College football's 100 best games of 2019: 40-21

ByBill Connelly ESPN logo
Thursday, January 23, 2020

In our second-to-last installment unveiling the top 100 games of the 2019 college football season, we go heavy into added context. Today's list includes Rivalry Week games, high-impact bowls and a few controversial finishes. And a dance-off. Can't forget the dance-off.


40. Temple 30, Memphis 28 (Oct. 12)

Here's what it took to prevent Memphis from finishing the regular season unbeaten:

  • Three turnovers on Memphis' first four possessions. This allowed Temple to stake out a 16-0 early lead.
  • A fourth turnover early in the fourth quarter. Memphis trailed 23-21 and was driving when Harrison Hand knocked the ball out of Brady White's hand and Amir Tyler recovered. Temple scored five plays later.
  • A stunning replay reversal. With Memphis down 30-28, Joey Magnifico appeared to catch a desperate fourth-down heave to keep a late drive alive, but despite no clear video angle of the ball hitting the ground, the call was reversed. Incomplete pass. Ballgame.

39. Cal 28, Ole Miss 20 (Sept. 21)

It was an official's nightmare. Ole Miss' Elijah Moore had nearly scored a potential game-tying touchdown in the closing seconds. The clock was running. Do you stop the clock for a replay review, knowing that you're giving the home team a free timeout to prepare for the final play? Do you keep the clock rolling, trusting that you got the call right on the field?

Officials chose the latter. The clock ran, and John Rhys Plumlee got stuffed short of the goal line as time expired. Moore probably didn't actually score, and the refs probably got it right. But hoo boy, was it close.

38. Baylor 33, Texas Tech 30 (Oct. 12)

Without controversy, this was already a wild game. Texas Tech took a 20-17 lead on an 88-yard TD drive late in regulation, but a short John Mayers field goal sent the game to OT. In the second OT possession, Baylor's JaMycal Hasty scored from 5 yards out to win. Fun, right? Add in a healthy dose of controversy, and you get a top-40 candidate. In BU's first OT possession, center Jake Fruhmorgen clearly snapped the ball into his own butt. It was a fumble, and Tech recovered. But it was called an illegal snap and penalized, and when given a second chance, Baylor scored two plays later.


37. Michigan State 27, Wake Forest 21 (Dec. 27)

Amid one of the more aesthetically pleasing backdrops of bowl season, Wake and Michigan State played half of a Wake Forest game (41 first-half points) and half of a Michigan State game (seven second-half points). Three Jamie Newman touchdown passes gave Wake a halftime lead, but after Brian Lewerke and Cody White teamed up to give the Spartans an advantage early in the second half, the MSU defense took over. Wake gained just 101 yards after halftime, and State kneeled out a winning season.

36. Minnesota 31, Auburn 24 (Jan. 1)

It took some early smoke and mirrors to keep Auburn in the Outback Bowl --Javaris Davis' interception set up a field goal, then Noah Igbinoghene's kick return score put the Tigers up 10-3. But eventually Minnesota's offense, brilliant for most of 2019, won out. Mohamed Ibrahim and Rodney Smith combined for 209 rushing yards, and Tyler Johnson, in his final collegiate game, put Minnesota up with a 73-yard score early in the fourth quarter. The Gophers iced their 11th win by running out the final 8:38 of the game playing keep-away.

35. Arizona State 20, Florida State 14 (Dec. 31)

Bowls get bonus points from me when I can tell that both teams really want to win. A low bar? Maybe, but it is what it is. ASU's Sun Bowl win over Florida State was built around devastating mistakes -- the Seminoles outgained the Sun Devils by nearly 200 yards but stepped on an endless series of rakes along the way, committing six turnovers, plus a late turnover on downs and a missed field goal. Still, there was passion in this one. And also a 91-yard touchdown pass and a Frosted Flakes bath.

34. Arkansas State 34, Florida International 26 (Dec. 21)

They cared in the Camellia Bowl, too. Arkansas State was in control most of the way, but a late 13-0 run by FIU put the game in doubt before Darreon Jackson's game-clinching interception. We'll remember this game mostly for what it represented, however. Arkansas State head coach Blake Anderson lost his wife, Wendy, in August after her very public battle with breast cancer and took only the smallest leave of absence before rejoining his team in September.

