College football is like nothing else in American sports. It’s the only sport in the nation where you can pack in 100,000 fans in a small town into a stadium to watch a bunch of non-professionals play a game. (Also: Marching bands!)
Sure, it’s the same sport in the NFL, but the deep-seated loyalti of college students, alumni, and fans the tight-knit camaraderie, and the intense geographical rivalries all come together to create an atmosphere where the best athletes in the country can perform some astonishing feats—shocking upset endings, amazing receptions, ferocious tackles, and unbelievable throws.
And while these players aren’t professionals (yet), that doesn’t mean they can’t make miracles happen on the gridiron. Here are the most incredible, athletic, and fan-shocking plays in college football from the 2000s:
Vince Young, Texas, 2006
The 2006 Rose Bowl unquestionably one of the best college football games of all time. With just 26 seconds left on the clock, facing 4th-and-5 on the 10-yard line, and the Longhorns down 38-33 to USC, Texas quarterback Vince Young took matters into his own hands and put himself into college football folklore. Young dropped back, searched for an open receiver, and then tucked the ball into his arm and darted towards the endzone. Young showed off his fantastic combination of strength and speed on the play, racing the Trojan defense with his 6’5”, 230-pound frame to the near-right corner of the endzone—and dancing in to score the winning touchdown and give the Longhorns the national title.
Reggie Bush, USC, 2005
The USC Trojans running back won the Heisman Trophy in 2005 because of plays like this. Against Fresno State, Bush took the ball around the 50-yard line from quarterback Matt Leinart and broke through the offensive line—basically untouched. He darted his way up the sidelines with his 4.33-second 40-yard dash speed. Just as one of the Fresno defensive backs was about to make contact with Bush, he pulled up, came to a near-complete stop, and zagged in the other direction, leaving four different Bulldog players in the dust before scoring a touchdown.
Bush later was stripped of his Heisman for taking improper benefits in college and Southern Cal was forced to vacate all of their wins from the’05 season—so yeah, technically this play “doesn’t exist” for Bush. But regardless of what the NCAA record books say, our eyes can’t lie. Bush was an electric college football star and this play encapsulates why he was so fun and entertaining to watch.
Boise State, 2007, “The Statue of Liberty Play”
The “Statue of Liberty Play” is something you use in your backyard while playing pickup football with your friends, not win you BCS Bowl games—but don’t tell that to Boise State. In the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, a crazy game that saw the teams score 22 points over the final two minutes, the Broncos and Oklahoma went into overtime, with the Sooners scoring first to take the lead 42–35. Boise State scored a touchdown with a wild play—a halfback pass—to cut the lead to 42-41, but the Broncos weren’t done yet. Instead of trying the game and continuing overtime with an extra-point kick, Boise State ran a trick play—quarterback Jared Zabransky faked a pass to the right side, then quickly handed the ball with his left hand to running back Ian Johnson, who ran into the endzone untouched for the winning two-point conversion.
LSU, 2002, “The Bluegrass Miracle”
The Kentucky Wildcats, a heavy underdog against the Nick Saban-led LSU Tigers, took a 30–27 lead with a field goal with just 11 seconds left on the clock. An upset of the No. 16 team in the nation and defending SEC champion was within reach—the Kentucky players were so confident they would win, they showered their head coach in Gatorade.
After completing a pass play to their own 26-yard line with two seconds left, LSU set up for one final play, but it appeared that a win was out of reach—the quarterback, Marcus Randall, didn’t have that great of an arm, so a Hail Mary was out of the question, while a lateral play had a very low chance of being successful. Randall took the snap and threw the ball as far as he could down the field—some Kentucky fans even started storming the field once he let it go—and the ball tipped off three different players before miraculously falling into the hands of wide receiver Devery Henderson, who scampered in for the winning LSU touchdown.
Chad Kelly, Ole Miss, 2015
Sometimes a play going to hell is the best way to get things done. Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly proved that in 2015 when he was forced to corral a high snap against the ferocious Alabama defense, barely getting set for a throw before two goliath players crushed him to the turf. Kelly was able to launch the ball sky high—a pass that looked like it could be intercepted—but instead, the ball was tipped, and somehow Rebels wideout Quincy Adeboyejo came up with it. With no one ahead of him on the field, Adeboyejo raced from his own 40-yard line for the miraculous touchdown. Later in the game, Kelly completed another wild touchdown, but the refs missed a call on the play, as a lineman was ineligible downfield.
