The thousands of college football games from 2010 to 2019 took on many shapes.
Some turned on brilliant feats, like Christian McCaffrey running through Iowa like it wasn’t there. Or on savvy play-calling, like the time North Texas had a punt returner pretend he’d called a fair catch. Or a mix, like the time Auburn sent a fast guy back to catch a field goal. And some were just messes, like TCU’s victory in the 2018 Cheez-It Bowl.
The thing these games have in common is that we were captivated by them. Keep that in mind as you read through this index of plays that made the 2010s tick. These moments were stunning, but in extremely different ways.
This list is the product of staff brainstorming and a survey we sent around to some friends in the Banner Society Slack channel. (Sign up here!) We do not claim this is an exhaustive list, and while we’ve tried to avoid making it too Power 5 heavy, that was hard to avoid in a couple of spots. Add more great moments in the comments!
- Week 3: Michigan State zapping Notre Dame with an overtime fake field goal
The Spartans called the play “Little Giants,” because it shared loose similarities with The Annexation of Puerto Rico, the trick play from “Little Giants.” Within a few hours of making that call, Mark Dantonio had a heart attack, which he survived.
- Week 8: Cam Newton’s defining play
Newton was the closest thing college football’s had to a one-man national championship. He graced Auburn with that championship. Here, imagine what would’ve happened if he’d chosen not to.
- Week 13: Nevada beating Boise State with a last-second field goal that didn’t look like a made field goal
This knocked Boise State out of the BCS title race, right when the Broncos appeared to have the best-ever shot of any non-power to make it. It turned out the Broncos wouldn’t have anyway, but that doesn’t detract from the upset pulled by Colin Kaepernick’s Wolf Pack.
- Week 13: Oklahoma State’s tip drill pick against Oklahoma
That is especially illustrative of the 2010s, because a) Oklahoma State did something fun, and b) Oklahoma still won “Bedlam.”
- BCS Championship: “Michael Dyer Was Down”
Actually, Dyer was not down, according to experts on the parts of his body people like to claim were down. Take your beef up with the Yale and Wash U doctors in that post.
- Week 8: Michigan State beating Wisconsin on a reviewed Hail Mary
Wisconsin took revenge in the Big Ten Championship, when Russell Wilson hit on a Hail Mary-ish fourth-and-six to set up a Badgers win:
- Week 10: LSU’s chip shot to end the Game of the Century of the year
That would be LSU’s last win against Alabama until the end of this post. Memories of this game helped spawn years of people talking themselves into LSU again beating Alabama. It turned out “getting a good offense” would be the thing.
- Week 11: One of the most stunning punt returns ever, via Arkansas’ Joe Adams and the Tennessee coverage unit
- Week 12: Case McCoy’s scramble through Texas A&M to set up a winning field goal
Two things here are very 2010s: a) realignment causing the end of a great rivalry, and b) Texas being a lesser version of its old self.
- Orange Bowl: West Virginia’s 99-yard fumble return against Clemson, one of the last bad things to happen to Clemson before it became Clemson
The Mountaineers won by a preposterous 70-33 score. That pushed the Tigers to fire defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Dabo Swinney then hired Brent Venables, the architect of Clemson’s many Playoff defenses. Steele found his way to Auburn, where he redeemed himself with several solid seasons.
- Week 9: Gio Bernard ruins NC State with (basically) a walk-off punt return
- Week 10: Braxton Miller, glitching video game character and TD-scorer
- Week 11: “Snap from Patrick Lewis. Four-man Alabama rush. Got ‘eem. No, they didn’t! Oh, my gracious! How about that?”
This decade was Verne Lundquist’s last in the play-by-play chair for the SEC on CBS. This is nowhere near Uncle Verne’s most famous call, but it’s my favorite of his, so wonderfully conveying shock in real time. May we all watch college football with the same giddy curiosity.
- Outback Bowl: The Jadeveon Clowney hit
Clowney spent the next eight months as the most hyped college lineman in recent memory. (People then wildly overreacted when Clowney played fine in Week 1 the next fall, before cruising toward becoming the #1 overall pick.) This was also the last memorable hit of the pre-targeting era. If Clowney hit someone like this today in college football, he’d possibly get thrown out. Regardless of your view of that rule, it’s another big piece of the decade.
- Fiesta Bowl: Oregon’s incredible one-point safety against Kansas State
If the defense somehow returns a PAT or two-point attempt for what would normally be a touchdown, the defense gets two points. Everybody knows this. But what most people did not know, until this moment, was that if the defense somehow got the ball and then safetied itself, that would result in the offense getting one point. Now we all know!
Even better, Brad Nessler had the call for both this and Texas’ one-point safety against Texas A&M in 2004, believed to be the only two times such a play ever happened in a major-level game.
- BCS Championship: Every play of Notre Dame-Alabama (all tied)
Big bowls did not get better after this for the Irish.
