THE GAME OF THE CENTURY is one of college football’s many weird terms that kind of feels like it has a definition, but does not. For one example of the comedy, look how valiantly the trope’s Wiki page tries to explain itself.
Basically, if enough people call a game by that name, then that is that game’s name. We could even do it with UMass-Akron if we wanted.
So let’s try a formal definition, which would fit nearly all the games traditionally assigned this handle: regular season games pitting AP #1 against AP #2.
Later eras of college football arrange such games in the postseason, but postseason games don’t count because those are games OF THE YEAR, not OF THE CENTURY.
The other wrinkle: modern CFB has multiple overlapping rankings, with the BCS/CFP taking clear priority over the AP. However, for historical consistency, let’s try sticking with the AP throughout.
This gives us a long list of games! The irony of the term is that, just as individual seasons can have multiple champions, an individual century will have multiple GAMES OF THE CENTURY. But we can still thin the herd by categorizing these games via the test of time.
The first group of games! Even players on the field agreed these two games were frustrating wastes of energy:
Split national titles have been with college football since literally the beginning, usually resulting from the two or three best teams not facing each other. So when the two co-champs did play each other and still could resolve nothing, we were at peak college football.
When people complain about some Big Ten West game with 16 punts, remind them the following parallel-parking exhibitions are considered classic matches:
- 1946 Army 0, Notre Dame 0, which reigning Heisman winner Doc Blanchard of Army called “dull as hell” after being held to 50 yards. Weeks after bombarding the box office and filling national headlines, the rivals announced they were taking a break from each other. Thank them for doing so.
- 1966 Notre Dame 10, Michigan State 10, as the Irish stopped trying to win because they correctly assumed poll voters would have their backs, making for just about the only time in college football history that the AP Poll actively hurt college football.
These storied, loud, profitable nothings are part of a non-satisfying lineage going back to 1882.
Not ultimately all that competitive, so what was all the fuss about?
- 1943 Notre Dame 35, Michigan 12: These Irish would’ve had a Best Team Ever case, if not for a loss at the buzzer (to be discussed later on). Michigan finished #3, but the team that finished #2 behind the Irish likewise appears later in this post.
- 1944 Army 23, Navy 7 is one of a few games with the amplified nickname THE ORIGINAL GAME OF THE CENTURY, the Pokemon GX evolution of THE GAME OF THE CENTURY, a title that evidently does not always mean much. My thoughtcrime: Navy entered at 6-2, while Army had obliterated everything by an average of 60-4. Of course it was a mismatch. We should’ve saved the nickname for a year at least.
- A week prior to 1945 Army 48, Notre Dame 0, #2 Notre Dame tied #3 Navy. So what does the transitive property tell you about how #1 Army vs. #2 Navy was likely to go?
- Probably something like 1945 Army 32, Navy 13.
- 1963 Texas 28, Oklahoma 7 was 21-0 with 17 minutes to go by the time the Sooners scored. The fun wrinkle: the Sooners entered at #1. The Horns later blew out #2 Navy (apologies to Navy for this section) in the Cotton Bowl after already receiving the national title, because that’s how polls worked.
- 1988 Notre Dame 27, USC 10: The only teams to challenge Tony Rice’s Irish were final #2 Miami and final #4 Michigan, while the Trojans had struggled with a typically bad Stanford. I guess that was our warning.
- 2006 Ohio State 24, Texas 7: The Horns lost this game 245 days prior, when Vince Young announced his exit for the NFL.
Neither team would go on to claim the national title anyway, so what was all the fuss about?
- 1935 Notre Dame 18, Ohio State 13: Technically, right before our AP Poll criteria could’ve applied, but historians agree this counts as a GOTC, possibly even originating the term. It was an enormous to-do! The first-ever meeting between the sport’s biggest deal and a rising heavyweight with billions of fans! Ohio Stadium could’ve doubled in size and still filled up! After winning one of the biggest events in the history of American team sports to that point, Notre Dame ... immediately lost at home to a Northwestern that went 2-3-1 in the Big Ten.
- 1968 Purdue 37, Notre Dame 22: They say the ‘60s were wild! Purdue started #1 after losing to Oregon State and Indiana the year prior! But the party always ends. Purdue would then get blanked by national champ Ohio State.
- 1981 USC 28, Oklahoma 24 was followed by both participants losing three games each, helping pave the way for Clemson’s first title.
- 1985 Iowa 12, Michigan 10: Yes, Iowa’s tradition of ruining title shots while deriving no personal gain from the process, all strictly out of the coldness of its heart, goes back a ways.
- After 1986 Miami 28, Oklahoma 16, we’d get a rare pre-1990s #1-vs.-#2 bowl game. You know, the one in which Joe Paterno’s Penn State was presented as the antithesis of everything bad (Miami) about college football.
