by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Throughout our 55 seasons of publishing THE GOLD SHEET, many of our most-memorable college football games have been the infrequent No. 1 vs. No. 2 regular-season battles. Of course, the rather recent introduction of 1 vs. 2 matchups in Bowl Alliance or BCS title games has changed the overall impact of such high-profile regular-season clashes, but we can’t help but get excited whenever such a contest materializes. Which is why we are looking forward to this weekend’s LSU at Alabama titanic in Tuscaloosa, which has the earmarks of the sort of classic duel that could rank among the best in memory. For a detailed preview on this week’s Tigers vs. Crimson Tide showdown, please consult our College Forecast.

With LSU and Bama the main topic this week, we thought it might be fun to look back on some of the best past 1 vs. 2 matchups from the regular season since TGS began to publish in 1957. Not all 1 vs. 2 battles from the past are the same; in many cases, such rumbles featured teams that were not in the eventual national title picture. Others were arguably not matchups of the two best teams from that year. Nonetheless, we’ve compiled a list of what we believe are the most memorable, and best, 1 vs. 2 regular-season showdowns over the past 55 seasons. We’ll have to wait until next week to see where LSU-Bama, circa 2011, fits into the list.

A quick note. Some memorable regular-season showdowns from the past have been omitted from our list because they were not actually 1 vs. 2 battles. Thus, LSU’s 7-3 win over Ole Miss on Halloween night, 1959, when Billy Cannon uncorked his memorable 89-yard punt return TD, is excluded since the Tigers were ranked first and the Rebs third that week. As well as the 1967 UCLA-USC classic, when O.J. Simpson’s late 64-yard TD run gave the Trojans a 21-20 win over Gary Beban’s Bruins; SC had actually dropped to fourth in the polls the previous week after losing at Oregon State.

Let the debate begin...

1-Notre Dame (1) at Michigan State (2), November 19, 1966...The fact this classic ended with no resolution (a 10-10 draw) has helped contribute to its enduring legacy. Unique in that neither of these powerhouses were bowl-bound in ‘66, with Notre Dame still in its dark ages of eschewing bowl games (a policy it would finally end three years later) and Michigan State barred from the postseason by the Big Ten’s “no-repeat” rule of the day.

Anticipation began to build for this one early in the season, and the hype only accelerated as the campaign progressed. A media firestorm preceded the kickoff as draconian TV rules of the era threatened to black out much of the nation from the showdown, although a compromise was reached with ABC wherein much of the country would view the game on a 15-minute-delay basis, circumventing the “live” telecast rules.

The battle was tense throughout, with Notre Dame forced to play from behind with backup QB Coley O’Brien relieving starter Terry Hanratty, who exited early with a shoulder injury. O’Brien nonetheless rallied the Irish back to a 10-10 tie. Notre Dame had a chance to win the game late, but Joe Azzaro’s 41-yard FG attempt sailed wide with 4:39 to play. Controversy erupted afterward when Irish HC Ara Parseghian opted to play it safe in the final moments, but we have always believed critics judged Parseghian too harshly, as putting the ball in the air from his own territory at that stage of the game with a shaky O’Brien was especially risky, and Ara did gamble on a 4th-down run to keep possession in the final drive. Only on the last play of the game did Parseghian play it extra careful, but Ara knew he had one more chance to impress the pollsters the next week in a season-ender at Southern Cal. Which the Irish won 51-0 to help solidify a final number one ranking.

(For a comprehensive review of "The Game of the Century" in 1966, we highly recommend a book penned by the late Mike Celizic, The Biggest Game of them All: Notre Dame, Michigan State, and the Fall of '66).

2-Nebraska (1) at Oklahoma (2), November 25, 1971...Anticipation for this Thanksgiving classic forty years ago began to build in early October when the Sooners quickly ascended to the number two spot in the polls behind defending national champ Nebraska. OU, which had adopted the wishbone offense late the previous season, served notice in an early October 48-27 wipeout of former wishbone master Texas at the Cotton Bowl, a game in which the Sooners rushed for 435 yards, 214 of those by electric HB Greg Pruitt.

In those days, without a Big 8 commitment to any postseason event, bowl games would make their bets before the regular season would conclude. In 1971, the Orange thus invited Nebraska and the Sugar went with Oklahoma. Later that Thanksgiving weekend, Alabama (Orange-bound) and Auburn (Sugar-bound), featuring Heisman winner QB Pat Sullivan, met in an unbeaten SEC showdown at Birmingham.