Week 1: North Dakota State’s winning touchdown at Kansas State, concluding a dominant MANBALL drive
North Dakota State barreling over people is what nearly the entire decade of FCS looked like. Meanwhile, FBS teams mostly stopped scheduling the Bison. Sorry, Iowa, and good luck to the Oregon Ducks in 2020!
- Week 3: An ONSIDE PUNT
If you’re behind your own line of scrimmage, you’re allowed to recover and advance your own punt. This almost never comes up, for obvious reasons. Don’t tell that to Eastern Kentucky.
- Week 13: The Prayer at Jordan-Hare
- SEC-SoCon Challenge Week: Gator fight
Fortunately, Florida recovered after this embarrassing moment and didn’t have any trouble putting away the FCS team visiting The Sw –
- The week after that: Auburn’s touchdown on a run/pass option from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates, a few minutes before the Kick Six:
The Kick Six is the most memorable play of this decade, but we all know that already. Of course, you should watch the entire ending to this game again:
But the Auburn touchdown that preceded it was more important over the long term. It wasn’t the first run/pass option, but it was the most publicly impactful RPO right before they started sweeping the world.
It prompted NFL teams and Nick Saban to join the arms race (Pete Carroll opened the next season with the same RPO, crediting Auburn for the idea, though the play had bounced around college for a while already), which changed the sport’s highest levels for ... probably forever.
- BCS Championship: Jameis Winston to Kelvin Benjamin, for the win
This game had to show up here. If Auburn won, it would’ve been Tre Mason’s 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. If Florida State won a little differently, it would’ve been Kermit Whitfield’s kickoff return score right before that. As it happened, this Winston-to-Benjamin connection finished off one of the best team and individual seasons ever. There’s probably some universe where Mason finishes the Kick Six year by taking a lateral to the house at the buzzer, too, because that’s exactly the kind of thing the Auburn Tigers would do.
- One other play, in the theatrical sense, but not being counted toward the total for this post: College football’s grifting suits telling us for years that a playoff system larger than two teams was simply not feasible
- Week 2: Army’s punter flicking aside a Stanford rusher like a tiny bug
Behold that shrugging off of a puny on-comer. The GIF of the play reveals it was not as macabre as it looks in that still, but I’m not including that here, because I don’t want to.
- Week 2: BYU quarterback Taysom Hill hurdling a Longhorn, perhaps the most fitting avatar for Texas’ decade
- Week 3: The first Piesman Trophy winner ever: a scoop-and-score from Southeastern Louisiana big man Ashton Henderson
- Week 3: Arkansas State’s “have a guy be a falling statue, then throw an interception” fake punt at Miami
There’s really no better way to describe what’s happening there.
- Week 5: TCU’s Paul Dawson’s pick-sixing of Oklahoma to put the Frogs in the Playoff hunt
Making this even more college football: Oklahoma blocked the PAT and returned it for two.
- Week 5: This Ohio State strength coach’s form tackle of an Idiot On The Field
Among the many rules changes the NCAA should make: explicitly allowing players to destroy idiots who run on the field.
- Week 10: Alabama confusing the hell out of LSU by hiding an offensive lineman as an eligible receiver in overtime, setting up the winning touchdown
The trick is simple, but almost never came up in major levels. Bama split an offensive lineman out wide as if he were a receiver, but left him on the line of scrimmage to satisfy the rule requiring seven men on the line at the snap. That left another offensive tackle on the end of the line, at a more standard OT position, and that other tackle was eligible to catch a pass.
A few months later, Saban’s friend Bill Belichick stole this exact design in the NFL playoffs against the Ravens. That offseason, after the Ravens cried about it, the NFL passed a rule that effectively outlawed this trick. It’s still doable in college, though.
- Week 10: A long Utah TD becoming an even longer Oregon TD, flipping a game and the Pac-12’s Playoff picture
- Week 11: Todd Gurley scoring an almost-immediate TD in his first game back after a suspension for maybe making some money off his own name, one of several points in the decade when people started listening less to the NCAA
A flag brought that TD back, but whatever; Gurley scored a TD that counted and had 138 yards. Sadly, an injury later that game ended his UGA career. Happily, Gurley later got paid a lot of money to play football, and no one tried to declare him ineligible.
- Week 12: Cal’s extraordinarily doomed fake against USC, which included the punter marching in place like a drum major
- Week 13: UCF beating ECU with a Hail Mary on the road, when ECU was pretty good
- Inaugural Popeyes Bahamas Bowl: Central Michigan ties Western Kentucky at the buzzer by connecting on an outrageous series of laterals
- Fiesta Bowl: Boise State’s Statue of Liberty redux
This wasn’t as consequential as its prequel against Oklahoma (watch a fun video about all that history here), but it was awesome anyway. It stands as a high point for FBS’ fifth winningest team of this decade. It also fits a theme of the decade: non-power teams finally getting guaranteed spots in “big” bowls, but being continually told to suck it up when they remain far from contention for championship bowls.