- I believe 1987 Oklahoma 17, Nebraska 7 was the first game to earn the nickname GAME OF THE CENTURY II, though that — like everything else in this sport — later became disputed IP. In this rivalry, the first one had far more staying power, because both the Sooners and Huskers would then lose their ‘87 bowl games.
- 1989 Notre Dame 24, Michigan 19 would’ve ended up a much bigger deal if the Irish hadn’t later lost by 17 to Miami (or if Michigan hadn’t lose the Rose Bowl). The Canes managed to go from #7 to #1 in just two games to close the season.
- In one scenario, 2006 Ohio State 42, Michigan 39 was merely to decide which of the two rivals would carry the #1 ranking into their immediate BCS Championship rematch. Instead, Florida strength-of-schedule’d its way in over Michigan, so Ohio State chose to skip the title game out of solidarity.
Seemed like a really big deal! But then there was an even bigger sequel.
- 1996 Florida State 24, Florida 21
- 2011 LSU 9, Alabama 6: Game of the century! Says so right here:
Each of these led to a rematch in which the losing rival delivered a gruesome comeuppance and took home the national title. Oh, all of that also applies here:
- 1869 Rutgers 6, Princeton 4
So here are five GAMES OF THE CENTURY OF THE CENTURY.
- In 1943 Notre Dame 14, Iowa Pre-Flight 13, the troops prepared to beat the Axis by nearly beating the Irish. The Seahawks, who bunked on the Iowa Hawkeyes’ campus, were the best of several pop-up military schools during World War II, including multiple NFL players on the roster and coached by triple-option father Don Faurot and future national champs Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson.
I dub this THE WARGAME OF THE CENTURY.
One week later, North Chicago’s unranked Great Lakes Navy Bluejackets would avenge their aquatic brethren, giving one of Notre Dame’s best teams ever its only loss of the year.
The story continues through today. While the country’s best college football team was struggling against pre-sailors, the United States Navy was propping up the University of Notre Dame’s wartime finances by renting its facilities for use as training centers. Notre Dame has repaid Navy ever since with a lucrative spot on the Irish football schedule.
- As one of several tactics chosen in order to court Southern voters (...), attendee President Nixon announced he’d declare the winner of 1969 Texas 15, Arkansas 14 the national champ, a power that is not vested by the Constitution, which never really stopped him anyway.
This game piled storylines on top of the football to a dizzying degree. The backdrop included Nixon’s involvement in the Vietnam War, the fact that it was one of the final super-prominent games between segregated teams, national superstar Billy Graham delivering a pregame prayer, Nixon’s travel being rerouted by harsh weather, the whole thing having been rescheduled from October by TV exec Beano Cook, and #3 Penn State being declared out of the title race by the president.
And this could be called THE GAME OF THE LITERAL CENTURY, since the 100th anniversary of Rutgers playing Princeton in extra-violent soccer was a thing all year.
Oh, right a game was played. Tom Campbell sealed it with a late interception.
- If I had to pick just one game to call THE ACTUAL GAME OF THE CENTURY, I would go with 1971 Nebraska 35, Oklahoma 31.
These Huskers are my pick for the best era-adjusted, non-World War college football team ever, OU was the only team in the country with a prayer of challenging them, and challenge they did.
- 1991 Miami 17, Florida State 16 already has a more specific name than THE GAME OF THE CENTURY: this is WIDE RIGHT I, not to be confused with several subsequent WIDE RIGHTs and a WIDE LEFT or two, as FSU would spend years spraying massively consequential field goals in every direction against the Canes. The list of special teams debacles in this rivalry is to be beheld.
Before this season, the NCAA had narrowed all goal post uprights by roughly 147 centimeters. If not for the timing of that ruling, Washington would be your undisputed 1991 national champ (because FSU was set to lose at Florida the next week anyway, unless you’d also like to change that game).
Because of those adjusted uprights, I declare this game THE CENTIMETERS OF THE CENTURY.
- 1993 Notre Dame 31, Florida State 24 was perhaps THE GAME OF THE TELEVISION CENTURY, or something like that. This was the first College GameDay game and gave us possibly the most overly wrought sports broadcast intro of all time:
FSU would rebound to win the title thanks to Boston College beating Notre Dame, though the Irish still have a reasonable case, should they ever choose to make it.
We’ll see where this one ends up!
- 2019 LSU 46, Alabama 41: Here’s where the AP-only stipulation applies, because Ohio State was #1 in the Playoff rankings at the time. On the field, this game ruled!
We’ll update this the next time our century produces its one and only GAME OF THE CENTURY.
For the complete opposite end of the spectrum, please review the 44 LAMES OF THE CENTURY, or the times when the two worst teams in FBS faced each other.