Game of the Century? Some Historical Perspective
Every now and then, two behemoths get together on the gridiron and focus the attention of the college football world. That’s what will happen this Saturday night in Tuscaloosa as No. 1 LSU visits No. 2 Alabama.
The hype-fueled world of today creates a lot of things out of nothing. Seemingly more often than not, the hyped matchups fall flat to our expectations. Anytime Number One faces Number Two, the moniker “Game of the Century” (GOTC) gets dragged out of the closet, dusted off and shined up.
The BCS has made a No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup a yearly event. But before the 1998 season, such matchups were pretty rare occurrences, especially before the bowl season.
Last week, I learned that in the 76 seasons of the AP poll, the top-ranked teams have met only 22 times during the regular season. A few have been billed as the GOTC. The LSU-Alabama game will be the most recent episode of GOTC madness since No. 1 Ohio State defeated No. 2 Michigan, 42-39, in 2006. And who can forget the Texas-USC national championship of a few years ago?
In my formative years as a young kid who was nuts about sports, I can think of four games that held the nation spellbound while also living up to the GOTC billing in every way. These were also important games historically, because they were played during the days when sports on TV were not common events. They helped create today’s frenzy for college football on a national scale, in the formative years of college football as a televised sport on par with professional football. They were amazing games.
Can Saturday’s GOTC between LSU and Alabama possibly live up to it’s billing?
If it ends up being anything close to Notre Dame-Michigan State of 1966, USC-UCLA of 1967, Texas-Arkansas of 1969, or Nebraska-Oklahoma of 1971 (perhaps the greatest football game ever played, college or pro), it will be a worthy entry into the pantheon of greatest games.
Those four games were all played before my college years. Each had a lasting impact on a personal level, an impact that created my love affair with college football before I ever stepped onto a college campus.
Notre Dame 10 Michigan State 10
The 19 November 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State game is the first college game I can vividly remember watching on TV (It was actually shown on tape delay in the South due to some very strange ABC-NCAA rules). The national media gave it the GOTC tag. The game’s tension didn’t disappoint, but the final score, and they way that it ended, sure did.
Having tied the game 10-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Irish found themselves with the ball on their own 30 yard line with just over a minute remaining. Head Coach Ara Parseghian decided to run out the clock instead of risking a turnover by going for a last second score. Many circumstances (starting QB and RB were injured) dictated the decision, and in the end, it turned out to be the right one, for Notre Dame and their 10-0-1 record were voted national champs over undefeated Alabama who had won the AP Poll title the previous two seasons.
USC 21 UCLA 20
The 18 November 1967 USC-UCLA game featured super-star power. The No. 1 Bruins, who narrowly defeated Tennessee in the season’s opener in the Coliseum, had leading Heisman candidate Gary Beban as their QB; the No. 2 Trojans (2nd in the coaches poll; 4th in the AP) had O.J. Simpson who would win the Heisman the following season. I always loved watching the USC-UCLA game as a kid: it was the last game of the regular season and the powder blue/old gold vs red and yellow looked great on our little color TV.
This game didn’t disappoint – the final score or the way it occurred. The game was a tight affair throughout. In the fourth quarter with score tied 14 all, Beban led the Bruins on a drive for a TD, but the extra point was blocked. When USC got the ball, their QB called an audible at the line and handed off to Simpson who ran 64 yards to tie the game. The extra point gave the Trojans a 21-20 win. It was fantastic theater. O.J. was on the cover of SI the following week.
Texas 15 Arkansas 14
The 6 December 1969 Arkansas-Texas game was a matchup of two of the game’s greatest ever coaches. Both Frank Broyles and Darrell Royal would retire seven seasons later.
It was an incredibly tense affair. First, it was a game that pitted the No. 1 (Texas) and No. 2 (Arkansas) teams, both with long winning streaks (18 and 15 games, respectively). Second, the game had been anticipated for weeks, and ABC persuaded the schools to move the game from November to December to give it that extra-special end-of-season feel. And third, 1969 was a tense year in general, with Vietnam and race relations dominating the daily news. President Nixon deciding to attend was like throwing gasoline on a dumpster fire. The stadium in Fayetteville had not only fans but war protesters – one of them in a tree with a sign overlooking the field.
The game went down in history as one of the greatest ever in the history of Texas football, and one of the most disappointing ever for the Razorbacks (1998 in Knoxville, anyone?). Arkansas went into the 4th quarter leading 14-0. Later, behind 14-8, Royal gambled on 4th and 3. Longhorn QB James Street completed a 44-yard pass to keep the drive going. Texas scored two plays later to win 15-14.
A footnote to this famous game involves that season’s Cotton Bowl in which Texas defeated Notre Dame. Penn State, who was also undefeated, was invited to meet the Longhorns in the Cotton Bowl, which would have been a titanic match to decide the national championship. Joe Paterno declined and instead chose Missouri in the Orange Bowl. The Nittany Lions won their game; Texas deservedly won the national title.
Nebraska 35 Oklahoma 31
Perhaps the greatest of the GOTCs was the 25 November 1971 Big 8 showdown between Nebraska and Oklahoma. The No. 1 Cornhuskers had a 20-game winning streak. The homeside No. 2 Sooners had a wishbone offense that averaged nearly 500 yards per game. Two coaching greats, Bob Devaney and Bud Wilkinson, gave the matchup extra star power. The game being played on Thanksgiving Day didn’t hurt either.
Nebraska’s flanker Johnny Rogers would win the Heisman the following season, but what he did in this game put his candidacy in motion. In the beginning minutes, after OU failed to keep a drive alive, Rogers returned the punt back 72 yards for a touchdown. The nation had barely finished their turkey dinners. Digestion became difficult – the game was an incredible back-and-forth, high-powered offensive showcase. Nebraska eventually took a 14-3 lead, only to see Oklahoma lead at the half 17-14. The Huskers came back to lead 28-17 going into the final quarter, but the Sooners stormed back to a 31-28 lead with only 7 minutes left.
The next big Rogers play happened in the final moments, when near midfield, Husker QB Jerry Tagge hit Rogers on a pass. Rogers broke tackles and nearly scored. Moments later, RB Jeff Kinney scored his 4th TD of the afternoon to secure the win. It’s the greatest college football game I can remember watching. Nebraska went on to demolish then No. 2 Alabama in the Orange Bowl to win the national title. But it was on that Thanksgiving Day in Norman that Nebraska football became a national institution.
If Alabama-LSU 2011 can come close to equaling any of these four classics, I’ll tip my hat.