Top 10 game-ending plays in college football history

Now I finally have a pretty good idea on what it may have been like to witness the Immaculate Reception in real time.

I have had the following list on file for the last few weeks, and I am now updating it for the third time this month.

Here is list of the most dramatic final plays in college football history.

10. Northwestern vs. Nebraska (2013)

Only because this is still so fresh, it has to be included. Many NU fans would vote for the “kick ball” caught by Matt Davison on the final play of regulation at Missouri in 1997 (which had a Raiders “Holy Roller” aspect to it). That play led to a Cornhuskers victory and, ultimately, a share of the National Championship. Since I’ve made my criteria as “final play of the game” I will roll with this.


9. SMU vs. BYU (1980)

I never was able to duplicate the final four-plus minutes in a re-creation of the 1980 Holiday Bowl on the EA Sports college football game. With SMU leading 45-25, BYU coach LaVell Edwards appeared ready to call off the dogs and sent in the punting unit on fourth down, only to be vetoed by quarterback Jim McMahon, who ordered his offense to remain on the field.

What happened went down as follows: Fourth down conversion and eventual Cougar touchdown. Then an onside kick recovery followed by another touchdown to make it 45-39. Then a blocked punt which gave McMahon one last play to heave the ball 40 yards into the end zone.

The Ray Scott call on the Mizlou network was epic, “Receivers are down there, defenders are down there…” Tight end Clay Brown fought off several SMU players to capture the ball like a Black Friday shopper grabbing control of a PlayStation 4 to secure the touchdown. Technically it was not the final play, the was the ensuing PAT that gave BYU the 46-45 win.

Some BYU fans may vote for this final play touchdown v. arch-rival Utah from 2006, but I think the rest of us know that win over SMU should get the nod.


8. Wisconsin vs. Michigan St. (2011)

I had a bad feeling about this play when receiver Jared Abberderis was sent in as a defensive back. Kirk Cousins’ completion to Keith Nichol was originally ruled down short of the goal line, but then ruled a game-ending touchdown by instant replay.

The Badgers would be victimized again the very next week at Ohio State.


7. Southern Mississippi vs. Louisville (1989)

When it happened, this hardly made a sound. It was the final play between two mid-major teams and was authored by a quarterback who only Southern Miss fans and die-hard NFL Draftniks cared about.

What it wound up being was a Brett Favre prequel.

With one final play, Favre was about to be forced out of bounds at his own 10-yard line when he let the ball fly. The best part of the grainy video was the Louisville band member cussing at the Southern Miss receiver after he hauled in the in the deflected 80-yard winning touchdown.


6. Colorado vs. Michigan (1994)

Kordell Stewart to Michael Westbrook, a throw that went 70-plus yards in the air. Stewart may had been a maligned NFL quarterback, but the man had an arm. Rae Carruth was also in the neighborhood when the deflection was made.

The Colorado at Missouri fifth down from 1990 could have also made the list, but instead that goes under the category of most screwed-up finishes ever.


5. LSU vs. Kentucky (2002)

Kentucky considered this a done deal. The coach had already gotten a Gatorade bath and fans were ready to celebrate a rare win over the Bayou Bengals.

After the final play, Kentucky fans stormed the field and tried to tear down a goal post while the Jefferson-Pilot television network inadvertently flashed the final score as a 30-27 Wildcat win.

One problem, Devery Henderson had caught a deflection for a 75-yard score to steal the 33-30 win for LSU coach Nick Saban. Eleven years later Saban would realize life at the other end of a bad beat.


4. Stanford v. California (1982)

Many still have the band play as No. 1 on the list, and Joe Starkey might get credit for the best radio call ever.

But as the Cal radio man Starkey had right to go all-in on the call, on Stanford radio, the play-by-play man warned the Cardinal would not kick it deep because the previous week SMU won a game with a surprise lateral on a late kickoff.

It deserves a lofty ranking, but truth is “The Game” that year was between two middle-of-the-road Pac-10 teams, Stanford being so despite having John Elway.

Unfortunately, Rae Carruth is not the only player on this list now doing time. Cal player Mariet Ford is now doing 45 years to life after being convicted of killing his pregnant wife and son in 1997.


3. Georgia v. Auburn (2013)

Not final play of the game but close enough and dramatic enough. Fourth and 18 might as well have been fourth and 73 when Nick Marshall threw it long, and two Georgia defenders deflected the ball perfectly to Ricardo Louis in a play very similar to LSU/Kentucky 11 years earlier. At the time, CBS commentator Gary Danielson thought he had seen it all. He hadn’t.


2. Boston College v. Miami (1984)

Years before becoming a ESPN Radio announcer, Dan Davis was voice of Boston College football, where his call of the Doug Flutie Hail Mary lives on. After making a miraculous shot at a charity golf event, fans in the gallery yelled, “Davis did it!” in tribute to his call from a generation earlier.

This game was already a classic even without the ending. The duel between Flutie and Bernie Kosar continues to stand the test of time. It took 30-plus years to finally bump Flutie to Phelan from the top of this list.


