College Football Plays That Ended Championship Hopes

Andrew Doughty @DoughtyBetMGM Jun 15, 2021, 1:21 PM
Linebacker Eric McNeal #2 of the UCLA Bruins celebrates with Bret Lockett #25, Justin Hickman #17, and Chris Horton #14 after intercepting a pass on the USC Trojans last drive on December 2, 2006 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. The UCLA Bruins defeated the USC Trojans 13-9. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

On their way to a 10-1 start and the No. 2 ranking in the 2006 Week 13 BCS Standings, USC beat two eventual 10-win teams (Cal and Notre Dame) and one eventual nine-win team (Nebraska). The Trojans were rolling, winning three straight games against ranked teams, and needed one more win to secure a spot in the national championship. 

Five-win UCLA, who was smashed by Washington State five weeks earlier and had a four-game midseason losing streak, sat between the Trojans and a potential third championship in four years. The Bruins were 13-point underdogs in college football odds.

Trailing 13-9 with one minute remaining at the Rose Bowl on Dec. 2, 2006, USC quarterback John David Booty was picked off by UCLA safety Eric McNeal deep in the Bruins' territory.

Championship seasons aren't built on one play—or even one game—but championship hopes can be crushed on one play, such as John David Booty's interception in 2006. Had he led the Trojans to a game-winning touchdown, the 2007 BCS National Championship would've been Ohio State vs. USC, rather than Ohio State vs. Florida. And maybe USC would’ve won their third national championship in four years instead of Florida winning the first of two national championships in three years.

Here are 32 more plays (since 2005) from regular-season games and conference championships that knocked teams out of the championship or playoff picture. Each play was the decisive blow (to a reasonable extent) to a team's hopes.

Notre Dame, 2005: Bush Push

Oct. 15, 2005

Notre Dame entered their midseason game against USC with zero margin for error after losing to Michigan State four weeks earlier.

Trailing the Irish 31-28 with seven seconds left, Matt Leinart's one-yard touchdown run gave them the victory. It's not certain Notre Dame would've made the BCS National Championship had the Bush Push fallen short, but it’s highly possible.

"They cheated. They know it. He knows it,” Brady said of Matt Leinart in 2017. “I've always told him, though, that if you ain't cheating, you ain't trying. I would hope my running back would've done the same thing for me if I couldn't have gotten in on a quarterback sneak.”

Louisville, 2006: Rutgers Game

Nov. 9, 2006

Rutgers and Louisville—both undefeated—were tied through 59 minutes of their November 2006 game in Piscataway before Jeremy Ito's 28-yard field goal with 13 seconds remaining gave the Scarlet Knights a win over the No. 3 Cardinals.

Rutgers blew their BCS shot a week later with a blowout loss vs. Cincinnati, during which there wasn't a single key play that ended their hopes.

Michigan, 2006: Smith to Robiskie

Nov. 18, 2006

Ohio State (No. 1) and Michigan (No. 2) were both undefeated (11-0) and atop the BCS Standings when they met in Columbus in November 2006. Troy Smith's 13-yard touchdown pass to Terry Robiskie with 5:38 remaining put Ohio State ahead by two scores.

While the Wolverines remained No. 2 in the Week 12 rankings, they were jumped by USC in Week 13 and, after the Trojans lost their finale to UCLA, Florida in the final standings.

Oregon, 2007: Dixon’s Injury

Nov. 15, 2007

Oregon was 8-1 and ranked second in the Week 11 BCS standings when they visited Arizona in 2007.

Up 8-7 midway through the first quarter, Dennis Dixon suffered a gruesome knee injury that ended his season. The Ducks lost that game and their next two, including a shutout loss to UCLA a week after Dixon’s injury, to fall outside the title picture.

Kansas, 2007: Border War Safety

Nov. 24, 2007

Once upon a time, Kansas was good at football and played for a chance to be one game away from the national championship. In the biggest Border War ever, Missouri dominated early, leading 14-0 at the half and 28-7 at the end of the third quarter before Todd Reesing led a furious comeback that made it 34-28 with two minutes remaining.

Though the Jayhawks' chances were slim when Reesing got the ball back at his own 11 with 17 seconds left, a safety by Missouri officially ended it.

“The safety was such a remarkable play,” former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told the Kansas City Star in 2017. “I know so many Mizzou alumni that have the picture of Reesing with the mud in his face after that play.”

Missouri, 2007: Daniels' INT

Dec. 1, 2007

A week after beating Kansas to win the Big 12 North, Missouri fell to Oklahoma.

The final score suggests this game was lopsided, but the Tigers were within seven points late in the third quarter when Curtis Lofton returned a Chase Daniel interception to the Missouri seven-yard line. Sam Bradford hit Jermaine Gresham for a five-yard touchdown two plays later.

