The Best College Football National Championship Games Ever

  • Penn State vs. Miami

    Fiesta Bowl, 1987

    Billed as a matchup pitting “Good vs. Evil,” the 1987 Fiesta Bowl is legendary not just for the game but the theatrics leading into it. During a promotional dinner for the game attended by both teams Miami defensive end Jerome Brown led a walkout. On their way out the door, Brown exclaimed, “Did the Japanse go sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?”

    This statement in unison with Miami adorning military fatigues set the stage for a fierce battle. Heavily favored to beat the Nittany Lions – Penn State opened as seven-point underdogs in Vegas – the Hurricanes crushed Penn State in all but two categories – turnovers and points scored. Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions contributing to an astounding seven Miami turnovers, allowing Penn State to squeak by 14-10 despite a sputtering offensive performance.

    1 of 5
  • Nebraska vs. Florida State

    Orange Bowl, 1994

    The Nebraska Cornhuskers entered the ’94 Orange Bowl with a better record than their opponents from Tallahassee, but that made little difference in the court of public opinion. Florida State was favored by as much as 17.5 points entering the national championship game, seen as a far superior team with Heisman winner Charlie Ward on their side.

    Things didn’t go smoothly as many predicted for Florida State. Ward and Huskers quarterback Tommie Frazier dueled to almost a dead heat, eventually being rewarded as Co-MVPs of the title game. Unfortunately, only won could win the team honor, and Ward’s Seminoles ended up on the right side of that battle.

    After making a field goal to go up by two with 21 seconds left, an excessive celebration penalty cost the ‘Noles valuable field position and opened the door for Frazier to pull off a near miracle. Nebraska kicker Byron Bennett hooked a 45-yard field goal attempt wide left as the clock ran out, ending a neck-and-neck battle with heartbreak for the Huskers.

    2 of 5
  • Miami vs. Ohio State

    Fiesta Bowl, 2003

    Eerily enough, another of the most memorable championship games in college football history involved a team on a 34-game win streak. In spiritual succession to the program’s ’80s dominance and flamboyance, the U made a triumphant return in the early 2000s behind a wave of future NFL standouts. Sean Taylor, Andre Johnson, and Willis McGahee were just a few Hurricanes on the 2003 squad that would eventually go on to work on Sundays.

    Someone forgot to tell the Buckeyes they were underdogs – Miami needed a last second field goal to force the first overtime in the history of national championship games. The tables turned in OT, and the ‘Canes looked to have emerged as national champions after a fourth down pass breakup. Not so fast – a pass interference call extended the series, and the Buckeyes took advantage of new life, winning the game in double-overtime with a touchdown by freshman sensation Maurice Clarett.

    3 of 5
  • Auburn vs. Oregon

    BCS National Championship, 2011

    Entering the 2011 championship game, the Ducks and Tigers were painted as stylistic opposites. Prolific offenses powered both sides, but Oregon relied on an up-tempo, agile attack as opposed to Auburn’s brute force, powered by Heisman winner Cam Newton.

    Despite the offensive pedigrees of the programs, both sides struggled with punching the ball into the end zone all night, racking up yardage totals in the process. The game came down to the wire ending with an Auburn field goal in the final moments, set up by one of the more bizarre plays in championship game history. Tigers running back Michael Dyer was on his way to the ground around midfield before bouncing off Ducks defender Eddie Pleasant, and an innocuous five-yard gain turned into a 37-yard rush for Auburn, pushing them well into enemy territory and ultimately to victory

    4 of 5
  • Texas vs. USC

    Rose Bowl, 2006

    The 2006 edition of the Rose Bowl saw a clash of titans that has not been equaled since, and may not have a parallel in college history. Southern Cal rode a ridiculous 34-game winning streak into the National Championship game, becoming the first school to start two past winners of the Heisman trophy in the same backfield (Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush). Texas was no slouch – winners of 19 straight themselves, the Longhorns entered the contest as defending Rose Bowl champions.

    For the second year in a row, Texas quarterback Vince Young delivered an absolute classic performance in “The Grandaddy of Them All,” racking up a record 467 total yards and three touchdowns, including the winning score with less than 20 seconds remaining. Avenging his loss to Bush in the Heisman voting and winning in dramatic fashion cemented Young’s status as a college legend. Many entered the game ready to crown USC as the greatest college team of all time, but it was the Longhorns who had the last laugh.

    5 of 5
  • Vinny Testaverde
  • Michael Dyer
  • Vince Young

Much to the delight of college football fans, the BCS system is in the rearview mirror with a tantalizing, eventually growing playoff system taking its place. The seeding process is still going to be divisive for fans, because there’s no way to include everyone in a playoff that is inherently exclusive, but it’s a better option to determine who the best team is in a given season.

Before the beauty that is today’s playoff system, college football’s seasonal king was often decided in games that didn’t pit the top two teams against each other. Left to the mercy of the pollsters, the best and brightest had to hope they shined bright enough on the big stage to earn the votes necessary to win it all. It wasn’t a perfect system, but there was plenty to play for with the title a bit more wide open.

There will never be a perfect playoff system for the NCAA to use, but that doesn’t mean that the ever-changing system hasn’t produced some spectacular contests in decades past. College football is fascinating in that some of its most accomplished players wash out completely at the next level, adding incentive for the players to take advantage of the national stage while they still have it.

Plenty of Heisman winners and college greats have faded into the darkness, but not before giving the public a show en route to a national championship. Which games will stick in our minds for the next 50 changes to the playoff system? Read on to find out.

To get you hyped up for tonight’s big game, these are The Best College Football National Championship Games Ever.

Follow Kyle on Twitter at @kyleneubeck

image via Scott Clarke/Getty Images