Both the Huskers and Sooners trampled all opposition in the run-up to the Turkey Day classic, which didn’t disappoint. The affair went back-and-forth, with several highlight-reel plays, including an amazing 72-yard punt return TD by Nebraska’s Johnny Rodgers, effectively sealing the next year’s Heisman Trophy in the process. OU, down 28-17 and having trouble springing Pruitt and backfield mate Joe Wylie, still had QB Jack Mildren, who almost single-handedly rallied the Sooners back to a 31-28 lead in the 4th Q before the Huskers uncorked a bone-crushing TD drive engineered by QB Jerry Tagge and capped by a short Jeff Kinney TD dive. The 35-31 Nebraska win preceded a less-dramatic 1 vs. 2 clash in the Orange Bowl vs. Bama, one in which Nebraska dominated, 38-6.

3-Texas (1) at Arkansas (2), December 6, 1969...This was looming as a Cotton Bowl decider all year in ‘69, but suddenly took on national-title implications when top-ranked Ohio State lost in late November at Michigan. So important became Texas-Arkansas that President Nixon even decided he had to attend the game, prompting anti-Vietnam war protestors to make the trek to Fayetteville. ABC reaped the benefits, having re-scheduled this one in the offseason as an end-of-the-season TV special.

Host Arkansas seemed in command most of the way, jumping to a 14-0 lead that stood until the 4th Q before Texas QB James Street turned into a magician. His 42-yard TD scamper and subsequent 2-point PAT run cut the deficit to 14-8 early in the 4th Q. With less than 5 minutes left and faced with a 4th-and-2 from their own 43, Horns HC Darrell Royal gambled on a deep Street pass, which TE Randy Peschel miraculously gathered in traffic for a 44-yard gain. RB Jim Bertelsen scored a TD shortly thereafter, and PK Happy Feller’s PAT made it 15-14 Longhorns, although they needed to intercept a pass by Razorback QB Bill Montgomery in Texas territory to finally seal the win.

Others: 2006-(1) Ohio State 42 - (2) Michigan 39...Another showdown anticipated for almost the entire autumn, but not quite as compelling as the scoreline indicated. Both subsequently lost in bowl games. 1985- (1) Iowa 12 - (2) Michigan 10...Classic defensive duel won by Hawkeye PK Rob Haughtlin’s last-second 29-yard FG. Neither ended up in national title discussion, which was eventually decided by Oklahoma’s Orange Bowl win over Penn State. 1993-(2) Notre Dame 31 - (1) Florida State 24...Rousing affair in South Bend eventually diminished by the Irish losing to Boston College the next week and wrecking their chances to win the national title. 1991-(2) Miami-Fla. 17 - (1) Florida State 16...One of a succession of high-stakes Canes-Seminoles games of the era, most of which were won by Miami. Not a particularly memorable game, save for FSU PK Gerry Thomas pushing a last-minute 34-yard FG just wide right. 1963-Texas (2) 28 - (1) Oklahoma 7...Horns served notice that they were on their way to national title when holding OU to only 8 first downs at Cotton Bowl. 1986-(2) Miami-Fla. 28 - (1) Oklahoma 16...The first of an entertaining set of mid ‘80s battles between the Sooners and Canes. Miami and Jimmy Johnson got the best of OU’s Barry Switzer both this night and in the next season’s Orange Bowl to win the ‘87 national crown. 1988-(1) Notre Dame 27 - (2) Southern Cal 10...The highlight game of the Irish national title year, this victory came despite Lou Holtz suspending key weapons TB Tony Brooks & WR Rickey Watters. 1981-(1) Southern Cal 28 - (2) Oklahoma 24...Neither one was in the top ten by the end of the season, but this late-September showdown was a thriller, won for SC with a 7-yard John Mazur-to-Fred Cornwall TD pass with 2 seconds to play. 1987-(2) Oklahoma 17 - (1) Nebraska 7...Hardly as captivating as the ‘71 showdown at Norman, with the Sooners winning this defensive showdown in Lincoln before losing in the Orange Bowl vs. Miami. 1996-(2) Florida State 24 - (1) Florida 21...This one was mostly forgotten a month later when the Gators won the Bowl Alliance rematch for the national title at the Sugar Bowl.

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