Non-college athletes can only imagine the minutes before an 18-year-old kid’s first football game at the collegiate level. With all due respect to big-time high school football programs, for those who play Division 1 college football, this truly is their first experience with “The big leagues.” With any luck, these players will spend the next 3-4 years playing in one of the most unique sports environments in the world. Long before the NFL dominated the sports landscape, college football was king of the football world.
Filled with intense rivalries, ever-changing rosters, and players playing purely for the love of the game, those who watch college football for the first time quickly fall in love with it. Throughout its rich history, the game has had countless moments which will never be forgotten. While it would be impossible to chronicle every memorable moment in college football‘s rich history, this list will attempt to rank the 14 Most Insane Moments to ever occur in college football. These moments include great games, outrageous out of game conduct, political and criminal scandals, and of course amazing plays and players.
Added importance has been placed on moments which have had so great an impact as to change the college football landscape itself. Though not meant to be comprehensive, I feel that this list really sums up the heart and soul of football at the collegiate level. Any statistics used in this list are taken from ESPN, while Pro Football Talk has been consulted for first-hand accounts of moments which I did not personally witness.
14. 2011 Big 12 Title Game
The most insane college football moment that I have personally witnessed live was the second to last Big 12 Title game in 2009 between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and Texas Longhorns.
Down two with less than three minutes left to go, Longhorns legend Colt McCoy was seeking to drive his team into winning field goal range. Prior to the drive, the Cornhuskers defense, led by future 2nd overall pick Ndamukong Suh had stifled the Horns’ normally potent offense. On this drive, however, McCoy was able to move Texas down the field close to field goal range. Trying to secure an easier kick for placekicker Hunter Lawrence, Longhorns head coach tried to run another play which McCoy ended up throwing deep out of bounds.
At this point, all hell broke loose in the arena. At the end of the play, the stadium playclock went all the way down to zero. The Nebraska players and coaches instantly started celebrating while Mack Brown and the Texas bench claimed that one second should have been left on the clock. After a series of reviews, the referees decided that the McCoy pass had hit the first down marker slightly out of bounds, thus that was the play’s conclusion. As such, one second was put back on the clock allowing Lawrence to kick the game-winning field goal, giving Texas the 13-12 win. The immensity of this game combined with the pandemonium at the end makes this one of the most insane moments in college football history.
13. Oregon’s 2010 Fast-Paced Offense
A Big 4 sports commissioner was once asked what he would like to see from his respective sports that upcoming season. His quick response was “Points, points, points, points.” Something about a plethora of quick scores appeals to the casual sports fan in a way that little else does, thus drastically increasing the revenue this sport experiences. Under this theory, college football must have experienced quite the influx in 2010 when the Oregon Ducks offense led by coach Chip Kelly went absolutely wild.
Led by first-time started Darron Thomas and eventual Doak Walker winner LaMichael James, the Ducks this year were putting up point numbers and time of possession times which were stunning. The best part of any Saturday night SportsCenter became seeing how many points Oregon had put up during the day and watching the duck mascot do enough pushups to make viewers’ arms hurt (the duck does a pushup for each point scored). The fast-paced offense combined with Oregon’s many uniform choices made them just plain fun to watch. In 2010 everything seemed to come together for the Ducks in such a fun way as to put them on our list here at #13.
12. & 11. Miami vs Florida State: “Wide Right” I and II
As discussed earlier, one of the things that makes college football so special is the heat which develops between rival schools. Often times this heat is even more pronounced when two schools are geographically near to one another. This causes them to compete with each other not only on the field but also in terms of recruits and fans.
The prominent rivalry of this type in the early ’90s was the University of Miami Hurricanes and Florida State University Seminoles. The most insane moments to form out of this heated rivalry come off as a bad ’80s action movie sequel (appropriately starring Steven Seagal); Wide Right I and Wide Right II.
These moments were insane not only for their involvement in a preeminent rivalry but because of the National Title implications which were apparent in the game even at the time. As two of the major powerhouses in college football at the time, both of these times (as well as the media) knew that barring a later upset, the winner of each of these games would later find themselves in the National Championship game. This would later prove true as Miami would go on to appear in both National Championships the year these games occurred.
Without going into the specifics of the game itself, just know that late in the 4th quarter, Florida St. had a chance to win (or tie in the 1992 season) with a closing minutes field goal. In 1991, placekicker Gerry Thomas missed a chip-shot 34 yarder which would have given the Seminoles a two-point lead with less than 30 seconds left. Instead, Miami would go on to win by one and claim the National Championship later that year. The following year, new kicker Dan Mowrey would miss a 39-yard last second field goal which would have tied the game for FSU. As the name suggests, Mowrey’s field goal would veer to the right much in the way of Thomas’ creating an eerie sense of déjà vu for Seminole fans. Here you have two closely contest games between the members of a heated interconference rivalry with National Championship implications and last second antics which both end in almost the exact same way. Insane.
