Even though we usually have a reasonably good idea of who’s going to be playing for the national title at the end of the season, every college football season is a snowflake, taking on its own personality and rhythm. But because of chaos, controversy or pure, sustained greatness, some seasons are far more memorable than others.
ESPN’s Bill Connelly, Ivan Maisel and Mark Schlabach held a draft of their favorite college football seasons. Below, they explain their choices. According to this list, the 1980s were unofficially college football’s best decade — or at least the most enjoyable.
Connelly: 1990. Defending champ Miami lost to Ty Detmer and BYU, and both Notre Dame and Michigan lost the No. 1 ranking at home via unranked rivals (Stanford and Michigan State, respectively). The biggest game of the season ended up being Virginia, No. 1 for the first time, losing to Georgia Tech. Colorado tied Tennessee and lost to Illinois in the first four weeks but managed to battle back and snare a share of the title, thanks to Eric Bieniemy, his stellar option game and the two most famous calls of the season: the Fifth Down against Missouri and the clipping penalty on Raghib Ismail’s almost go-ahead score in the Orange Bowl.
Maisel: 2007. Good choice, but 2007, with all the chaos, was soooooo much better. The season began with Nick Saban arriving at Alabama and ended with LSU becoming the first two-loss team to win it all. In the 369 days between those two events, the sport went entertainingly haywire: Appalachian State beat Michigan, and Stanford, a 41-point underdog, beat USC. Thirteen top-five teams lost to an unranked opponent. Kansas went to the Orange Bowl, Illinois to the Rose and Hawaii to the Sugar. An FCS assistant coach named Chip Kelly took over the Oregon offense and introduced the up-tempo spread. Les Miles didn’t go to Michigan. And Mike Gundy turned 40.
Schlabach: 1984. Need I remind you of 1984, when BYU, the WAC champion, won a national title? The season opened with No. 1 Auburn (and Bo Jackson) losing its opener to Miami. The No. 1 Hurricanes fell in Week 2, No. 1 Nebraska in Week 5, No. 1 Washington in Week 11 and No. 1 Nebraska (again!) in Week 12. The season included two of the most legendary finishes in the sport’s history, with Miami on the wrong side of both: Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary and Maryland’s 31-point comeback. This season also was sprinkled with perhaps the most controversial ending in Red River Rivalry history (officials waved off an interception from OU’s Keith Stanberry in the final minutes of a 15-15 tie) and one of the craziest endings in Iron Bowl history (Alabama won 17-15 when “Wrong Way Bo” missed his block on fourth-and-goal from the Tide 1).
Schlabach: 1985. As good as 1984 was for the unexpected, the next season featured a bucket load of attitude. Oklahoma had Brian Bosworth, Tony Casillas and Troy Aikman, who broke his left leg in a 27-14 loss to Miami in the fourth game. True freshman Jamelle Holieway took over and ran Barry Switzer’s wishbone offense to perfection. The Sooners didn’t lose again and won a national title with a 25-10 win over No. 1 Penn State in the Orange Bowl. Michigan, led by quarterback Jim Harbaugh, might have been the season’s most accomplished team, with five wins over ranked foes. But the Wolverines lost at No. 1 Iowa 12-10 and tied Illinois 3-3 on the road. The Iron Bowl was epic, with Van Tiffin kicking a 52-yard field goal as time expired to give the Tide a 25-23 victory.
Maisel: 2005. This was a season filled with great individual performances, capped by the best game of my generation. Elvis Dumervil of Louisville had 20 sacks, a feat unmatched since. Tyrone Prothro of Alabama caught a ball behind a defender’s back and threw in a somersault to boot. Tailback Reggie Bush of USC and quarterback Vince Young of Texas one-upped each other all season before playing in a BCS National Championship in the Rose Bowl that still elicits chills. Young gained 467 yards of total offense in the Longhorns’ 41-38 victory. Broadcaster Keith Jackson — and 2005 — went out on top.
Connelly: 2013. For two months, this season was pretty straightforward, but everything exploded in November. Auburn pulled off the most amazing pair of wins the sport has seen, beating Georgia via the Prayer at Jordan-Hare and No. 1 Alabama via the Kick Six. (Auburn radio guy Rod Bramblett became an SEC household name with his deliriously joyful calls.) After Ohio State fell to Michigan State, Auburn and Missouri — last in their respective SEC divisions the year before — played for a spot in the national title game. What? The BCS National Championship was great too, though Auburn fell one miracle short, and FSU took its first title in 14 years.
Connelly: 1960. Iowa moved to No. 1 with six straight wins against ranked opponents. Then the exhausted Hawkeyes got walloped at No. 3 Minnesota, and the Gophers moved to No. 1 … and immediately lost to Purdue. Missouri moved to the top spot for the first time … and immediately lost to Kansas, though that came with an asterisk. KU’s Bert Coan had been deemed ineligible by the Big 8, but KU played him anyway. The conference declared Mizzou unbeaten, but Minnesota was declared the national champ … and then lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl. Oh, yeah, Mike Ditka was sixth in the Heisman voting, Duke won the ACC, and New Mexico State went 11-0. Totally normal stuff.
Maisel: I feel like Bill was one of those kids who set up model trains so he could wreck them.
Connelly: The only good crashes are loud crashes.
Schlabach: That’s what he learned at Missouri.
