College football's greatest games: Connelly, Schlabach debate their favorites

Rewind: Texas upsets USC in Rose Bowl (3:49)

On Jan. 4, 2006, Texas QB Vince Young orchestrated a touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter in the Rose Bowl against USC to knock off the No. 1 team in the nation and win the BCS National Championship. (3:49)

With no spring football to keep us entertained, it's time to look back at the classics. Tonight we debut Throwback Thursday: CFB Classics, starting with perhaps the greatest of them all, Texas vs. USC in the 2006 Rose Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App). Before you watch Vince Young and Matt Leinart light it up, you can also check out a re-airing of The American Game: Game of the Century at 7 p.m. ET.

That got our experts, Bill Connelly and Mark Schlabach, talking about the best games they've ever seen.

Connelly: To me, there are two ways to attack a "best games" type of list: What are the greatest games, and what are your personal favorites. The former is for posterity, but the latter is almost more fun -- your personal favorites are probably why you came to love this sport in the first place.

Schlabach: I think you're exactly right. There are so many lists of the "greatest" games -- some we watched on TV or attended, many others that were played long before we were born, leaving us only the grainy YouTube videos to see. And I do agree that the personal favorites have to mean more, in most cases probably because we were actually witnessing history while sitting in a press box or, if we were truly fortunate, sitting among the fans while growing up or attending school.

The first college football game I vividly remember watching was arguably one of the five best, Boston College's 47-45 win over Miami the day after Thanksgiving in 1984. I still remember watching the closing seconds in the living room at a friend's house -- during a snowstorm in Indiana -- when Doug Flutie lofted a Hail Mary to Gerard Phelan on the last play. That was probably the night I fell in love with college football.

Connelly: Funny, that might be the first game I remember too. I remember only the Hail Mary and not the rest of the game -- in my defense, I was 6 -- but I do recall going through a pretty heavy Flutie phase after that. (Actually, I guess that phase lasted a while. I drove out of my way to buy Flutie Flakes in 1999 or so.)

Focusing on my lifetime only (I've watched games like 1971 NU-OU on YouTube, but I can't give those moments proper context), I would say these are the five greatest college football games I have seen, with the assumption that "greatest" requires greatness, drama and at least reasonably high stakes. This list would change if I did it again an hour from now.

1. Texas 41, USC 38 (2006): For all the reasons everyone has already said. It was utterly perfect.

2. Notre Dame 31, Florida State 24 (1993): This just felt like the biggest game in the history of the world at the time -- it was the first on-location College GameDay, after all. It came down to the final play, and its effects bled into the next week, when BC beat the Irish in another classic. In a very college football twist, the losing team here ended up winning the title. (1988 ND-Miami could also go here, of course. It even had T-shirts and a couple of brutal missed calls!)

3. Alabama 32, Georgia 28 (2012): In the de facto national title game, maybe the best Mark Richt Georgia team plays the game of its life, springs to an early lead and carves Alabama up with the game on the line, only to run out of time in just about the most sports-tragic way possible. (You could make a strong case for 2017 Bama-Georgia too, and for a lot of the same reasons.)

4. Penn State 14, Miami 10 (1987): Really not a great game -- eleventy billion turnovers, and PSU spent much of the game punting the ball away like a rugby team (more punts than first downs!) -- but the outcome was momentous, and the simple fact that No. 1 was playing No. 2 in a bowl was sadly novel in the mid-1980s.

5. Clemson 35, Alabama 31 (2017): Another game that wasn't particularly great until late, but my goodness, that fourth quarter belongs in a museum. Bonus points for the fact that I watched this game from the AFCA convention, and it amused me to no end that about 97% of the coaches were rooting for Clemson.

Schlabach: Oh, you bring up some painful memories with the 2006 Rose Bowl, when Texas quarterback Vince Young turned in arguably the greatest individual performance in a national championship game. I was working for a major metropolitan newspaper at the time, and the in-house travel agent called me the day before I was supposed to leave for Los Angeles to inform me that he had me flying to LAX the day after the game. By the time he noticed his mistake, round-trip tickets were a few thousand dollars, so I watched VY sprint into the end zone on TV for the winning touchdown with eight seconds left. The travel agent was a nice guy, but I'm not sure I ever forgave him.

My list includes a few games I attended in person, a few games I watched on TV and a few games I missed altogether:

Alabama 26, Georgia 23 OT, (2018): I was fighting a miserable cold up to the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Georgia took a 13-0 lead at the half, and I remember asking Eric Zeier, the former Bulldogs quarterback and current radio color analyst, if he thought UGA could hang on. "Unless Saban changes quarterbacks," he told me. Well, Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts at the half, Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench, and the rest is history. Tagovailoa's 41-yard touchdown to DeVonta Smith -- on second-and-26 -- gave the Tide a 26-23 victory in OT.

Appalachian State 34, Michigan 32 (2007): I wasn't at the Big House to see FCS program Appalachian State take down No. 5 Michigan 34-32 in the 2007 season opener, which was one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history. I was at Virginia Tech, covering the Hokies' first game back after the horrific campus shooting. After seeing the final score, I jumped into my rental car and drove to Boone, North Carolina, where I was among the thousands of people who welcomed the Mountaineers back to campus. I spent a few hours locating the goalposts from Appalachian State's home field, which ended up in the university president's front yard.