10. Legarrette Blount Lays Out Byron Hout
Sometimes the most insane moments in sports aren’t miraculous plays or spectacular performances but rather moments which no one saw coming. One such moment occurred in week 1 of the 2009 college football season in a game between the Oregon Ducks and Boise St. Broncos. Boise St. had just won the game 19-8, further cementing their status as NCAA’s Cinderella darlings. Prior to the game, when asked about a past season loss to Boise St., Blount opinioned that the boys in blue were due for an “ass-whoopin.” Following the win, Boise St. star linebacker Byron Hout approached Blount and stated “How’s that for an ass-whoopin?” A few moments later, as Hout reached center field with every camera of a prime-time game trained on him, Blount approached him and punched him in the jaw, knocking him to the ground. Blount then proceeded to punch one of his own teammates in the helmet who was trying to restrain him. Blount was eventually restrained and later suspended for his senior year. However, the game’s immense media coverage along with Blount’s outrageous conduct unfortunately makes this one of college football’s most lasting images.
9. Hail Mary
Anyone who has played a football video game knows that sometimes you just have to throw it up. Appropriately named, a Hail Mary play is typically a passing play at the end of a game where the quarterback waits until his receivers are in the end zone, and then throws a jump ball in the slim hope that his receiver will come down with it. Perhaps due to the added importance placed on athleticism in the college game, a Hail Mary is much more common than in the pro game. Due to the plethora of these amazing plays, it is hard to pinpoint just one for this list. Whether it be Doug Flutie‘s miracle toss for Boston College, or the huge throw by Ben Roethlisberger in 2003 that skyrocketed his draft status, college football’s love of the Hail Mary finds itself on our list at #9.
8. “Statue of Liberty” Play Against Oklahoma
If you’re going to talk about great plays in college football, you would be remiss not to include the famed “Statue of Liberty” play which occurred in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl between the Oklahoma Sooners and Boise St. Broncos. Featuring one of college football’s juggernauts versus the newest Cinderella darling, this game was close throughout and eventually headed into overtime tied 35-35.
Oklahoma would receive the ball first and quickly scored a touchdown and the ensuing extra point. Boise St. similarly scored, however, rather than tie and enter the second overtime, Coach Chris Petersen elected to go for the two point conversion and either win or lose the entire game on the ensuing play. Like something scripted for Hollywood, the Broncos would elect to use in this pivotal moment a “trick play” which they had never used in game then or since.
The “Statue of Liberty” play calls for the running back to stand immobile in the backfield for the first few moments while the quarterback throws a fake pass into the end zone with his right hand. Almost simultaneously, the quarterback uses his left hand to handoff the ball to the running back headed left. In this instance the play worked spectacularly with running back Ian Johnson running untouched into the end zone, converting the two point conversion and giving the Broncos the win. This straight up ballsy call by Coach Peterson has gone down as one of the great moments in college football, and goes down on our list of college football’s most insane moments.
7. Cornhuskers Crowd Crowns Ricky Williams
Advocates of college football will tell you that one of its many highlights is the season long race for the Heisman trophy. Whether the stakes are higher due to a limited playing career (most players only receive a max of 4 years eligibility) or because each game is especially vital due to the large number of college football teams and therefore contenders, the Heisman trophy race just seems bigger than the NFL MVP.
One of the defining moments in the history of the Heisman trophy occurred in a game between the Texas Longhorns and Nebraska Cornhuskers in 1998 in Nebraska Memorial Stadium. At the time, Nebraska had a 47 game at-home winning streak, and Longhorns running back Ricky Williams was the front runner in a closely contested Heisman race. However, during this game, Williams dominated the Huskers’ vaunted defense so badly that he won over the rival crowd.
Despite the deep animosity between the two fan bases, after Williams led Texas to a 20-16 victory the Nebraska home crowd started a deafening “Heisman” chant. Williams would later go on the win that year’s Heisman trophy, cementing the great respect shown to him by the Nebraska fans as one of the most insane moments ever in college football.
6. Appalachian State Upsets Michigan
Some of you may have noticed that the preeminent college football programs often schedule “tune-up” games against supposedly inferior teams in the first few weeks of the season. However, part of the magic of college football is that these games don’t always turn out how these preeminent programs envisioned. This was never more true than in 2007 when the number 5 ranked Michigan Wolverines were upset by Division II school Appalachian St.
Despite being an FCS powerhouse, Appalachian St. was viewed as such an underdog that the game was not even available on the Las Vegas betting lines. Despite this, the Mountaineers were almost unstoppable on offense, to the tune of a 34-32 victory which clinched one of the greatest upsets in college football history and #6 on our list of insane college football moments.