West Virginia, 2007: Backyard Nightmare

Dec. 1, 2007

West Virginia needed to beat an average Pittsburgh team in the Backyard Brawl home in the 2007 regular-season finale to earn a berth in the BCS National Championship.

They lost, which was all but decided when Mountaineers' quarterback Pat White, down 13-9 but deep in the Panthers' territory with fewer than two minutes left, bobbled the snap and was sacked by Greg Romeus to force 4th-and-17. If the sack didn’t end it, the ensuing failed 4th-and-17 did.

Texas, 2008: "Crabtree Pulls Free!"

Nov. 1, 2008

Texas Tech (No. 7) kept their undefeated season alive by ending Texas' (No. 1) undefeated season on a Harrell-to-Crabtree touchdown with one second remaining. 

“My eyes were on the sideline the whole time,” Crabtree said after the game. “I was trying not to step out of bounds because the safety had fallen down, and it worked.”

The Longhorns won their remaining three games but still finished behind Oklahoma (No. 1) and Florida (No. 2), the former of whom they beat in October. 

Side note: Similarly to Rutgers in 2006, Texas Tech blew their BCS shot two weeks later with a blowout loss vs. Oklahoma, during which there wasn't a single play that ended their hopes.

Alabama, 2008: Tebow to Cooper

Dec. 6, 2008

Alabama and Florida were No. 1 and No. 4 in the BCS standings, respectively, when they met in the 2008 SEC Championship. With No. 2 Oklahoma expected to beat Missouri in the Big 12 Championship, No. 3 Texas idle and No. 5 USC playing lowly UCLA, the winner was guaranteed to earn a top-two spot.

Florida took a four-point lead on a fourth-quarter touchdown drive that was aided by a drive-extending D'Onta Hightower facemask. Seven minutes later, Tim Tebow hit Riley Cooper for a five-yard touchdown to make it a two-score game with three minutes left.

Florida, 2009: 17th Play

Dec. 5, 2009

In the 2009 SEC Championship, Greg McElroy's 17-yard touchdown pass to Colin Peek gave Alabama a 13-point lead early in the third quarter. But it was their 17-play, nine-minute drive that ended with a Mark Ingram one-yard touchdown plunge with 13 minutes, 49 seconds remaining that sent Florida back to Gainesville without a conference title and national championship shot.

Boise State, 2010: Brotzman Misses

Nov. 26, 2010

No. 4 Boise State was 10-0 and two wins away from a perfect season and potentially crashing the national championship party. Tied with Nevada (whose only loss was a 27-21 defeat at Hawai’i five weeks earlier) with nine seconds remaining, Kellen Moore connected with Titus Young on a 54-yard prayer to set up a game-winning 26-yard field goal attempt.

Kyle Brotzman was 5-for-5 on under-30-yard field goals entering that game but missed both under-30 attempts in that game, the 26-yarder at the end of regulation and a 29-yarder in overtime. The latter allowed Nevada's own game-winning attempt, which Anthony Martinez hit.

"There were a lot of other chances to win the game. That was just one of them,” Boise State head coach Chris Petersen said. “That's one that 99 out of 100 times he's going to make.”

Ultimately, the loss didn't matter in the national title picture—the Broncos would not have jumped either Auburn (13-0) or Oregon (12-0)—but it was seen as a season-crushing blow at the time.

Wisconsin, 2011: Hail Mary’s

Oct. 22, 2011, and Oct. 29, 2011

Wisconsin was 6-0 and ranked No. 6 entering back-to-back road games vs. Michigan State (Oct. 22) and Ohio State (Oct. 29). They lost each game on a Hail Mary.

It's tough to predict if Wisconsin could've beat out Alabama for the No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings had they lost just one, but if the first loss didn't crush their hopes, the second one definitely did.

Boise State, 2011: Goodale Misses

Nov. 11, 2011

Three hundred and fifty days after Kyle Brotzman's missed field goal, Dan Goodale did the exact same thing.

No. 5 Boise State trailed unranked TCU, 36-35, with three seconds left when the freshman Goodale, who entered the game with four career field goal attempts (three made), missed from 39 yards.

Boise State dropped from No. 5 to No. 10 in the Week 11 rankings, finishing five spots behind No. 2 Alabama.

Oklahoma State, 2011: 2OT in Ames

Nov. 18, 2011

No. 2 Oklahoma State (10-0) was one of two remaining undefeated power conference teams entering Week 12 and needed to win their two remaining games, at middling Iowa State on Nov. 18, and vs. perennial conference power Oklahoma on Dec. 3. 

They lost to middling Iowa State.