Nick Marshall, Auburn, 2013
The Georgia Bulldogs stormed back against Auburn from 20 points down in the fourth quarter to take a 38-37 lead on the Tigers with just 36 seconds left in the game. All that was left for Auburn to try was a Hail Mary play and the Bulldogs knew it—so they left three defensive backs waiting deep to cover any Auburn wideouts who tried to find open space. It didn’t make a difference. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall heaved a pass deep down the field, where it fell into the arms of two colliding Georgia players. But instead of being caught, the ball was tipped up and fortuitously landed right in the hands of Tigers wide receiver Ricardo Louis, who scored the 73-yard winning touchdown. Game announcer Verne Lundquist summed up the play best: “I started doing college football telecasts in 1974, I’ve never seen anything quite like this.”
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina, 2013, “The Hit”
This was the “Hit Heard Round the World.” Clowney—a future No.1 overall NFL Draft pick for the Houston Texans—used all 266 pounds of his 6’5” frame to make this hit against Michigan Wolverines running back Vincent Smith. After a call went against the Gamecocks late in the fourth quarter, Clowney took out his anger with a furious hit in the backfield on Smith. Clowney broke through the offensive line like a freight train, and just as Smith received the ball, Clowney smashed him in the chest, knocking his helmet in the air and forcing a fumble, which of course Clowney recovered himself. It’s hard to say for sure, but this might’ve been the most replayed college football highlight of the 2013 season.
Jalen Watts-Jackson, Michigan State, 2015
The battle for the Paul Bunyan Trophy is one of the most heated rivalries in all of college football. The game from 2015 had one of the most shocking endings in the history of the matchup, all stemming from a punter who couldn’t hang on to the ball. Leading 23-21 with just 10 seconds left in the game, the Wolverines were forced to set up for a punt at their own 40-yard line. Michigan State was 6-0 at the time and a loss there likely would’ve knocked out any chance at making the College Football Playoffs.
All that changed when punter Blake O’Neill mishandled the snap for Michigan. Instead of pouncing on the ball right away, he tried to pick it up, only making things worse. The ball bounced out of his hands and directly into the arms of Spartans freshman Jalen Watts-Jackson, who sped into the endzone for a touchdown, giving MSU the stunning 27–23 win.
Chris Davis, Auburn, 2013, “The Kick Six”
The 78th Iron Bowl matchup between bitter in-state rivals Auburn and Alabama might have the most shocking ending of any game in college football history. With the game tied 28-28 following a Tigers field goal, the Crimson Tide opted to go for a 57-yard field goal attempt with one second left on the clock. What did Alabama coach Nick Saban have to lose? The team was 11-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation—at best, the kick would sail in, the team would win and stay undefeated; at worst, the kick would fall short and the teams would duke it out in overtime. Saban and Alabama didn’t consider a third possibility.
The kick fell short—and into the waiting arms of Tigers cornerback Chris Davis. The speedy Davis opted to take his chances with a return. bursting out to the 10-yard line and finding an opening. Before Alabama could figure out what was going on, Davis had shifted into high gear—he ran a 4.45-second 40-yard dash—and Auburn’s specially selected field unit of ace blockers opened up a lane for their return man. Davis outran the Tide’s kicker, tip-toeing down the sidelines for a 100-yard touchdown, giving Auburn the 34-28 victory. With that, the “Kick Six” was born, going down as one of the most amazing plays in football history.
Tyrone Prothro, Alabama, 2005, “The Catch”
When you talk about the best catches in football history, names like Odell Beckham, David Tyree, and Santonio Holmes come to mind—and with this catch, former Alabama Crimson Tide wideout Tyrone Prothro put himself in that conversation.
With time winding down in the first half against Southern Mississippi, Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle tossed a deep ball from his own 50-yard line towards a streaking Prothro near the endzone.
Southern Mississippi cornerback Jasper Faulk was covering Prothro step-by-step and had nearly perfect coverage on the wide receiver—but it didn’t matter. As the ball came down, Prothro reached his arms around the back of the defender and made the catch, pinning the pigskin against Faulk’s jersey, somehow keeping possession as the two flipped into the endzone for the touchdown. Stanford wideout Francis Owusu made a similar catch in 2015, but in our opinion, Prothro’s still reigns supreme.