Year in review: The best college football games of 2021
Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Year in review: The best college football games of 2021

There were plenty of big games on the 2021 college football slate, but not all lived up to the hype. While some other matchups we didn't think would pack such luster, turned out to provide some of the most memorable moments of the season.

Here's a look at 20 notable games from the 2021 college football season. Listed in chronological order, with rankings from The Associated Press Top 25 at the time.

 
1 of 20

Sept. 5: No. 19 Notre Dame 41, Florida State. 38 (OT)

Sept. 5: No. 19 Notre Dame 41, Florida State. 38 (OT)
Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

The first full week of the 2021 college football season concluded with a bang. Behind four touchdown passes from new quarterback Jack Coan, Notre Dame led 38-20 at Florida State after three quarters. Then McKenzie Milton made his emotional return to the football field  and helped the underdog Seminoles score 18 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to force overtime.  However, after Florida State's Ryan Fitzgerald missed a 37-yard field to open the extra session, the Irish's Jonathan Doerer connected from 41 yards out and the visitors escaped with the three-point victory.

 
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Sept. 11: No. 12 Oregon 35, No. 3 Ohio State 28

Sept. 11: No. 12 Oregon 35, No. 3 Ohio State 28
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Playing at the Horseshoe without star defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux, Oregon didn't seem to have a chance at pulling off this early-season upset against Ohio State. Wrong!  CJ Verdell rushed for 161 yards with two touchdowns and overcame 484 passing yards and three touchdowns from the Buckeyes' C.J. Stroud. Verone McKinley's late interception of Stroud might have been the Ducks' biggest play of the season.

 
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Sept. 18: No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 11 Florida 29

Sept. 18: No. 1 Alabama 31, No. 11 Florida 29
Brad McClenny via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

This was back when Florida was still expected to be competitive in the SEC. However, the Gators fell behind 21-3 after one quarter at home. Then Florida got the running game going (totaled 244 yards on the ground) to get within 28-23 late in the third quarter. Down 31-23 with a little more than three minutes to play in the game, Dameon Pierce's 17-yard touchdown run got Florida within two. But, Malik Davis' rush was stopped rather easily by the Crimson Tide to preserve the win.

 
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Sept. 18: No. 10 Penn State 28, No. 22 Auburn 20

Sept. 18: No. 10 Penn State 28, No. 22 Auburn 20
Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports

The first of several times we'll highlight the Nittany Lions -- for better or worse. This proved to be an intriguing prime-time matchup. This was truly a back-and-forth contest until Penn State built a 21-10 lead early in the third quarter. Then Auburn got within a point early in the fourth before Noah Cain's 3-yard scoring run eventually put the Nittany Lions up eight. The Tigers would get down to the Penn State 2-yard line with just over three minutes to play, but Bo Nix's pass on fourth down went incomplete. As it did on the final play of the game from the Nittany Lions' 26.

 
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Oct. 2: No. 7 Cincinnati 24, No. 9 Notre Dame 13

Oct. 2: No. 7 Cincinnati 24, No. 9 Notre Dame 13
Albert Cesare/The Enquirer/USA TODAY NETWORK

It's the game that lent some major credibility to Cincinnati's run to a spot in the College Football Playoff . And, the result that ultimately kept the Fighting Irish out of it being part of the final four of college football. The Bearcats led 17-0 at halftime but allowed host Notre Dame to get within four before Desmond Ridder's 6-yard touchdown run gave Cincinnati some breathing room and eventually ended Notre Dame's 26-game home winning streak. 

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

Oct. 2: Stanford 31, No. 3 Oregon 24 (OT)
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Less than a month after upsetting Ohio State, Oregon got stunned themselves. Stanford won just three games in 2021, but its biggest win — and last — of the season came in overtime against the previously undefeated Ducks. The host Cardinal led 17-7 at halftime, but Oregon rallied and the game needed more time after the hosts forced the extra session with Elijah Higgins' 2-yard touchdown pass from Tanner McKee. Stanford won the game after McKee hooked up with John Humphreys for a 14-yard scoring pass and Oregon failed with its overtime chance.

 
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Oct. 9: No. 17 Mississippi 52, No. 13 Arkansas 51

Oct. 9: No. 17 Mississippi 52, No. 13 Arkansas 51
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY Sports

It's safe to say that Saturday, Oct. 9 might have been the most entertaining — and, perhaps, craziest — day of the 2021 college football season. The fun began in Oxford, Miss. , where the Razorbacks and Rebels combined for 103 points and 1,287 yards. The back-and-forth game featured three 100-yard rushers. It can also be argued that Arkansas' KJ Jefferson outplayed Ole Miss' Matt Corral with 326 passing yards and three touchdowns, plus an interception. Jefferson's 9-yard touchdown pass to Warren Thompson as time expired to put the Hogs within a point, but the 2-point pass try failed.