After missing a game-winning 37-yard field goal attempt with a minute remaining, Oklahoma State fell to the Cyclones in double overtime when Brandon Weeden's interception on the first play of the second extra session was followed by a Jeff Woody four-yard touchdown run.

Oklahoma State finished No. 3 behind one-loss Alabama in the final BCS Standings.

Florida, 2012: Reed's Fumble

Oct. 27, 2012

Georgia (No. 10) forced five Florida (No. 2) turnovers in the first three quarters of their October 2012 game but led by just one point, 10-9, midway through the fourth quarter. That's when Malcolm Mitchell ran through the Gators' defense for a 45-yard touchdown reception.

Florida marched down the field on the next possession and had 2nd-and-6 from Georgia's 18. Jordan Reed caught a short pass from Jeff Driskel, spun out a tackle and barrelled toward the end zone.

He fumbled. Georgia recovered. Game over. Florida didn't lose again and finished third in the BCS Standings.

Oregon, 2012: Stanford OT

Nov. 17, 2012

Oregon was No. 2 in the Week 11 BCS standings, one spot behind Kansas State and one ahead of Notre Dame. Neither the Wildcats nor Ducks were in the top four of the Week 12 standings.

Stanford beat Oregon in overtime after they converted a 37-yard field goal, something the Ducks couldn't do (41 yards) on their possession.

Georgia, 2012: Conley’s Catch

Dec. 1, 2012

Five weeks after Georgia's win over Florida, their title-seeking souls were crushed by Alabama.

It was Amari Cooper's 45-yard touchdown reception with three minutes left that gave the Tide a 31-28 lead but the decisive play came when Aaron Murray's pass was tipped and caught by Chris Conley.

Time ran out on the Bulldogs.

Alabama, 2013: Kick Six

Nov. 30, 2013

No introduction necessary for the greatest play in college football history.

Ohio State, 2013: Langford’s TD

Dec. 7, 2013

A year after Ohio State was ineligible for the postseason, they finished the regular season undefeated and needed a win over Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship to reach the national championship.

They couldn't do it.

Ohio State trailed 27-24 with three minutes remaining and needed a stop to force a Spartans' field goal. Instead, Jeremy Langford burst through the middle on 2nd-and-2 to put them ahead 34-24, effectively ending the game.

TCU, 2014: Meltdown

Oct. 11, 2014

TCU (4-0) led Baylor (5-0) 58-37 with 11 minutes remaining following a Marcus Mallet pick-six. They lost. They blew a 21-point lead and lost in regulation.

Though the Horned Frogs were far from guaranteed a spot in the inaugural playoff with Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State still on the schedule (they won all three), their meltdown ultimately kept them outside the four-team field. The final blow was a 28-yard field goal as time expired.

Baylor, 2014: Trickett to Alford

Oct. 18, 2014

One week after shocking TCU, Baylor gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns to West Virginia, the latter of which—a 39-yard catch-and-run by Mario Alford—-put the Mountaineers up 14 points with seven minutes remaining.

While arguable that touchdown ended the game, Baylor was struggling badly to move the football and was unlikely to score twice in seven minutes. The Bears, like TCU, finished 11-1.

Mississippi State, 2014: Dak's INT

Nov. 15, 2014

Mississippi State was ranked No. 1 in the first three CFP rankings ever. Enter Alabama.

Trailing 25-13 with five minutes left—two minutes after T.J. Yeldon's seven-yard touchdown run put Alabama ahead 25-13—Dak Prescott took the Bulldogs to the Tide 20-yard line in nine plays. The tenth play was a Landon Collins' interception.

Mississippi State did lose again (two weeks later to Ole Miss) but might’ve had a margin for error had they beat Alabama.

Michigan, 2015: The Punt

Oct. 17, 2015

Like the Kick Six, one of the wildest endings in history needs no introduction.

Unlike the winner-take-all Kick Six, Michigan's chances at the playoff were dicey in 2015. They lost to Utah earlier in the year and were throttled by Ohio State in the regular-season finale.

Florida State, 2015: Blocked FG

Oct. 24, 2015

Undefeated Florida State—in search of a second-straight playoff bid—led lowly Georgia Tech 16-10 at halftime, 16-10. The Seminoles didn't score again.

Tied at 16-16 with six seconds remaining, the Yellow Jackets blocked Roberto Aguayo's 58-yard field goal attempt and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown with no time left. 

Despite that loss and another (23-13 vs. Clemson), Florida State still finished ninth in the final CFP rankings.

Ohio State, 2015: Geiger's Field Goal

Nov. 21, 2015

The first of two instances in 2015 in which Michigan State both played spoiler and punched—or took a step toward punching—their own playoff ticket, Michael Geiger's game-winning 41-yard field goal won the Big Ten East and put the Spartans within a game of the playoff.