1. Alabama v. Auburn (2013)

I’ll call this now, look for a tenth-second clock in football starting next year.

This immediately enters “Greatest Game Ever” discussion. Look at what there was before the final play: A.J. McCarron 99-yard touchdown pass, going for it on fourth-and-one because the kicking game had been so awful. A holding penalty (on Chris Davis) that nullified a potential first and goal late in the fourth quarter.

Before an Auburn time out as Bama lined up for the 57-yard field goal, Chris Davis was playing on the line off the edge. Gus Malzahn then decided to put Davis back deep in case the field goal landed short. The rest is history.

If Florida State vs. Ohio State were to be the National Championship game, we can only dream of a Alabama vs. Auburn sequel in the Sugar Bowl.

Because of the rivalry, what was at stake and the manner of finish that shocked everybody this makes the top of the list.

This will be relived for generations.


About Kurt Allen

Have written/blogged about sports since 2000, along with starting my popular Twitter feed in 2009. I also closely follow fantasy sports developments, along with events such as the NFL Draft.


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  2. what about TTU vs. TEX in 08?
    Boise state Oklahoma in the fiesta bowl?
    Vince youngs win over USC?

    this is a joke

  3. joke – the “play” still the best ever – Just because it’s recent doesn’t mean it’s better

  4. Flutie Hail Mary was in 1984 not 1982.

  5. Boise State over Oklahoma in the Fiesta bowl of 2007 was an AMAZING game! The final minute of so of regulation and overtime were unbelievable. This has to be one of the top few on the list. Have you watched this game? Alabama vs. Auburn was good but should not be in the top 5. Nobody is going to be saying it was the best college football game ending a year or two from now. Doug Flutie hail Mary, Cal vs. Stanford or Boise State vs. Oklahoma will still be talked about for decades.

  6. The reason the Auburn victory was so unique is offensive reversal on the same play. One moment Alabama is close to scoring and winning the game walk off style, yet a rather rare field goal return changes the outcome entirely, all within the same play.

    This would be like an NBA center blocking Chris Paul’s buzzer beater three pointer and the deflection going into the other basket as time runs out to win the game. Or in Soccer, a goalie blocking a break away goal as the game is ending in a tie, and the deflection goes into the other net for the victory.

  7. 1983 “Egg Bowl” Ole Miss over Mississippi State. Ole Miss was ahead 24-23 with seconds left. State lined up for the winning field goal. Artie Cosby’s kick was true, but it was caught by a 40 MPH gust and blown back.

  8. Nonsense here…. although these are great games with great endings, the Div III Trinity vs Millsaps SCAC Title game in 2007 ended with Millsaps throwing 15 laterals by to win it on the final play. Remember this article said COLLEGE football, not Div I only. Watch the links below.

  9. The G.O.A.T. says:

    Nebraska vs Missouri 1997. FLEA KICKER. Nuff said.

  10. I agree 100% with previous post….Boise State/Oklahoma finish should beat out a couple of these. What a play.

  11. How about App State’s last second field goal block to topple Michigan in 2007?

  12. All of these finishes are great (or not so great depending on your perspective). I could add another one- Jan 1, 2005 Capital One Bowl between LSU and Iowa. Great game throughout- 2 very good defenses battling it out, one team (LSU) falling behind 24-12 then coming back with a third string QB-Jamarcus Russell to take their first lead of the game with under a minute left. Then Iowa driving, trying to set up a last second field goal, gets a false start penalty around mid field. Unknown to everyone else but Drew Tate and the Iowa offense, the penalty resulted in the game clock winding on the ball placement not the snap making the next play their final chance. Contrary to popular belief the final play was not a Hail Mary but a very heads up play by either Drew Tate and Warren Holloway or the Iowa coaching staff. Iowa had a time out left but chose not to use it, possibly seeing the LSU defense in a different coverage and chose to exploit it. LSU blew the coverage, probably not realizing that the game clock had started either and Tate hit a wide open Holloway in stride for a 50+ yard TD as time expired. Great finish to a great game!

  13. Michigan- Indiana in 1979. Not a great game – but the last play 45 yard touchdown pass from John Wangler to little-known freshman Anthony Carter to break a 15-15 tie – and there was no overtime rule at that time – is still the best ending to a football game that I ever saw. Look up the play on YouTube with Bob Ufer’s radio call as a backdrop – Just Amazing!

  14. Boise State vs. Oklahoma HANDS DOWN! Give up the SEC bias. The Auburn guy ran by 2 Alabama lineman. The rest were standing around watching.

  15. How about Stanford vs. California from 1982 kickoff return by Cal with Stanford bank marching on the field thinking the game to be over? Not as much at stake but great rivalry game and no wilder ending has ever occurred.

  16. I can agree with most of the list. I would find a spot for Boise v Oklahoma, and the LSU v Iowa game as well, maybe because they were bowl games they just seemed better.

    Please don’t say we can only dream of an Auburn v Alabama Sugar Bowl. Nobody, NOBODY, wants to see rematches in bowls. Sometimes they happen when the placement dictates, but if you choose the teams, nobody wants a rematch, especially an in conference rematch.

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