College football rankings: The 12 best games of the season to date


Michigan and Michigan State engaged in an instant classic at Spartan Stadium on Saturday, worthy of the top 10 hype it received. The game had it all — big plays, big performances by star players, momentum swings, a frenzied crowd, questionable calls and an outcome that went down to the wire.

Here at Sporting News, we were wondering if it was the best game of the season. The elements that go into a ‘best’ game — pregame hype, atmosphere, on-field drama, landscape-altering result — are weighed into determining what games have been the best in the 2021 season.

MORE: OU gets bad spot in first CFP rankings | Bowl projections | Heisman race

Here’s our list:

1 – No. 6 Oklahoma 55, No. 21 Texas 48 (Oct. 9)

This game will be remembered as the dawn of the Caleb Williams era, as the freshman Oklahoma QB came off the bench to rally the Sooners from a 28-7 deficit at a jam-packed Cotton Bowl. His fourth-quarter, 52-yard pass to Marvin Mims to tie the game 41-41 was the stuff of legend, and Kennedy Brooks’ game-winning 33-yard touchdown run with three seconds left was a stunning end to possibly the Best Red River Showdown ever.

2 – No. 8 Michigan State 37, No. 6 Michigan 33 (Oct. 30)

We wanted a Big Ten slugfest, and that’s exactly what we got. As the weather got worse, the game got better. The teams battled under cool gray skies, then mist, then rain and needed all four quarters to settle this neighborhood feud. Kenneth Walker III made his Heisman case with 197 yards and five TDs, Michigan brilliantly put itself in position to get past its big game jinx, until it didn’t, and the green team danced off with a statue of Paul Bunyan and a still-undefeated record.

BENDER: Heat back on Harbaugh after collapse vs. MSU

3 – Texas A&M 41, No. 1 Alabama 38 (Oct. 10)

It’s usually stop-the-presses time when Alabama loses a game, anyway, but this one was especially thrilling and ended on the game’s final play. Texas A&M trailed 38-31 with five minutes left, then took over in front of its wild 106,815 fans. Zach Calzada capped a 65-yard drive with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Ainias Smith. And then after a three-and-out by Bama, the Aggies marched right back down the field for a walk-off field goal, making Jimbo Fisher’s summer boast to boosters about beating Nick Saban a reality.


4 – No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 11 Florida 29 (Sept. 18)

After falling behind 21-3 in the first quarter, the Gators would not quit against the nation’s top-ranked team. Behind quarterback Emory Jones and a fierce rushing attack, Florida did not stop coming and eventually had a shot to tie the game on a two-point conversion with 3:10 to play. The Alabama defense stuffed Malik Davis to preserve the win, and the Tide left a spent Swamp knowing it had been pushed to the edge.

MORE: Week 10’s picks against the spread

5 – No. 12 Oregon 35, No. 3 Ohio State 28 (Sept. 11)

Another stop-the-presses moment is when Ohio State loses at home, which is exactly what happened when one of the most discussed games of the summer delivered on its promise in Week 2. Oregon, down two critical defensive pieces in DE Kayvon Thibodeaux and LB Justin Flowe, ended the Buckeyes 24-game home winning streak. CJ Verdell ran for 161 yards and three touchdowns and Oregon picked off freshman QB C.J. Stroud to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter.

MORE: Oregon upset a long time coming for Pac-12

6 – No. 17 Ole Miss 52, No. 13 Arkansas 51 (Oct. 9)

There were 1,271 yards and 14 touchdowns in this one, the last of which came on the final play of the game when Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson hit Warren Thompson from nine yards out. Rather than go to overtime, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman went for the win. Jefferson was pressured and the two-point play never really had a chance. Ole Miss had three 50-plus-yard touchdowns in the game against an Arkansas defense that had given up just 19 point per game to that point.  

7 – Fresno State 40, No. 13 UCLA 37 (Sept. 18)

We’re not forgetting our friends on the West Coast. UCLA entered this one fresh off an upset of LSU and had some buzz, but the Bulldogs proved to be too much. There were four lead changes in the final 7:27 at the Rose Bowl. UCLA took a 37-33 lead with 54 seconds left. But limping Fresno QB Jake Haener drove the Bulldogs 75 yards and threw a game-winning 13-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left to steal the win.

8 – NC State 27, No. 9 Clemson 21 (2 OTs) (Sept. 25)

We didn’t know Clemson wasn’t Clemson yet, since the Tigers were still riding a six-year string of ACC championships. NC State was in position to end an eight-game losing streak to Clemson in regulation, but Christopher Dunn missed a 39-yard field goal on the final play. After an exchange of touchdowns in the first overtime, Devin Leary hit Devin Carter for a 22-yard touchdown. When D.J. Uiagalelei’s fourth-down pass hit the turf in the second overtime, Wolfpack fans stormed the field.

9 – Stanford 31, No. 3 Oregon 24 (OT) (Oct. 2)

Oregon looked like it would move to 5-0 with a sluggish win at Stanford, but the Cardinal drove 87 yards in the final 1:52 to send the game into overtime. Regulation was extended one untimed play because of a defensive holding call in the end zone with no time left. Stanford QB Tanner McKee hit Elijiah Higgins on a fade to force OT, then hit John Humphreys in overtime for another touchdown. When Oregon’s fourth-down pass fell incomplete on its possession, Stanford students rushed the field to celebrate the 15.5-point upset.

10 – No. 3 Iowa 23, No. 4 Penn State 20 (Oct. 9)

Yes, these two have fallen on hard times since that game in Iowa City, but what a 60 minutes it was for the two undefeated teams. Iowa, the team that makes its living off defense and turnovers, came up with four interceptions and had enough offense to erase a 17-3 deficit. Penn State QB Sean Clifford was injured with the Nittany Lions leading 17-10, and PSU gained just 48 yards on its final 11 possessions with backup Ta’Quan Roberson at the helm. A 44-yard touchdown pass from Spencer Petras to Nico Ragaini with 6:26 left was the game-winner, and a joyous Iowa crowd celebrated on the turf afterward.

11 – No. 9 Notre Dame 41, Florida State 38 (OT) (Sept. 5)

The Irish and Seminoles had the Sunday night of Labor Day weekend to themselves, and the nation was treated to a thriller in an emotional night in Tallahassee. It was the first home game with a full house since 2019 and the first since legend Bobby Bowden passed away on Aug. 8. Notre Dame came out firing and carried a 38-20 lead into the fourth quarter. But Florida State rallied, largely from some nifty playing by backup quarterback McKenzie Milton, whose gruesome leg injury he suffered at UCF kept him off the field for almost three years. An FSU field goal with 40 seconds left forced overtime, but Notre Dame prevailed with a walk-off field goal after the Noles missed a kick on their first overtime possession.

MORE: Milton’s feel-good story for FSU comes up just short

12 – No. 16 Wake Forest 70, Army 56 (Oct. 23)

Everybody likes offense, right? There were 18 touchdowns in this game, which is more than 10 teams have scored all season. The third quarter alone featured four scoring plays of over 70 yards, including an 83-yard interception return by Wake’s Treveon Redd that confirmed there were actually defenses on the field. The fourth quarter saw six more touchdowns, and the Deacons left West Point with their undefeated season in tact after averaging a mind-boggling 12.3 yards per play.

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