"Ohio State did not offer me, and it's personal,” said Geiger, an Ohio native, after the game.

Ohio State beat Michigan a week later but finished eighth in the CFP rankings.

Iowa, 2015: L.J. Scott’s TD

Dec. 5, 2015

The second of the Spartans' spoiler-clinch plays, L.J. Scott's one-yard touchdown plunge in the Big Ten Championship gave Michigan State a three-point lead over Iowa, which the Hawkeyes' offense had no chance of erasing in 27 seconds.

Iowa was out. Michigan State was in.

Michigan, 2016: Iowa Game

Nov. 12, 2016

Michigan entered their Nov. 12 game against Iowa undefeated (9-0) and No. 3 in the Week 12 CFP rankings.

The Wolverines managed 201 yards of offense, committed two turnovers and went 5-for-15 on third down. Though the Hawkeyes offense was equally miserable, they scored 14 points. Michigan scored 13.

Keith Duncan's 33-yard field goal as time expired all but ensured Michigan would not win the Big Ten East, thus would not have a chance to jump in the playoff field barring a shocking loss from one (or more) of the top four teams.

Wisconsin, 2017: 4th-and-20

Dec. 2, 2017

Despite all of Wisconsin's success over the last three decades, the Badgers' record books and trophy case has a couple gaping holes. They have never won—or played for—a national championship or had an undefeated season. That almost changed in 2017.

After posting a 12-0 regular-season mark for the first time ever, the Badgers needed a win over Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship to clinch a playoff spot. They crawled back from a 21-7 first-half deficit and got the ball down six points, 27-21, with three minutes remaining. Alex Hornibrook's interception on 4th-and-20 with one minute left officially ended their hopes.

Georgia, 2018: Bama’s 3rd-and-8

Dec. 1, 2018

One year after blowing a 13-0 halftime lead vs. Alabama in the national championship, Georgia had another shot at the Crimson Tide. They blew it again, this time a seven-point fourth-quarter lead.

Tied at 28-28 with under two minutes remaining, Alabama faced 3rd-and-8 from midfield. Jalen Hurts connected with Irv Smith Jr. for a 19-yard reception that put Alabama into field-goal position. While Hurts' 15-yard touchdown run and failed last-second heave by Jake Fromm minutes later ultimately ended Georgia's playoff shot, it was the Smith reception that put kicker Joseph Bulovas into range.

Georgia, 2019: Blankenship's Miss

Oct. 12, 2019

After beating Notre Dame in Week 4, undefeated (4-0) Georgia was in a comfortable position to hit 7-0 entering the World Largest’s Outdoor Cocktail Party on Nov. 2. They throttled Tennessee two weeks later and needed wins over South Carolina and Kentucky.

Georgia didn’t hit 7-0; they committed four turnovers and Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 42-yard field goal in the second overtime to extend the game.

Three weeks after the loss, Georgia was still No. 6 in the Week 10 playoff rankings and No. 4 in the subsequent four rankings. Even with a hideous loss, the committee thought highly of the Bulldogs and may have given them the No. 4 seed instead of Oklahoma.

Oregon, 2019: Torture in Tempe

Nov. 23, 2019

Oregon lost to Auburn in Week 1 but navigated a friendly schedule to reach No. 6 in the Week 12 playoff rankings. The Ducks had a clear path to their first playoff since 2014: Beat Arizona State and Oregon State in the final two regular-season games and, presumably, Utah in the Pac-12 Championship.

After a furious fourth-quarter comeback trimmed the deficit from 24-7 with nine minutes remaining to 31-28 with two minutes remaining, Oregon had two timeouts and needed one stop. They didn’t get it; Eno Benjamin picked up a first down on 2nd-and-2 and Arizona State ran out the clock three plays later.

Baylor, 2019: 4th-and-20

Nov. 16, 2019

For 60 minutes, heavy underdog Baylor (+9) went blow for blow with Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship, a de facto playoff play-in game. In overtime, Baylor fell apart, allowing an Oklahoma touchdown on the Sooners’ first drive and going backwards 10 yards on their ensuing drive.

Baylor’s hopes were crushed when Nik Bonitto and Jalen Redmond sacked Jacob Zeno to force a 4th-and-20 and officially ended with Zeno’s incomplete prayer a play later.

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Andrew Doughty is a writer for BetMGM and host of High Motor, a college football podcast available on Apple Podcasts and everywhere else. He has written for Sports Illustrated, HERO Sports, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation. Follow him on Twitter: @adoughty88 

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Andrew Doughty

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Andrew Doughty is a web content team lead for BetMGM. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he previously wrote for Sports Illustrated and HERO Sports.

Andrew Doughty is a web content team lead for BetMGM. A graduate of the University of Kansas, he previously wrote for Sports Illustrated and HERO Sports.