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The best of the best

All right, enough with the assignments that ask me to begin with the phrase, "Pull up a chair, sonny, and let me tell you about … "

That's what happens when you've covered, oh, about 225 or so football games. Just think: In another 10 years or so, I'll have covered as many games as Bobby Bowden has won.

The best five national championship games I've seen include a couple that I watched on television, either before I covered college football or before I covered anything. I grew up in Alabama, and Bear Bryant's Sugar Bowls in the 1970s are etched indelibly in my childhood memories. Just to make sure that the games really were great, and not just in my memory, I ran the 1973 Sugar Bowl past my colleague Pat Forde.

"I was nine years old," Pat began, and he rattled off every main point of the game that I recalled plus a few more that I didn't. It passes.

1973 Sugar Bowl
Alabama went into the Sugar Bowl No. 1 and unbeaten. Notre Dame, was No. 3 and unbeaten (No. 2 Oklahoma was on probation). Two schools with grand traditions played for the first time. On the sixth lead change, the Fighting Irish went ahead 24-23 with 4:12 to play. Bryant chose to punt and pinned Notre Dame at its own 1. On third-and-nine, with 2:12 to play, Tom Clements dropped into his own end zone and threw a 36-yard completion to backup tight end Robin Weber, his second catch of the season. Notre Dame won its first national championship in seven seasons, and Bryant offered to play the game again the following day. He went 0-4 against the Irish.

1979 Sugar Bowl
Alabama linebacker Barry Krauss's stop of Penn State tailback Mike Guman inches short of the goal line on a fourth-quarter, fourth-and-10-inches dive remains the most important single play in Sugar Bowl history. Alabama hung onto a 14-7 lead, won its first post-bowl No. 1 in 13 seasons and sent Nittany Lion coach Joe Paterno into a months-long funk. Krauss's play was immortalized on magazine covers and in watercolor, but it may not have been the best tackle of the series. On second down, Tide cornerback Don McNeal defied physics to somehow push Scott Fitzkee out of bounds inside the 1.

1987 Fiesta Bowl
Miami reveled in its bad-boy image, and had a No. 1 ranking to show for it. Equally unbeaten Penn State, which stood by amused as the Hurricanes wore their fatigues and stalked out of the annual two-team steak fry, was given little chance to win. But Hurricane quarterback Vinny Testaverde, slowed by Heisman banquetitis and a motor scooter accident, threw five interceptions, the last in the Nittany Lion end zone in the final seconds, and Penn State won, 14-10. Overshadowed by the soap opera was the bigger change: The Fiesta became the first major bowl to ditch New Year's Day for post-Jan. 1 prime time. New Year's Day no longer signaled the end of the football season, only the beginning of the end.

2000 Sugar Bowl
No. 1 Florida State, unbeaten and heavily favored, defeated Virginia Tech, 46-29. So where's the greatness? The adrenalin never stopped flowing. The Seminoles raced to a 28-7 lead. Hokies freshman quarterback Michael Vick made plays that defied description, if not gravity, and Virginia Tech went ahead 29-28. Florida State pulled away in the fourth quarter, as wideout Peter Warrick finished with 163 receiving yards and three touchdowns (two receiving, one punt return). The Seminoles became the first team ever to go wire-to-wire as No. 1.

2003 Fiesta Bowl
No. 1 Miami came into the game with a 33-game winning streak. No. 2 Ohio State had won six games that season by seven points or fewer. The Buckeyes made it to Tempe with defense and an oft-injured freshman tailback named Maurice Clarett. Ohio State won the national championship in the same fashion. The Buckeyes held the Hurricanes to 17 points in regulation, and Miami lost momentum when tailback Willis McGahee blew out his knee in the fourth quarter. It appeared that Miami won in the first overtime. As the fireworks went off outside Sun Devil Stadium, a verrrrry slow pass interference call kept Ohio State alive, and the Bucks won, 31-24, in the second extra period.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.