College football's 100 best games of 2019: 100-81

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Monday, January 20, 2020

Over the next five days, we will be revealing my choices for the top 100 games of the 2019 college football season. Every season contains countless oddities, tight finishes and super-fun three-hour chunks of time if you're willing to search for them, and if you're a college football fan, I assume you're willing to search.

The list starts with the season's end, then journeys from Corvallis, Oregon, to Miami and everywhere in between.

100. LSU 42, Clemson 25 (Jan. 13)

Was it a down-to-the-wire thriller, like most of the games on this list? No. Was it a delightful way to end the season, with the best team taking some early shots, wiping blood off its chin for nearly the first time all season, and then throwing haymakers for three quarters? Yes. This game featured an almost-impossible amount of skill-position talent, all taking turns shining. The brightest lights, of course: LSU's Ja'Marr Chase (nine catches, 221 yards, three touchdowns) and college football's best player in 2019, Joe Burrow (31-for-49, 463 yards, five touchdowns).

99. Rice 31, Middle Tennessee 28 (Nov. 16)

Rice had to wait more than two months for its first victory, so the Owls had to make it count. They burst out to a 31-14 lead with help from three Brad Rozner touchdown catches, but perhaps predictably, they gave most of that lead away. Middle Tennessee's Jimmy Marshall scored to make it a three-point game with 3:22 left, and while Rice killed most of the clock, the Blue Raiders still got the ball back for a last-second lateral fest. No dice. The Owls held on.

98. Michigan State 40, Indiana 31 (Sept. 28)

Indiana won eight games for the first time in 26 years this fall, but the season still came with regrets and could-have-beens. The Hoosiers chased Michigan State for four quarters in East Lansing, falling behind 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 31-24 before tying the game on a Whop Philyor touchdown with two minutes left. But Brian Lewerke found Darrell Stewart Jr. for 44 yards on the first play of the Spartans' ensuing drive, then ran for 30 yards on the next play. Matt Coghlin hit a 21-yard field goal with 5 seconds left, and Michael Dowell took a fumble to the house on IU's desperate final snap.

97. Penn State 28, Michigan 21 (Oct. 19)

Recent Penn State-Michigan games have been blowouts for the home team, and this one appeared to be no different as the Nittany Lions raced to a 21-0 lead on white-out night in State College. But the Wolverines collected themselves and cut the lead to 21-14, and after PSU's KJ Hamler scored on a 53-yard strike, they responded with another touchdown drive. With seven minutes left, they embarked on a 12-play drive to potentially tie the game. Unfortunately, they needed 3 more yards -- Ronnie Bell dropped a fourth-and-goal pass, and the Nittany Lions ran out the clock.

96. Stanford 31, Oregon State 28 (Sept. 28)

After going 3-21 over 2017 and '18, Oregon State enjoyed a bounce-back season but fell just short of a bowl bid, in part because of Stanford kicker Jet Toner. The Cardinal held a 21-0 lead late in the third quarter before the Beavers' offense got rolling. Artavis Pierce scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns -- the first a 43-yarder to make it 21-14, the second a 1-yard plunge to tie it with 1:55 left. But Connor Wedington's 43-yard kick return and a 16-yard run by quarterback Davis Mills gave Toner a chance to win the game in regulation. He did so with a 39-yard field goal.

95. Marshall 26, Western Kentucky 23 (Oct. 26)

Marshall's Justin Rohrwasser was one of the country's better kickers, making 17 of 20 field goals on the season. This Conference USA thriller gave him his marquee moment -- he made 46- and 31-yarders in the second quarter and a 43-yarder in the third, and after the Thundering Herd had blown a 23-13 lead and faced the prospect of overtime with the surging Hilltoppers, he bombed in a 53-yarder as the clock hit zero.

Bonus points for blowing kisses to the crowd (and to the dude in the stands slamming his beer in celebration).

94. Colorado 34, Nebraska 31 (Sept. 7)

This matchup of former conference rivals took a while to get hot. Nebraska led 17-7 before K.D. Nixon caught a 96-yard touchdown pass on the fourth play of the fourth quarter. On the fifth play, Adrian Martinez and Maurice Washington hooked up for a 75-yard score. On the ninth play, Colorado's Steven Montez set up a touchdown with a 57-yard strike to Jaylon Jackson. The score was 31-24 Cornhuskers when Montez and Tony Brown connected for a 26-yard score, and in overtime, the Buffaloes made a 34-yard field goal and the Huskers missed a 48-yarder. Whew.

93. BYU 30, USC 27 (Sept. 14)92. BYU 29, Tennessee 26 (Sept. 7)

A 7-6 record is pretty nondescript, but BYU's 7-6 season had plenty of startling moments, from unexpected losses to Toledo and South Florida to these two early-season overtime thrillers. First, the Cougars pulled a rabbit out of their hat in Knoxville, Tennessee. Trailing 16-13 with 17 seconds left, Zach Wilson found Micah Simon for a 64-yard pass out of nowhere.

That set up Jake Oldroyd's tying field goal, and after scoring only one touchdown in regulation, the Cougars scored two in OT to pull off an out-of-nowhere win.

A week later, back at home, they handed USC quarterback Kedon Slovis his first loss, picking off the freshman three times and taking a 27-24 lead late in regulation. The Trojans' Chase McGrath sent the game to overtime with a 52-yard kick, but an Oldroyd field goal and a Dayan Ghanwoloku interception sealed the victory.

91. Louisville 41, Boston College 39 (Oct. 5)90. Virginia Tech 42, Miami 35 (Oct. 5)89. Louisville 62, Wake Forest 59 (Oct. 12)88. Virginia Tech 43, North Carolina 41 (Oct. 19)87. Florida International 30, Miami 24 (Nov. 23)

The ACC was by no means a good conference in 2019. My SP+ ratings graded it as closer to the American Athletic than any of the other Power 5 conferences, and Clemson was the only team that ranked higher than 30th.

