Michigan State is in the College Football Playoff after one of the most improbable plays in college football history. Without the touchdown on Michigan's attempted punt, the Spartans likely would not have won the Big Ten East or earned a spot in the playoff.
What other make-or-break plays in the last 10 seasons have been so influential to a team’s chance to make the playoff (and before it, the BCS Championship game)?
Below is one top 10 list of the biggest such plays since 2005 that involved a team that went on to compete for the championship. (They are ranked by win probability added, which is explained at the bottom of this post.) The case can be made that if any of these plays did not occur, these teams would not have made the championship game/playoff.
1. Oct. 17, 2015 -- The Big House Blunder, win probability added: plus-99.8 percent
Michigan State recovered a fumble on a punt attempt with 10 seconds remaining. Jalen Watts-Jackson scooped up the ball and rumbled for a 38-yard game-winning touchdown as time expired. The Spartans had a 0.2 percent chance of winning before the play, according to ESPN’s win probability model, and as noted in Sean McDonough’s call, it was “Unbelievable!”
2. Nov. 16, 2013 -- The Prayer in Jordan Hare, WPA: plus-92.5 percent
On fourth-and-18 with 36 seconds remaining and Auburn trailing by one point against Georgia, Nick Marshall dropped back and heaved the ball 51 yards in the air. The ball deflected off two defenders and into the hands of Ricardo Louis for a game-winning 73-yard touchdown that kept the Tigers’ hopes for a championship alive. It is the first on this list of many improbable plays for Auburn in 2013.
3. Nov. 30, 2013 -- The Kick Six, WPA: plus-74.4 percent
“He’ll run it out to the 10...15...20...25, 30...35, 40...45, 50...45. There goes Davis! (Oh my gosh.) Chris Davis is gonna run it all the way back. Auburn’s going to win the football game!” The call says it all: After a 57-yard missed field goal, Chris Davis returned the ball the length of the field on the final play of the 2013 Iron Bowl to give Auburn a 34-28 win and clinch a spot in the SEC championship game.
4. Dec. 5, 2009 -- Texas’ game-winning field goal to beat Nebraska, WPA: plus-63.4 percent
The 2009 Big 12 championship came down to a 46-yard field goal as the clock ran out -- for a second time. On the previous play, Colt McCoy threw the ball out of bounds and time expired. After review, one second was placed back on the clock, which was enough time for Hunter Lawrence to nail the game-winning field goal and send the Longhorns back to the BCS championship game.
5. Nov. 3, 2012 -- Alabama 28-yard screen pass touchdown to beat LSU, WPA: plus-61.2 percent
With Alabama trailing 17-14, AJ McCarron led the Crimson Tide on a 72-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 28-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Yeldon. On that final play, McCarron hit Yeldon on a screen pass, and Yeldon scampered into the end zone with 51 seconds remaining to keep Alabama’s perfect season alive.
6. Oct. 15, 2005 -- USC converts fourth-and-9 against Notre Dame in the “Bush Push” game, WPA: plus-53.2 percent
Most remember the “Bush Push,” but the bigger play in this game occurred five snaps earlier. On fourth-and-nine with 1:32 remaining, USC’s chance to win had fallen to 7 percent. Matt Leinart dropped back and connected with Dwayne Jarrett on a 61-yard catch-and-run pass play that set the Trojans up for their winning score.
7. Dec. 1, 2012 -- Alabama stops Georgia as time expires in SEC championship game, WPA: plus-45.9 percent
Five yards! That’s how close Georgia came to beating Alabama in the SEC championship game and playing for the national title. The one thing Georgia didn't want to do with 10 seconds remaining was complete a pass in the field of play … yet that's exactly what happened. Aaron Murray’s pass was tipped and fell into the arms of Chris Conley 5 yards from the end zone just before time ran out, which sent Alabama to the BCS championship game against Notre Dame.
8. Nov. 3, 2012 -- Pittsburgh’s missed field goal keeps Notre Dame’s perfect season alive, WPA: plus-43.7 percent
In a season of close finishes, this one trumped them all for Notre Dame. A week after trouncing No. 8 Oklahoma, the undefeated Irish needed three overtimes to beat Pitt. In the second overtime, Notre Dame fumbled on the goal line, allowing Pitt the chance to win on its possession. But kicker Kevin Harper missed a 33-yard field goal (decreasing the Panthers’ chance of winning by 43.7 percentage points), and Notre Dame went on to win and keep their perfect season alive.
9. Sept. 14, 2013 -- Auburn game-winning touchdown against Mississippi State, WPA: plus-41.8 percent
With Auburn trailing by three with 15 seconds remaining, Nick Marshall connected with C.J. Uzomah for an 11-yard touchdown in the back right corner of the end zone. This was the first of three game-winning plays in the final minute of the game during Auburn’s memorable 2013 season.
10. Nov. 8, 2014 -- Alabama clutch catch to send game to OT vs. LSU, WPA: plus-41.5 percent
In another close game between Alabama and LSU, Blake Sims led Alabama on a nine-play, 55-yard drive in the final 50 seconds. The seminal moment of that drive was a 16-yard completion to DeAndrew White with eight seconds remaining, setting up Adam Griffith’s 27-yard game-tying field goal. Alabama went on to win the game in overtime on another clutch catch by White.
Note: Win probability added measures the change in a team’s chance to win from the start of the play to the end of the play. The plays with the biggest WPA affect the outcome of the game the most.