Maisel: 1973. Alabama, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Oklahoma all finished the regular season undefeated. The Wolverines and the Buckeyes fought to a 10-10 tie. The Big Ten athletic directors broke the tie atop the conference by voting to send the Buckeyes to the Rose Bowl. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler never forgave them. The Fighting Irish and the Crimson Tide needed six lead changes and a missed extra point to make Notre Dame the national champs 24-23. This season also gave us Tom Osborne at Nebraska and Joe Paterno at Penn State. Paterno “returned” after taking the New England Patriots job for one night.
Schlabach: 1982. Georgia tailback Herschel Walker finally won a Heisman Trophy, so you know it was good. Penn State won its first consensus national championship, and Paterno claimed his first after so many near-misses. The Nittany Lions knocked off Georgia 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl to get it done. It was most memorably Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s final season; he retired with 323 career victories and died 28 days after the last one, a 21-15 win over Illinois in the Liberty Bowl. The 1982 season also included “The Play,” when Stanford’s band was on the field against rival Cal. Ivan might remember something about that. The game’s biggest stars in 1982 were Walker, John Elway, Eric Dickerson and Dan Marino. Need I say more?
Schlabach: 2000. It wasn’t the most exciting season, and the BCS National Championship was pretty much a clunker, but 2000 gave us one of the most controversial endings in recent history. Miami beat Florida State 27-24 during the regular season (Wide Right III). At the regular season’s end, Oklahoma was the only unbeaten team, and FSU, Miami and Washington each had one loss. The Hurricanes were No. 2 in both human polls, but the BCS computers selected the Seminoles to play the Sooners for the national title. Oklahoma embarrassed FSU 13-2 in the Orange Bowl, and Miami waxed Florida 37-20 in the Sugar Bowl. Washington beat Purdue 34-24 in the Rose Bowl. The BCS added a quality-win component to its formula prior to the next season. Just as memorable, UConn moved to Division I-A that season. Well, maybe not.
Maisel: 1935. This season provided one of the greatest Saturdays ever: On Nov. 2, Notre Dame scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter — the last with 30 seconds to play — to win at Ohio State 18-13. Meanwhile, Mississippi State, coached by former Army head coach Ralph Sasse, stunned the Black Knights 13-7. If nothing else, 1935 should be revered for giving us Dan Jenkins, the 6-year-old who fell in love with college football when he witnessed undefeated SMU defeat undefeated TCU 20-14, and the Heisman Trophy, won that first year by Jay Berwanger of the Chicago Maroons.
Connelly: 2008. I dig chaos, and this season had one of the century’s best upsets. On a Thursday at Oregon State, the Beavers stunned Pete Carroll’s USC team, arguably his best squad. But this season was defined by two clusters of teams: Alabama and Florida in the SEC (Nick Saban’s second Bama squad went 12-0 before getting knocked around by Tim Tebow and the Gators) and Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech in the Big 12. Texas beat Oklahoma but fell victim to Harrell-to-Crabtree in Lubbock. After scoring 60-plus in five straight games, OU eked out a spot in the title game, in which two goal-line stands and some Tebow heroics gave the Gators their second title in three years.
Maisel: Bill, 2008 was not Carroll’s best team. I am highly skeptical that it was even his second-best team and would listen to any argument that it should not be on the medal stand at all. But that’s a topic for another debate.
Connelly: At the very least, that team had his best defense, hands down. When we debate this in the future, I’ll point out that USC beat 10-win Ohio State and Oregon teams by a combined 79-13. But I digress.
Connelly: 1983. Nebraska kicked off the year with a 44-6 win over No. 4 Penn State, put up 84 points on Minnesota and 72 on Iowa State, and needed an Orange Bowl win over No. 5 Miami to secure Tom Osborne’s first title. When the Huskers came up a two-point conversion short, things got weird. No. 2 Texas lost to Georgia in the Cotton Bowl, No. 4 Illinois was rocked by UCLA in the Rose Bowl, and though No. 3 Auburn — which beat the Florida team that destroyed Miami — beat Michigan in the Sugar Bowl, Miami still hopped the Tigers to win the program’s first title and kick-start a dynasty. Auburn fans are still (justifiably) mad.
Maisel: 1995. If you like the best, you came to the right season. Nebraska won 11 of 12 games by at least 23 points and won the outlier by 14. Huskers senior Tommie Frazier, the best quarterback ever to break seven Florida tackles on one play, made All-American over a couple of guys named Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning. Frazier’s 75-yard touchdown run in the Fiesta Bowl defied belief, gravity and Gators, who lost to the Huskers 62-24. Northwestern defied history, taking the purple to Pasadena for the first time in 47 seasons by sailing undefeated through the Big Ten.
Connelly: Ugh, I should have picked this one. It was great.
Schlabach: It was probably my favorite season as a kid (or teenager) because I grew up less than an hour from Notre Dame, and this was one of the greatest Fighting Irish teams of the modern era. The Irish beat No. 1 Miami, No. 2 USC and No. 3 West Virginia in finishing unbeaten. Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders ran for 2,628 yards (2,850 if you include his bowl game, which you absolutely should), Rocket Ismail led the country in kickoff returns, and Deion Sanders was tops in punt returns. Four of the top five teams in the final AP Top 25 were independents: Notre Dame, Miami, FSU and West Virginia. I’m sure that’s why Connelly loved it. Connelly must have considered 1988 to be heaven.