 
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Oct. 9: No. 6 Oklahoma 55, No. 21 Texas 48

Oct. 9: No. 6 Oklahoma 55, No. 21 Texas 48
Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman/USA TODAY NETWORK

If we thought that Arkansas-Mississippi Game was wacky, the 2021 installment of the Red River Rivalry was full-blown madness . Texas led 28-7 after the first quarter, 38-20 at halftime, and 41-30 after three quarters. Then it was Oklahoma's turn to take over, scoring 25 times in the fourth quarter and winning the highest-scoring game in the 117-year history of this rivalry on a 33-yard TD run by Kennedy Brooks (217 rushing yards) with 3 seconds remaining.

 
9 of 20

Oct. 9: No. 3 Iowa 23, No. 4 Penn State 20

Oct. 9: No. 3 Iowa 23, No. 4 Penn State 20
Jeffrey Becker/USA TODAY Sports

A couple of undefeated, top-five teams meeting in Iowa City. Penn State led 14-3 after the first quarter, but the Hawkeyes held the Nittany Lions to just two field goals the rest of the way. Penn State, which managed just 287 total yards, was still up 20-13 after three quarters, but Iowa grabbed its first lead since early in the contest when Spencer Petras hit Nico Ragaini with a 44-yard touchdown pass at the 6:26 mark of the fourth and never looked back.

 
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Oct. 9: Texas A&M 41, No. 1 Alabama 38

Oct. 9: Texas A&M 41, No. 1 Alabama 38
Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports

The deliciously wild action of Oct. 9 concluded with No. 1 going down on the road . Unranked Texas A&M led 24-10 at halftime, but thanks to Bryce Young (369 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception) and Jameson Williams (10 receptions, 146 yards, two touchdowns), by the five-minute mark of the fourth quarter, Alabama led 38-31. But, the Aggies tied the game on Ainias Smith's 25-yard scoring pass from Zach Calzada (285 passing yards, three touchdowns, one interception), during his breakout performance with three minutes left tied it, and Seth Small etched his name in A&M football history with his game-winning 28-yard field as time expired.

 
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Oct. 16: Purdue 24, No. 2 Iowa 7

Oct. 16: Purdue 24, No. 2 Iowa 7
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen/USA TODAY NETWORK

One week after Iowa knocked off Penn State to improve to 6-0 and sat No. 2 in the country when an unranked, 3-2 Purdue squad arrived in Iowa City. In what might have been the biggest upset of the season , the Boilermakers held the Hawkeyes to 271 total yards and quarterback Aiden O'Connell threw for 375 yards with two touchdowns, including one to star receiver David Bell, who went off for 240 yards with 11 receptions.

 
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Oct. 23: Illinois 20, No. 7 Penn State 18 (9OT)

Oct. 23: Illinois 20, No. 7 Penn State 18 (9OT)
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

OK, this probably doesn't fall under the category of "best of ..." for anything. But the way this matchup between two teams on opposite ends of the Big Ten spectrum was kind of like passing by a car accident -- we have to look. And keep looking. Penn State led 10-0, but couldn't deliver that knockout punch in the second half, and Illinois managed to tie the game. That's when the fun, and ineptness began. Nine overtimes (most in FBS history ), resulting in just 18 combined points, with each team getting one crack at the end zone each overtime period after the first two. Eventually, or more like mercifully, Brandon Peters connected with Casey Washington for a scoring pass to end complete the upset for the Illini.

 
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Oct. 28: No. 8 Michigan State 37, No. 6 Michigan 33

Oct. 28: No. 8 Michigan State 37, No. 6 Michigan 33
Kirthmon F. Dozier/USA TODAY NETWORK

Michigan's lone blemish on the season, to this point, came against a rival that's actually had the best of the Wolverines in recent seasons. And looking back, Michigan is probably kicking itself for allowing it to happen this season. The Wolverines led 30-14 late in the third quarter at East Lansing, then Michigan State outscored the visitors 23-3 the rest of the way. The Spartans got 197 rushing and five touchdowns from Kenneth Walker to  beat Michigan for the 10th time in 14 games and remain undefeated.

