup were quelled early as Manziel led A&M to two straight scoring drives to take a 14-0 lead. But the Crimson Tide roared back to score 35 straight points by early in the third quarter.
Ninty-one points and 1,196 yards of offense later, Alabama avenged its 2012 loss despite three fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Manziel. The 42 points allowed by the Crimson Tide were the most in a win in school history, and the legend of Johnny Football continued to grow despite his loss as Manziel compiled 562 yards of total offense. – ZE
8. Georgia 44, LSU 41 (Sept. 28)
As with many games, the storyline entering LSU’s visit to Athens revolved around the quarterbacks. The Tigers’ Zach Mettenberger, a onetime Georgia player who left school in 2010 after pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of sexual battery, was set to square off with his former roommate, Aaron Murray. It was billed as a matchup between two of the nation’s most prolific passers. And boy, did it ever live up to the billing.
Mettenberger went 23-of-37 for 372 yards and three touchdowns. Murray went 20-of-34 for 298 yards with four scores and an interception. There were five ties, four lead changes and 943 combined yards of total offense. Both quarterbacks exchanged strikes so often that I’m a little surprised a montage of highlights from this game isn’t set to an Explosions in the Sky song somewhere on YouTube.
Remember, this happened in early September, before the Bulldogs angered the SEC gods and/or unlocked a centuries-old curse that caused virtually all of their offensive stars to get hurt. But it was beautiful. It also gave someone an excuse to paint a dog like a tiger, which must have prompted one hell of an animal identity crisis. – BG
7. Michigan State 24, Stanford 21 (Jan. 1)
When I grew up I’d always read comics and imagine my own battles between DC and Marvel superheroes. The fun one was always Hulk vs. Superman. No one was going to win that. Everything around the two of them was just going to end up destroyed. It’d probably look something like this year’s Rose Bowl.
Basically that’s what the matchup between Stanford and Michigan State came down to up until that last fourth down play for the Cardinal when they tried one more time to punch the Spartans in the face. It didn’t work. Sparty didn’t budge. Play that game 10 total times, and the score is probably still 24-21, but Stanford and Michigan State win five each. – MR
6. Texas A&M 52, Duke 48 (Dec. 31)
Johnny Manziel entered his Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with Duke having lost two straight games to close his second regular season as a starter in College Station. By all accounts, Texas A&M’s tussle with the resurgent Blue Devils would be Manziel’s swan song before he embarked on an NFL career. It looked like a sour ending to that career as Duke scored touchdowns on its first five possessions and built a 38-17 halftime lead over the Aggies. But Manziel contributed three second-half touchdowns — including a wild Manziel-ian scoring play in the third quarter — to fuel an A&M comeback and top Duke 52-48.
In all Manziel chipped in 455 yards of offense and five scores. He announced his intentions to enter the NFL draft a few days later, leaving his rally against Duke as the final impression of the quarterback’s remarkable two-year college career. – ZE
5. Auburn 43, Georgia 38 (Nov. 16)
Nobody expected Auburn to look like a contender in Gus Malzahn’s first season, but a BCS berth was not out of the question for the Tigers by mid-November. That’s when a banged-up Georgia team threatened that possibility against a one-loss Auburn squad on the Plains.
The Tigers’ 27-7 lead had disappeared by the time quarterback Aaron Murray ran in a five-yard touchdown with 109 seconds to play, giving the Bulldogs a 38-37 advantage. Auburn passer Nick Marshall stared down the barrel of a fourth-and-18 situation on the Tigers’ ensuing possession with 36 ticks left. But all Marshall needed was a bit of that Auburn magic.
The quarterback hurled a Hail Mary pass that bounced off of two Georgia defenders and into the outstretched hands of Ricardo Louis, who scampered home for the winning score. The Miracle at Jordan Hare would prove just the first of two unbelievable finishes that lifted Auburn into the BCS title game. – ZE
4. Clemson 40, Ohio State 35 (Jan. 3)
Clemson had never won a BCS game heading into the Orange Bowl against Ohio State. In fact, unpleasant memories lingered from the Tigers’ last visit to Miami Gardens, which resulted in a 70-33 loss to West Virginia after the 2011 season.
But Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins helped reverse Clemson’s BCS fortunes to hand the Buckeyes their second straight loss for the first time under coach Urban Meyer. Boyd accounted for six scores and 505 yards of offense while Watkins set an Orange Bowl record with 227 receiving yards along with two touchdowns.
Ohio State and Clemson combined for more than 1,000 yards of offense in the shootout, and the Buckeyes took a 35-34 lead when Braxton Miller found Carlos Hyde for a score at 11:35 in the fourth quarter. But a Boyd pass to Stanton Seckinger with six minutes to play gave the Tigers a final lead before Miller threw a pick to Clemson linebacker Stephone Anthony that sealed the win.
After the game, Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said his program had come full-circle from the West Virginia loss. – ZE
3. Ohio State 42, Michigan 41 (Nov. 30)
This game was everything one of the most storied rivalries in college football is supposed to be, for better and for worse.
The good: Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner passing for 451 yards and four touchdowns to finally resemble the dual-threat star who earned a College GameDay segment about his Phineas & Ferb watching tendencies earlier in the season; Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde rumbling for 226 yards and a touchdown, and Miller accounting for 286 total yards and five scores; Brady Hoke and the ghost of Al Borges going for a two-point conversion and the win with 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter because a Michigan Man always swings for the fences.
These teams genuinely didn’t like each other, and their matchup was something close to perfect. – BG
2. Florida State 34, Auburn 31 (Jan. 6)
We wanted to keep hating you, BCS. We wanted to send you off into the dark, lonely night, maybe with a funeral that made clear just how much you screwed up. We wanted to make jokes about nonsensical algorithms and the even-less-sensical Coaches’ Poll, because that’s what we do and have been doing for the better part of the past 16 seasons.
But as you so often reminded us, you got it right more often than you didn’t. And you delivered this, the best national championship since Texas topped USC in January 2006 and an unforgettable cap to one of the most widely criticized systems in sports.
You know that old cliché about how the best movies and books start slowly? That was true of the clash between Florida State and Auburn. The Tigers seemed poised to dominate early. The ‘Noles kept things close after converting a key fake punt in the second quarter. Then, by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, there were twists, turns and bunch of Independence Day-sized explosions.
There was Kermit Whitifield’s 100-yard kick-return touchdown. There was Mason’s 37-yard scoring dash. There was Winston’s eventual game-winning drive, which made all of his struggles through the first three quarters immediately forgiven.
After years full of BCS title blowouts, this season came through with a thriller. One that only one game in the 2013-14 campaign had the stuff to top. – BG
1. Auburn 34, Alabama 28 (Nov. 30)
One second. That’s all it took in “football time” to change the course of the season as we knew it. Alabama lined up for a field goal it assuredly wasn’t going to make. The two teams were going to overtime. Everyone could get up, peek around the corner as the kick was short and grab another drink or some pretzel snacks. Except Chris Davis started running. And no one tackled him. Certainly someone is going to tackle him. Umm. Wait. No. &@#%. He’s going to do it. AAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH. – MR