- Orange Bowl: Justin Thomas juking all the way through Mississippi State
- Rose Bowl Playoff semifinal: Jameis Winson vs. a hard-hitting piece of air
- Sugar Bowl semifinal: Ezekiel Elliott’s 85 Yards Through the Heart of the South
- National Championship: Cardale Jones trucking a defensive tackle
Any number of massive booms leveled by Jones over Ohio State’s stretch drive could’ve qualified for this post. It was fun to watch a linebacker-sized QB running over people.
- Week 1: Braxton Miller pressing the circle button at exactly the right time
This was especially interesting because we’d spent the offseason wondering what Ohio State’s QB situation would look like. This was Miller’s first game as a non-full-time QB, as the Buckeyes also had Jones and J.T. Barrett. (Miller was lined up at QB here.)
- Week 3: Ole Miss’ tip drill TD en route to beating Alabama
If anyone asks, “What does it take to beat Bama in Tuscaloosa?” the simplest answer is along the lines of “get five takeaways and also score the silliest touchdown anyone’s scored in years, and maybe you can win by one score.” Though, obviously, Ole Miss planned everything on that play and any suggestion to the contrary is a lie.
- Week 7: “He has trouble with the snap!”
- Week 8: The Miracle on Techwood, Georgia Tech’s blocked field goal hands Florida State its first regular season loss since 2012
- Week 9: Miami’s game-winning, eight-lateral sequence at Duke
The play probably should’ve been over after three laterals, when Miami’s Mark Walton hit the ground before giving up the ball. The Canes also got away with an illegal block in the back. Who cares, though? Not Miami. The ACC suspended the refs from the game, and what could more adeptly explain the 2010s than an exciting finish followed by the public reprimand of ACC officials?
- Week 10: Arkansas’ fourth-and-25 miracle in overtime at Ole Miss, which ended up winning the SEC West for eventual national champion Bama
What a wild four-week run!
- Week 12: Michigan State’s KICKER WINDMILL after beating Ohio State
- Rose Bowl: Christian McCaffrey’s immediate destruction of Iowa
- National Championship: Bama’s onside kick
Alabama spent weeks focusing on how Clemson lined up for kick returns. The Tide noticed the Tigers favored a somewhat tight alignment that left a big hole near the sideline. After the Tigers kept lining up that way all night, the Tide decided to gamble.
- Later in the National Championship: The last of Deshaun Watson’s record 478 yards
Watson didn’t win this game, but he laid out a roadmap for future teams to beat Bama.
- Week 2: Lamar Jackson’s hurdling TD at Syracuse, which I’ve selected as a representative of like 52 Lamar Jackson plays that could go in this post
- Week 2: Central Michigan’s lateral-assisted, referee-assisted Hail Mary to stun Oklahoma State
The play never should’ve happened. Officials extended the game by giving Central Michigan an untimed down after Oklahoma State took an intentional grounding penalty to kill the clock on fourth down. (Most live-ball fouls at the buzzer do extend the game, but intentional grounding – a loss-of-down penalty – does not.) This ref-aided loss is the simplest reason the Pokes were out of the Playoff hunt before Rivalry Weekend.
- Week 3: Noah Brown catching both an Oklahoma cornerback and the ball
- Week 5: The entire Tennessee-Georgia ending, culminating in Josh Dobbs’ successful Hail Mary to Jauan Jennings to win the buzzer
- Also Week 5: This Tennessee fan’s reaction to that ending
- Week 6: This Jabrill Peppers spin move against Rutgers
Peppers probably got a Heisman finalist nomination out of this game. If you’re a defensive player, the best way to get Heisman consideration is to also play offense, return kicks, or play a whole game against Rutgers. Peppers did all three on this night.
- Week 6: This Clemson force-out against Louisville
James Quick went out of bounds a yard short. That swung the ACC Atlantic to Clemson, which put the Tigers on a path to the national title and prevented either Louisville or Penn State from making the Playoff. This play shaped a lot about the next five years of college football.
- Week 8: Penn State’s block six to beat Ohio State (and eventually win the Big Ten)
That would be illegal today, now that the NCAA’s further cracked down on defenders leaping to block field goals.
- Week 13: The Spot
- Rose Bowl: Saquon Barkley’s 75-yard embarrassment of USC, seen from the stands in Pasadena
- National Championship: Deshaun Watson to Hunter Renfrow
Watson did win that one.
- Week 2: Louisiana Tech’s 87-YARD FUMBLE, bringing up THIRD-AND-GOAL FROM THEIR OWN 7 against Mississippi State, set to “Yakety Sax”
- Week 7: AJ Dillon going full bumper car through Louisville, Kentucky
It would feel wrong to ignore Louisville sticking Lamar Jackson with that defense during the prime of his career. It’s not the worst thing Bobby Petrino has ever done, but — you know what, actually, it might be.