5. Ernie Davis Wins Heisman Trophy
To understand certain moments in sports, it is important to understand the political and cultural climate in which the moment occurred. Such is the case for #5 on our list, when Ernie Davis became the first African American to win college footballs most prestigious prize, the Heisman trophy. The year is 1961, and schools in the U.S. are almost uniformly segregated. Four years earlier, Davis’ predecessor at running back, Jim Brown, had left Syracuse for the NFL. Previously in 1956, Brown was not named the Heisman winner largely due to his race, and was drafted by the Cleveland Browns after Washington Redskins owner traded the 6th overall pick because he refused to draft a black man to his team.
Going into this climate, Davis was able to dominate the college football scene. Despite numerous attempted assaults and death threats in places like West Virginia and Texas, Davis was able to rush for over 6 yards a carry in his senior year. This all culminated with him being named the 1961 Heisman winner beating the four other white finalists. The abrupt end to Davis’ NFL career does not prevent this moment from being one of the most insane and momentous moments in college football history.
4. Auburn vs Alabama: “Kick Six”
One way I think that college football is superior to the NFL is that the fans and players genuinely care about rivalry games. The fact that most of a team’s schedule consists of interconference games creates an atmosphere where certain games can be marked down on the calendar every year. While there are many great rivalries in college football, this moment derives from the annual Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn.
In 2015, Alabama was ranked #1 in the nation and was a two time reigning national champion. The game itself was highly entertaining, however, the moment that finds itself on this list is the final play.
With 1 second remaining in regulation, ‘Bama and Auburn were tied 28-28. Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban elected to attempt a 57-yard game winning field goal. Prior to this, Alabama had run a running play with future NFLer T.J. Yeldon and the game clock had expired. However, Saban had controversially convinced the referees that Yeldon has stepped out of bounds with one second remaining, giving Alabama the chance to kick the game winning field goal. The kick, however, would fall just short into the arms of Auburn kick returner Chris Davis in the very back of the Auburn end–zone. Davis would then take this kick back an astounding 109 yards, winning the game and ending Alabama’s hopes for a third straight national title.
This play was replayed constantly on ESPN in the following weeks and local Auburn radio commentators calls of the play are the stuff of YouTube legend. The level of drama involved in this play, combined with its stakes in regards to Alabama’s dynasty, places the “Kick Six” in the upper echelon of college football’s most insane plays.
3. Texas Defeats USC in 2006 Rose Bowl National Championship
A common argument for detractors of college football is the lack of drama often associated with the National Championship game. The high-level of disparity which exists in college football along with top heavy “super conferences” often causes NCAA’s greatest prize to be decided in a blowout. However, this was most certainly not the case in the 2006 Rose Bowl between the USC Trojans and Texas Longhorns. To understand the immensity of this game at the time, you must first understand the build up leading into it.
At this time USC was the pinnacle of college football (think the current Alabama Crimson Tide mixed with Hollywood). They had a Heisman winning quarterback, a Heisman winning running back a star-studded defense and a highly regarded coach. Texas, thought to be the inferior team, was undefeated on the year through the work of their stifling defense and do-it-all quarterback Vince Young. Surprising to many, the game was close throughout, containing several lead changes and countless heroics.
The 2006 Rose Bowl earned its spot on this list in the final minutes. Down four points, Young led the Longhorns 44 yards in less than two minutes for the game winning touchdown. Capped by an incredible nine-yard run on 4th and 5, this game cemented Young’s legacy as one of the greatest college football players ever and cemented this championship as one of college football’s most insane moments.
2. Penn State Jerry Sandusky Scandal
Easily the saddest moment on our list, #2 is truly one that rocked the college football landscape. In 2011 it became widely publicized that longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky had been indicted on 40 counts of sex crimes against young boys. Coverage of the trial would transform from the story of a disgraced former coach to a top-to-bottom organization scandal which revealed several persons within Penn State who ignored or downright covered up longstanding allegations against Sandusky.
This scandal would lead to the forced retirement of famed Head Coach Joe Paterno (and many would speculate also his immediate death) and brought down heavy sanctions on the Penn State football program. Since the Sandusky scandal changed the very landscape of college football, it is only appropriate that it finds itself on our list at #2.
1. Cal vs Stanford: “The Band is on the Field”
The moment which tops our list at #1 is not only the most insane moment in college football history, but also of one of the most memorable moments in sports period. Affectionately called “The Play” the video clip from this game and the following madness has been played over and over on countless highlight reels for years. As insane as it is iconic, this play is everything you should love about college football and sports in general. In a game between two actually mediocre teams, Stanford had taken a one point lead with four seconds left to play.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Cal Golden Bears used no less than five lateral passes to score the game winning touchdown in a 25-20 victory. Ironically (or should I say iconically) members of the Stanford band began to run on the field mid-play thinking that the game had ended in favor of their team. Radio announcer Joe Starkey himself got all caught up in the play, famously announcing “Oh, the band is out on the field! He’s gonna go into the end zone! He got into the end zone!” Stanford continues to contest the legitimacy of two out of the five laterals, however, this play has truly became a legend of sports, and the most insane moment in the history of college football.