 
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Nov. 13: Kansas 57, Texas 56 (OT)

Nov. 13: Kansas 57, Texas 56 (OT)
Scott Wachter/USA TODAY Sports

If Texas' aforementioned loss to Oklahoma was a turning point on its season, this rather improbable defeat to Kansas, which landed in Austin mired in a 57-game road conference losing streak, was a kick in the teeth . That didn't matter against the already rattled Longhorns, who allowed 420 yards to the Jayhawks. Kansas led 42-21 in the third quarter, but Texas rallied to tie the game at 49. In overtime, the Longhorns scored first, but Kansas answered with Dylan Neal's 2-yard scoring run. The Jayhawks opted to go for 2 points, and a scrambling Jalon Daniels hit little-used freshman fullback Jared Casey in the end zone for the winning catch.

 
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Nov. 20: No. 15 UTSA 34, UAB 31

Nov. 20: No. 15 UTSA 34, UAB 31
YouTube

It's been a historical season for 12-1 Texas-San Antonio football. Before the Roadrunners captured the Conference USA title, they found their undefeated season, at the time, in jeopardy at home against UAB. It was a back-and-forth battle all game, with the Blazers going ahead 31-27 on DeWayne McBride's 16-yard TD run with 5:19 left in regulation. However, UTSA wasn't finished. With seven seconds remaining and the ball at the UAB 1-yard line, UTSA quarterback Frank Harris regrouped, after he dropped the snap, to hit Oscar Cardenas, on a tipped pass, in the end, zone for the go-ahead winner.

 
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Nov. 26: No. 24 North Carolina State 34, North Carolina 30

Nov. 26: No. 24 North Carolina State 34, North Carolina 30
Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

Not all rivalry games are exciting, but the 2021 installment between these Tobacco Road buddies proved one for the ages . In another contest that went back and forth most of the day, North Carolina scored 20 of the first 27 points in the second half to lead 30-21 with 2:12 left in the game. However, N.C. State's Devin Leary quickly hit Emeka Emezie with a 64 touchdown pass. The Wolfpack then recovered an on-side kick and Leary and Emezie hooked up again, for a 24-yard score with 1:09 to put the home team ahead for good.

 
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Nov. 27: No. 6 Michigan 42, No. 2 Ohio State 27

Nov. 27: No. 6 Michigan 42, No. 2 Ohio State 27
Kirthmon F. Dozier/USA TODAY NETWORK

There was just something about this season that felt like Michigan would finally end its eight-game losing streak against archrival Ohio State. The Wolverines were sitting at 10-1, riding a five-game winning streak in which it outscored its opponents 193-72 and hosting the game. Michigan delivered , gaining 297 yards on the ground -- 169 with five touchdowns from Hassan Haskins -- and sacked C.J. Stroud four times to post the long-anticipated victory, earn a spot in the Big Ten Championship Game, and end the Buckeyes' shot at a national title.

 
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Nov. 27: No. 7 Oklahoma State 37, No. 10 Oklahoma 33

Nov. 27: No. 7 Oklahoma State 37, No. 10 Oklahoma 33
Brett Rojo/USA TODAY Sports

The Bedlam rivalry lived up to its name in 2021 . Oklahoma State was at home, and a victory over its biggest rivalry would not necessarily be any kind of upset. However, the Sooners led 33-24 after three quarters. But, the Cowboys did not panic. Spencer Sanders got Oklahoma State closer with a 37-yard touchdown run, then Jaylen Warren pushed his team into the lead for good later in the fourth with a 1-yard scoring run that helped snap a six-game losing streak versus Oklahoma.

 
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Dec. 4: No. 9 Baylor 21, No. 5 Oklahoma State 16

Dec. 4: No. 9 Baylor 21, No. 5 Oklahoma State 16
Kevin Jairaj/USA TODAY Sports

For as well as Oklahoma State was able to come back against Oklahoma and set the stage for a Big 12 Championship payday, its inability to score from close range in that championship contest might sting for some time. Baylor, under coach Dave Aranda, has been criminally underappreciated all season, led 21-6 at halftime. But the Cowboys got within four with just over eight minutes to play in the game. They had the ball down to the Baylor 2-yard line with 1:27 to play, but the  Bears stepped up and stopped the Cowboys on all four chances to get into the end zone, preserve the lead, and a Big 12 championship.

 
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Dec. 11: Navy 17, Army 13

Dec. 11: Navy 17, Army 13
Chris Pedota/NorthJersey.com/USA TODAY NETWORK

Navy had won three games all season and dropped four of the last five against archrival Army, which took eight victories into the 2021 meeting. However, this season's matchup was truly an example of the throw-the-records-out-the-window-when-these-teams-meet theory. Navy overcame a 13-7 halftime hole and held the Cadets' ground game to just 124 yards. On 4th down-and-3 with a little less than three minutes to play in the game, the Midshipmen stopped Army's Christian Anderson 1-yard shy of moving the chains and pulled off the upset.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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