- Week 7: North Texas’ whole wild winning drive over UTSA, which was effectively one continuous play with a few whistles mixed in, because of the game situation
- Week 12: USF’s Tyre McCants literally dragging a UCF dude into the end zone
- Later in that game: UCF winning and wrapping an unbeaten regular season with a kickoff return by Mike Hughes:
This was a Game of the Year contender. It was interesting as hell, as was everything about undefeated, title-claiming UCF.
- Army-Navy: Almost one of the great made field goals ever, in the snow
Army endured several heartbreakers against Navy in the 2010s, so it was only fair Navy would get one of its own. This was one of the most visually appealing games ever, as Army wore all-white uniforms while snow blanketed Philadelphia. Despite that snow, the Mids’ Bennett Moehring nearly flushed a 48-yarder to win it.
- Rose Bowl: Sony Michel taking a direct snap to the title game
You should just watch the full highlights package from this game, which I think wrapped the decade as the best Playoff game ever. But it would feel wrong not to have something from this Rose Bowl on this list, and Michel’s winning run fits as well as anything.
- National Championship: Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith
Tagovailoa coming off the bench to lead that comeback as a true freshman is one of the greatest feats ever. So is what Tagovailoa did the next two years, though he wouldn’t win another national championship or get a Heisman.
- Week 3: North Texas’ audacious FAKE FAIR CATCH against Arkansas
The Mean Green’s gambit is one of my favorite ever. I talked with the special teams coach who designed it and the returner who executed it, and I was taken with how big a production the whole thing was. It involved dozens of people working harmoniously.
- Week 10: West Virginia’s elite Horns Down
David Sills did horns ... down? pic.twitter.com/Ciebzgbjql— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) November 3, 2018
WVU coaches would make Horns Down a sideline play signal, and WVU fans would make Horns Down a part of their game day routine for non-Texas opponents. The Big 12 proceeded with occasionally penalizing Horns Down because it made Texas sad.
- Week 10: A 95-YARD PUNT in Division III, possibly the longest of the decade at any level
That heat-seeking missile came off the foot of Heidelberg’s Austin Baker, who told me afterward he merely wanted to go eat some honey barbecue chicken at Buffalo Wild Wings with his mom and dad. His goal was to get the kick past midfield, and he exceeded it.
- Cheez-It Bowl: TCU’s SID getting a sideline interference penalty amid a truckload of interceptions and other chicanery that led to a 10-7 Frogs win over Cal
As a commissioner, official, and ex-rules committee member, I’ve seen some crazy things on a football field. However, the #CheezeItBowl has jumped the shark with the SID taking a justified sideline interference penalty. Crazy stuff. pic.twitter.com/6tVmozr0Rr— Will Prewitt (@GAC_Commish) December 27, 2018
- Orange Bowl semifinal: This little flick of the wrist by Kyler Murray
- National Championship: This thing
- National Championship: This thing
Justyn Ross turned out to be the game-ending kind of receiver Bama couldn’t handle.
Week 2: Quite possibly the greatest flea flicker in football history, by Colorado
GAME. CHANGER.— Pac-12 Network (@Pac12Network) September 7, 2019
Just want the doctor ordered.
We checked around, and we really do think this is the longest flea flicker, at least at any level beyond high school. Read Colorado’s OC explaining how it all came together. Given the length and the fact that this turned around a rivalry game — CU would come back to beat Nebraska afterward — I think it’s fine to call it the best flea flicker ever executed.
- Week 4: Tulane’s FAKE KNEEL/walk-off TD pass combo against Houston
- Week 4: THE PITT SPECIAL to end UCF’s 27-game regular season win streak
Pitt claimed many upset victims this decade (and in the decade prior), and at the time, the Panthers’ win over UCF was a huge deal. Congrats to my hometown team on surely being the first Pennsylvania team to ever attempt a trick play that looked like this.
- Week 6: Tulsa falling on its own kickoff in SMU’s end zone
- Week 8: The spiritual successor to that Cal fake punt from 2014, via Arkansas
- Week 10: Joe Burrow and Thaddeus Moss connecting in Tuscaloosa for one of the catches of the year
Week 13: Perhaps the most dramatic illegal substitution penalty in history
That was the result of a devious trick by Gus Malzahn’s staff, which lined up its punter at wide receiver ahead of a key fourth down in hopes of confusing Saban’s staff. It worked, and a furious Saban was out of the Playoff for the first time ever.
What is this list missing?
Probably several things! College football is a big sport. A decade is a long time. We’d love to be reminded of, or told about, other deserving plays. No doubt they’re out there. Drop ‘em in!