Commentary

Feeling the sting around the country

Originally Published: August 3, 2010
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

As we culled decades of history to select the 50 most painful outcomes in college football, we couldn't help but notice some days are meaner than others. On some days, the college football gods are in a bad mood. They dole out misery in bulk, wrenching guts in more than one stadium.

Here is a look at three of the most unlikely -- or, depending on your point of view, most vengeful -- days in the game.

Nov. 20, 1982

The Play
AP Photo/Oakland Tribune/Robert StinnettThe Play wasn't the Pac-10's lone highlight during a crazy day in the conference.

It is a day that will belong forever to Stanford and California, thanks to The Play, the Bears' rugby-style romp through the Stanford band as the final seconds ticked away. Even if there had never been YouTube, the game would be remembered as long as there was a Bears fan.

Here's how big The Play is. It has usurped every bit of attention from what might have been the craziest sprint to the finish in any Football Bowl Subdivision conference in recent history. For all the uproar over the finish at Memorial Stadium, all Cal's victory in the Big Game did was push the Bears (4-3) into sole possession of sixth place in the Pac-10 ahead of the Cardinal (3-5).

When that Saturday began, No. 5 Washington, No. 8 Arizona State and No. 15 USC led the league with records of 5-1. No. 11 UCLA, at 4-1-1, lurked only a half-game behind. But the Bruins stood a half-game behind three ranked teams, all of which would have to lose in order for UCLA to go to the Rose Bowl.

That's exactly what happened. The Bruins defeated the Trojans 20-19, stopping a two-point conversion after time had expired to hang on to the victory. The Huskies lost to Washington State, which had a 2-7-1 record, 24-20. Washington All-American kicker Chuck Nelson, who had made 30 consecutive field goals, missed one in the fourth quarter that would have given the Huskies the lead.

And one week later, Arizona upset Arizona State 28-18. UCLA, in one week, zoomed from fourth place in the league to the Rose Bowl, where it defeated Michigan 24-14.

Jan. 1, 1984

[+] EnlargeTurner Gill
AP Photo/Kathy WillensIf Turner Gill completed his pass, the Cornhuskers would have won the national title.
No. 5 Miami began the day as the unlikeliest of national champion candidates. But thanks to a pair of thunderclap endings, the Hurricanes rose to the top of the polls.

First came the Cotton Bowl, in which No. 2 Texas drove inside the Georgia 35 seven times but scored only nine points. Thanks to the Longhorns' defense, that looked as if it would be enough. The Longhorns led 9-3 until Craig Curry fumbled a punt late in the game. The Bulldogs recovered at the Texas 23 and scored to win 10-9.

No. 4 Illinois (10-1) played unranked UCLA (6-4-1) in the Rose Bowl in what appeared to be a mismatch. It was. The Bruins embarrassed the Illini 45-9.

That night, in the Sugar Bowl, No. 3 Auburn defeated No. 8 Michigan 9-7 in name only. The lackluster victory did nothing to make the Tigers' case for the national championship. That left the Orange Bowl, where hometown, home-field Miami stunned No. 1 Nebraska. The game hung on Huskers coach Tom Osborne's decision to go for two points, trailing 31-30, with 48 seconds to play.

Had Osborne kicked the extra point, the poll voters, in all likelihood, would have kept Nebraska at No. 1 over once-beaten Auburn. But Osborne wanted to win the game. The Huskers went for two points. Defensive back Ken Calhoun tipped Turner Gill's pass to Jeff Smith. The second thunderclap boomed. Miami won its first national championship.

Oct. 15, 2005

The national championship race rarely pivots so sharply on a mid-October day. That's exactly what happened in a matter of minutes at Notre Dame and at Michigan.

In South Bend, No. 9 Notre Dame pushed No. 1 USC to the brink of an upset. But as you might recall, Trojans tailback Reggie Bush pushed back. Specifically, Bush pushed Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart from behind, helping to propel Leinart into the end zone from 1 yard out with three seconds to play. USC won 34-31 and went on to the BCS Championship Game.

At Michigan, the Wolverines upset No. 10 Penn State 27-25 when Chad Henne completed a 10-yard pass to Mario Manningham on the final play of the game. That one play made life easier for USC, Texas and a lot of poll voters. Penn State finished the regular season 10-1. The undefeated Trojans played the Longhorns in the Rose Bowl for the BCS championship, unaccompanied by controversy.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com