Appalachian State looks back at legendary upset of Michigan

Members from the 2007 Appalachian State football team reflect on shocking the world by defeating fifth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Boston College 41, Notre Dame 39 (1993): A week after the Irish stunned Florida State in 1993, they somehow lost to Boston College 41-39 at home. I was working as a bartender in Athens, Georgia, and the fine establishment was across the street from the Naval Supply School. I had a bet with one of the regulars that if Notre Dame lost, I'd streak across the grounds. Well, BC's David Gordon nailed a 41-yard field goal at the horn to knock the Irish out of the national championship race. Fortunately, I was allowed to keep my boxer shorts on. Notre Dame's loss helped FSU coach Bobby Bowden win his first national championship after so many near misses.

Georgia 26, Tennessee 24 (2001): I missed my sister's wedding to attend Georgia's trip to Tennessee in Mark Richt's first season in 2001 (she was getting married on the West Coast, my wife was pregnant and I was a broke sportswriter; at least those are my insufficient excuses all these years later). The Vols scored on a long touchdown to take a 24-20 lead with 44 seconds to go. The Bulldogs took possession at their 39-yard line, and freshman quarterback David Greene completed three passes to reach the UT 6 with 10 seconds to go. After a timeout, Greene faked a handoff to tailback Musa Smith and then dumped a pass over the top of the defense to fullback Verron Haynes for a stunning 26-24 win. The play -- P44 Haynes -- produced one of legendary play-by-play announcer Larry Munson's most famous calls: "We just stepped on their face with a hobnailed boot and broke their nose. We just crushed their face."

Auburn 34, Alabama 28 (2013): I watched the frenetic Kick Six ending from a hotel lobby in Valdosta, Georgia. After Saban lobbied to put one more second on the clock, I couldn't believe the Tide were going to try a 57-yard field goal given their historic kicking woes. Freshman Adam Griffith's attempt was short, and Auburn's Chris Davis caught the ball in the end zone. Alabama had eight linemen on the field and didn't have a chance. Davis ran 109 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a 34-28 win over the No. 1 Tide in the most stunning finish in Iron Bowl history.

Connelly: God, the 2013 Iron Bowl. That friggin' game was all of college football's past, present and future distilled into one 3½-hour segment. I have no idea why it wasn't on my list. It will be the next time.

One more question: What are a couple of your favorite games? Not necessarily all-time classics -- maybe they weren't important enough to count in that regard -- but simply games that perfectly personified this silly, incredible sport?

Connelly: Missouri 36, Oklahoma 27 (2010): I grew up a Mizzou fan in Oklahoma, then ended up attending Mizzou as well. MU-OU games were always super intense for me, both because of all the OU friends I have and, well, because the Sooners always won. They didn't in 2010, though. This was the most perfect Saturday in the history of Saturdays: GameDay was in Columbia for the first time and drew a record crowd, the weather was perfect and it was an evening kickoff (which meant the tailgates were extra long), Mizzou's Gahn McGaffie returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, Blaine Gabbert played the game of his life (in either pro or college, sadly), and Mizzou beat the No. 1 team in the BCS rankings 36-28.

This was part of a three-week stretch of No. 1 teams going down and the second straight week in which the home team returned the opening kick for a score. The 2010 season ruled.

Louisiana 32, San Diego State 30 (2011): This New Orleans Bowl is forever my "You absolutely never know when something amazing is going to happen" placeholder. It was my first year as a full-time writer (which increases the personal resonance) and UL's first ever bowl. Mark Hudspeth had them doing crazy-intense Oklahoma drills before the game, and they came out on fire ... only to completely run out of steam and fall behind with 35 seconds left. But the immortal Brett Baer sent a 50-yard knuckleball through the uprights as time expired and the Cajuns celebrated like they had won the national title. The tens of thousands of Cajuns fans in the stands did too. This game had no reason to be as amazing as it was, but I still remember it. And there are games like this just about every week of a given season if you keep your eyes open for them.

Schlabach: Well, since you're a Mizzou grad, you can certainly relate to the pain that a Georgia graduate has endured over the years. Kind of like your journalism school, the Bulldogs always seem to finish second best. But that wasn't the case at the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day 2018 ...

Georgia 54, Oklahoma 48, 2OT (2018): It was Georgia's first trip to Pasadena, California, since 1943, and it was a CFP semifinal game. My wife and three kids made the trip with me, and I'm pretty sure the game helped me avoid the costs of out-of-state tuition (God willing). Georgia's defense was getting roasted in the first half, but the game seemed to turn when Rodrigo Blankenship nailed a 55-yard field goal on the last play of the half, which cut OU's lead to 31-17. At halftime, my esteemed former colleague Bruce Feldman told me neither the Bulldogs nor anyone else could slow down the Sooners. I grumbled that Georgia just needed to run the damn ball. That's exactly what the Bulldogs did in the second half of a stunning 54-48 victory in two overtimes. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 326 rushing yards with five touchdowns.

Michigan State 37, Wisconsin 31 (2011): It was one of the craziest endings I've watched in person: Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins threw a 44-yard touchdown to Keith Nichol off a deflected pass on the final play of the No. 16 Spartans' stunning 37-31 upset of the No. 6 Badgers. At least three Wisconsin defenders had a chance to keep Nichol out of the end zone, and on-field officials initially ruled he was short of the goal line. But the play was overturned by replay, and the Badgers (and quarterback Russell Wilson) were knocked out of the national race.