The Camellia Bowl capped the most emotionally exhausting season anyone should ever have to go through, and you could see in the affection Anderson and his players showed to each other, just how much one last win meant.

33. Pitt 34, Eastern Michigan 30 (Dec. 26)

They perhaps cared a little too much in the Quick Lane Bowl. Pitt's Kenny Pickett and Taysir Mack connected for a 25-yard score with 47 seconds left to give the Panthers their first lead of the evening, and then things got weird. EMU quarterbackMike Glasscould only advance the Eagles to their own 40 as time began to expire, and then he made his final game extra memorable: He threw punches at two different Pitt players, accidentally connecting with a ref in the process. But hey, they can't suspend you if it's your last game, right?

32. Kent State 51, Utah State 41 (Dec. 20)

Barely a month earlier, Kent State was 3-6 and looking their seventh straight losing season square in the face. But after the miracle comeback against Buffalo, the Golden Flashes won two more tight games to finish 6-6. Then, they finished the run with their first ever bowl victory in the Tropical Smoothie Café Frisco Bowl. Against a USU team that also gave Akron its lone bowl win (and recently gave NMSU its first bowl win in nearly 60 years), the Flashes trailed heading into the fourth quarter but scored on their final four possessions. Dustin Crum's 4-yard keeper with 1:56 left capped this program-changing month. Commence smoothie bath.

31. Hawaii 38, BYU 34 (Dec. 24)

A perfect Christmas Eve distraction on the islands. Hawaii jumped to a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter, but BYU tied the game in the third quarter, then took the lead on a short field goal early in the fourth. Hawaii got the ball back with 2:01 remaining and drove 71 yards in just four plays. Nick Mardner put the Warriors ahead from 24 yards out, and though BYU would drive into Hawaii territory in the final minute, Khoury Bethley stepped in front of a Zach Wilson pass to give UH its 10th win of 2019.

30. Oregon 28, Wisconsin 27 (Jan. 1)

Playing with the Rose Bowl as your backdrop is a cheat code. It makes decent games good and good games great. This one would have been good in any venue, though. The game turned in Oregon's favor thanks to the worst quarter ofDanny Davis' career. The Wisconsin receiver lost a fumble midway through the fourth, and Justin Herbert's 30-yard run gave Oregon the lead on the next play. On Wisconsin's next possession, Davis slipped on his route on a third-down pass, and in the Badgers' final drive, he was called for a controversial offensive pass interference penalty that led to a punt. Oregon ran out the clock and moved to 12-2.

29. Navy 20, Kansas State 17 (Dec. 31)

In front of 50,000 in the Liberty Bowl, these teams put on perfect representations of themselves. Navy rushed for 323 yards and rendered Kansas State's offense inefficient, as the Midshipmen did to most teams this year. KSU, meanwhile, showed off the type of resourcefulness that allowed the Wildcats to beat Oklahoma and win four one-score games. It looked like we were heading to overtime as Navy hurried to attempt a fourth-down conversion from midfield in the closing seconds of regulation. But then the Midshipmen pulled off the most brilliant fourth-down attempt of 2019.

28. Kentucky 37, Virginia Tech 30 (Dec. 31)

A pregame scuffle assured that both teams were fired up from the get-go in the Belk Bowl, and the crowd was loud and active, as well. In Lynn Bowden Jr.'s last game as Kentucky's unexpected QB and Bud Foster's last game as Virginia Tech's Hall of Fame defensive coordinator, it was the former who eventually got the upper hand. Bowden, one of the most unique players in recent college football history, rushed 34 times for 233 yards and two scores, then threw the game-winning touchdown pass with 15 seconds left.


