PASADENA, Calif. - How do you pick?
Every year, for decades, the biggest - and last - day of the college football season has been January 1. The New Year's Day bowl marathon is a tradition, a way to celebrate the college football season with big matchups betwen great teams.
Naturally, with the season always ending on the same day, there have been countless classic college football games on New Year's Day. So how do you pick the absolute best? You probably have to narrow it down to games featuring one or both teams that are playing for a national title; you'd have to narrow it down further to those games that were close to the end; then narrow it down further to games that are still being talked about years or decades later. Not an easy task. So how do you pick the best one?
Why not go with the game that started it all?
The 1902 Tournament East-West football game between Michigan and Stanford was nowhere near the best college football game of all time; it was stopped with eight minutes to go when Michigan was ahead 49-0, and it was such a blowout that the Tournament of Roses decided to hold chariot races, ostrich races, and other events instead of football for 15 years before finally bringing back college football to stay.
But the game remains one of the most important in college football history. It was the first version of what is now known as the Rose Bowl, the first postseason college football game ever played. In later years, as the Rose Bowl increased in popularity, more bowl games started popping up. Eventually, January 1 became a day dedicated to college football, and it all originated from that one winter day in Pasadena.
For those interested, below is a list of the greatest or most famous January 1 college football games I could find, shown in chronological order. (All rankings listed are the team's AP rankings entering the game).
1963 Rose Bowl: #1 USC 42, #2 Wisconsin 37: The first ever 1 vs 2 matchup in a bowl game looked like a laugher when USC went up 42-14 in the fourth, but Wisconsin scored 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter before running out of time.
1965 Rose Bowl: #5 Texas 21, #1 Alabama 17: Facing 4th and goal at the 1 in the final minutes, Alabama quarterback Joe Namath was stopped on a quarterback sneak attempt, costing Alabama a shot at the national title.
1965 Cotton Bowl: #2 Arkansas 10, #6 Nebraska 7: The Razorbacks scored a touchdown with 4:41 left for the win which, coupled with Alabama's loss, gave the Razorbacks the national title. One famous member of Arkansas' team was future Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
1966 Rose Bowl: #5 UCLA 14, #1 Michigan State 12: After a fumbled punt led to one score and a shocking onside kick led to another, UCLA was surprisingly leading undefeated Michigan State 14-0 at halftime. The Spartans responded with two fourth-quarter touchdowns. They missed the two-point conversion on the first. On the second two-point attempt, big halfback Bob Apisa was stopped just short of the line by UCLA defensive back Bob Stiles, who knocked himself out making the tackle.
1975 Rose Bowl: #4 USC 18, #3 Ohio State 17: Trailing 17-10, USC scored late in the fourth quarter to cut the deficit to 17-16, then boldly went for 2, succeeding to make it 18-17. Later in the day, Notre Dame upset #2 Alabama in the Orange Bowl, allowing USC to split the national championship with #1 Oklahoma, which had been on probation and didn't play in a bowl game.
1979 Cotton Bowl: #10 Notre Dame 35, #9 Houston 34: With Joe Montana in the locker room trying to avoid hypothermia, the Fighting Irish saw their 20-12 halftime deficit increase to 34-12. With 7:37 remaining on the clock - and after famously eating chicken soup in the locker room - Montana returned, leading Notre Dame to 23 straight 4th-quarter points for the comeback victory.
1979 Sugar Bowl: #2 Alabama 14, #1 Penn State 7: Alabama cornerback Don McNeal made the tackle of the season, flying out of nowhere to stop Penn State's Scott Fitzkee from scoring what looked to be a sure touchdown late in the 4th. After Alabama stopped Penn State on fourth and goal on the next play, they only had to run out the clock for the national championship, which they did - with help from a 12-men-on-the-field penalty by Penn State on a punt.
1980 Rose Bowl: #3 USC 17, #1 Ohio State 16: Running back Charles White rushed for 247 yards, including the game-winning touchdown in the final minute, as USC upset Ohio State. It wasn't enough to give the Trojans the national championship, though, as their late-season tie against Stanford left them one spot behind Alabama in the final poll.
1983 Sugar Bowl: #2 Penn State 27, #1 Georgia 23: Georgia had gone 33-2 the previous three seasons with Heisman Trophy-winning running back Herschel Walker in the fold, but Penn State didn't care. In Walker's last game for Georgia, Penn State held him to one of his worst games as a collegian. Despite finishing unbeaten three previous times, this marked Penn State's first national championship.
1991 Orange Bowl: #1 Colorado 10, #5 Notre Dame 7: As Raghib "Rocket" Ismail streaked down the sideline for a punt return touchdown with 43 seconds left, it seemed as though college football's most dynamic player had crushed Colorado's national championship dreams. But the official made one of the most dramatic penalty calls in college football history - clipping, Notre Dame, 10-yard penalty. Nineteen years later, despite the number of times the play has been replayed, many fans still haven't been able to spot the penalty.
1994 Orange Bowl: #1 Florida State 18, #2 Nebraska 16: Twice in their history, Florida State had been denied a national championship because of a field goal that missed wide right. This time, though, Scott Bentley's field goal attempt with 21 seconds was good, giving the Seminoles an 18-16 lead. But Florida State's excessive celebration penalty on the kick gave Nebraska great field position, and they were able to get into position for a game-winning attempt of their won. When that missed wide left, Florida State could finally celebrate.
1995 Orange Bowl: #1 Nebraska 24, #3 Miami 17: The Cornhuskers scored 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to turn back the Hurricanes. After years of falling just short, Nebraska coach Tom Osborn finally got his first national championship, despite #2 Penn State's dominating win in that year's Rose Bowl.
1997 Rose Bowl: #4 Ohio State 20, #2 Arizona State 17: It was heartwrenching. After leading Arizona State on a dramatic go-ahead drive in the 4th quarter, capped by a should-have-been legendary 11-yard touchdown scramble with just over a minute to play, Sun Devils quarterback Jake Plummer could only watch as Ohio State marched right down the field to score with 19 seconds left. A blocked extra point kept the Sun Devils alive. Getting the ball back, Plummer found Lenzie Jackson for a long completion, and if Jackson had simply gone down and called time out, the Sun Devils would have been in field goal range. But he tried to get out of bounds, didn't make it, and the clock ran out on Arizona State's unbeaten season.
2007 Fiesta Bowl: #9 Boise State 43, #7 Oklahoma 42: The chaotic ending: Oklahoma scored a touchdown with 1:26 left, converting the 2-point conversion (on their third try after two penalties) to make it 28-28. On Boise State's next offensive play, Oklahoma returned an interception for a touchdown to make it 35-28 with 1:02 left. With seven seconds left, Boise State scored on a 50-yard hook-and-ladder play to tie the game. Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson scored on the first play of overtime to make it 42-35. Boise State then scored on a wide receiver pass to make it 42-41. Going for the win, the Broncos ran a Statue-of-Liberty play for the two-point conversion, after which running back Ian Johnson proposed to his girlfriend live on national television. Not a bad game.