That said, the disappointing teams in this disappointing league played some immensely silly and exciting games in 2019. Here is a by-no-means-complete sampling:

In Week 6, The U continued a burgeoning trend of losing games the stats really, really thought it should have won, outgaining Virginia Tech by 226 yards but also turning the ball over three times on its first 10 snaps en route to a 21-0 deficit. Miami actually came all the way back to tie the game with three minutes left, but Tech's offense, stagnant for most of the previous three quarters, drove 63 yards in five plays to score the winning points. The Hurricanes drove to the Hokies' 10 as time was expiring but couldn't punch it in.

On the same day in Louisville, Kentucky, against Boston College, the home-team Cardinals took a lead of 14 in the second quarter and fell behind, then went up by nine in the third quarter before falling behind again, 39-38, with about three minutes left in the game. A 28-yard Javian Hawkins run set up a 41-yard Blanton Creque field goal, however, and after a late fourth-down stop, Louisville held on. The major surprise in this game: There were only 80 total points! The teams' combined 1,227 yards and 50 first downs suggested something even more prolific.

In Week 7, Louisville played in an even sillier shootout. The Cardinals and Wake Forest combined for an exhausting 1,188 yards and 62 first downs, with five turnovers and a kick-return score adding to the absurdity. Louisville led 52-31 with 9:14 left, but six minutes and three Wake scores later, it was 55-52. The Cardinals all but slammed the door with Evan Conley's 41-yard score, but the Demon Deacons drove 92 yards in one minute to get back to within three. It wasn't until an onside kick recovery that the Cardinals could finally breathe easy.

In Week 8 came history: Virginia Tech and North Carolina became the first two FBS teams to test out the new overtime rules. The Tar Heels took a 31-24 lead with five minutes left, but the Hokies tied the game 40 seconds later on Quincy Patterson II's 53-yard run. The teams traded field goals in the first OT, touchdowns in the second and missed FGs in the third and fourth! That led to the new "nothing but 2-point conversions" rule -- the teams failed on the first three tries before Patterson scored the winning deuce for Tech, technically in OT No. 6.

86. Oregon State 35, Arizona State 34 (Nov. 16)

Seven different players scored before halftime, and Oregon State took a 28-21 lead into the break. It was 35-21 late in the third quarter, but the Beavers then had to fend off a series of advances. Arizona State made it 35-28, then immediately recovered a fumble. The Beavers' defense pushed the Sun Devils out of field goal range, and ASU immediately came back ... only to lose a fumble at the 1. When Brandon Aiyuk scored with 1:40 left, the Sun Devils went for two points and the win, and the Beavers fended that off, too, picking off an Eno Benjamin pass.


Throughout this series, I'll feature a countdown within a countdown -- the 15 best small-school (as in, below FBS) games of the season. Here are the first five.

85. Morningside 40, Marian 38 (Dec. 21)

In search of its second consecutive NAIA title, Morningside made things look pretty easy for a while in Grambling, Louisiana. The Mustangs took a 21-7 lead into halftime and a 33-21 lead into the fourth quarter, but the Knights -- two-time champions themselves -- struck back. They scored 10 points to get to within two and got the ball back with four minutes left. They went four-and-out, however, and Joe Dolincheck scored the title-clinching touchdown two minutes later. Marian scored with 1:04 remaining, but Morningside recovered the onside kick, and that was that.

84. Ashland 20, Grand Valley State 17 (Oct. 5)

For 55 minutes, this was one of the most forgettable games of the season. Ninth-ranked Grand Valley State led 10-0, and Ashland had punted on its first seven possessions before switching things up with a missed field goal and an interception. But then Austin Brenner ran 28 yards for an Ashland touchdown. The Lakers punted, and Gei'vonni Washington raced 44 yards for the go-ahead Eagles score. GVSU responded with a 23-yard Cole Kotopka-to-Jacob Miller strike, and Ashland was able to get only to midfield with 3 seconds left. Time for a prayer.

83. Chapman 68, Linfield 65 (Nov. 23)

With a spot in the second round of the Division III playoffs on the line, Chapman and Linfield threw haymakers for 60-plus minutes. Chapman led 21-7 early, Linfield responded with a 27-7 run to take the lead, and then Chapman went on another 21-7 run to take the lead back with a minute remaining. But Artie Johnson's 12-yard run with 4 seconds left for the Wildcats sent the game to overtime, and after the teams traded scores, Linfield had to settle for a field goal in the fourth OT period. That opened the door for Tanner Mendoza's 13-yard winner for the Panthers.

82. Samford 61, The Citadel 55 (Sept. 28)

Who doesn't love a good, old-fashioned, never-ending football game? A 17-0 fourth-quarter run gave The Citadel a 38-24 lead, but Samford drove 75 yards to make it 38-31, forced a punt and tied the game on a 67-yard bomb from Liam Welch to A.J. Toney with 1:43 left. The teams traded touchdowns in the first and second overtimes, then traded field goals in the third. In the fourth, however, Samford stuffed Brandon Rainey on fourth-and-2. Welch plunged in from 2 yards out, and Samford survived.

81. Mary Hardin-Baylor 15, Hardin-Simmons 14 (Oct. 26)

Anthony Avila had been the difference in the game, and not in a good way. He had missed a PAT and a field goal, and defending Division III champion UMHB trailed conference rival Hardin-Simmons 14-12 as a result. With 10 seconds left, the Crusaders completed a pass to the Cowboys' 26 but didn't stop the clock. The field goal unit sprinted onto the field and somehow got set before the clock hit zero. And because college football is never required to make sense, Avila split the uprights from 43 yards out.

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