27. Louisiana 31, UL Monroe 30 (Nov. 30)

For the third straight year, the Battle on the Bayou came down to the wire. Louisiana led by scores of 7-0, 14-7, 21-14 and 28-21, but Austin Vaughn's 11-yard run with 7:56 left gave the underdog Warhawks a 30-28 lead. Jared Porter missed the PAT, however, and Stevie Artigue's 27-yard field goal with 1:21 left gave the Cajuns the lead again. With one last chance, ULM drove the length of the field ... but Porter missed a 35-yard field goal wide left. #CollegeKickers

26. Virginia 39, Virginia Tech 30 (Nov. 29)

Virginia clinched its first ACC Coastal title with its first win over Tech since 2003. It was anything but easy. UVA went up 13-3 on two long Bryce Perkins runs, but Tech responded with a 24-7 run to take a lead into the fourth quarter. A Wayne Taulapapa TD run tied the game, and after the teams traded field goals, UVA's Noah Taylor picked off a Hendon Hooker pass at the UVA 35.Brian Delaney, who missed a PAT early in the game, bombed in a 48-yard field goal with 1:23 left, then Mandy Alonso sacked Hooker and stripped the ball away in the end zone. Eli Hanback recovered for the touchdown to ice the game and the division. Time to rush the field.

25. Indiana 44, Purdue 41 (Nov. 30)

A key early red zone turnover, four combined missed field goals, touchdown passes of 20, 37 and 72 yards, a lead blown in the final minutes, two huge third-and-long conversions in overtime to set up the eventual win ... this game was just exhausting. But Indiana, victim of three of the missed FGs and the blown lead, somehow came away with the victory, which kept Purdue from bowl eligibility and gave the Hoosiers their first eight-win season in 26 years.

24. UNLV 33, Nevada 30 (Nov. 30)

UNLV played inspired early ball in fired coach Tony Sanchez's last game, surging to a 17-0 lead on two long touchdowns. The Rebels still led 27-13 in the fourth quarter when Nevada made its move. The Wolf Pack scored on two long drives to force overtime, then went ahead with a 42-yard field goal. But Kenyon Oblad and Steve Jenkins connected for a 19-yard score and a UNLV win. And then ... chaos. Nevada defender Austin Arnold sucker punched Oblad during the celebration and a brawl broke out.

23. Mississippi State 21, Ole Miss 20 (Nov. 28)

It was the last Egg Bowl for both head coaches -- Ole Miss' Matt Luke was fired three days later, MSU's Joe Moorhead was done in a month after that -- and it was one of the zaniest in the history of a zany rivalry. Ole Miss' final drive encapsulated it all. Down 21-14, the Rebels converted a fourth-and-24 on a 57-yard strike from Matt Corral to Braylon Sanders, then advanced to the MSU 2 on three penalties.

On third-and-goal with four seconds left, Corral connected withElijah Moorefor the touchdown. Moore then became the second Ole Miss touchdown-scorer in three years (after DK Metcalf in 2017) to imitate a peeing dog in celebration. He was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and, backed up 15 yards, Luke Logan missed the extra point. MSU retained the Golden Egg.

Only in college football does anything in that previous paragraph make even the slightest bit of sense.


22. Georgia Southern 30, Coastal Carolina 27 (Oct. 19)

While this game was certainly tense and interesting -- the defenses took over after some early scores, the game went to OT at 10-10, and we needed three OTs before Georgia Southern could ice the game on a Wesley Kennedy III touchdown run -- I am once again not above assigning loads of bonus points. And this game gets all the bonus points for being the only one, to my knowledge, that not only featured a "Mo Bamba" dance-off between quarters, but also led to three ejections because the refs did not like the "Mo Bamba" dance-off and gave everybody unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.

If I were in charge of SportsCenter, this would have been the lead story for days.

21. Pitt 35, UCF 34 (Sept. 21)

UCF's first regular-season loss in nearly three years came in Pittsburgh ... with help from (no matter what Pitt tried to call it) the Philly Special. Who said rival cities can't work together? After spotting Pitt a 21-0 lead, UCF made a UCF-like run, scoring 31 points in 14 minutes to seize control. But a fourth-down stuff bought Pitt time, and down 34-28 with 59 seconds left, facing a fourth down from the UCF 3, Pitt got tricky.

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