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August 28, 2008
These memorable openers lived up to hype
Great anticipation always accompanies the first games of the college football season.
In some cases, great accomplishments do, too.
Perhaps a few of the games from this season's first week will generate memories that will endure for decades, or longer. Some season-opening games become classics. There have been monumental upsets and momentum-gaining victories that launch teams on to national championships.
One might have even expedited social change.
Here's a look at some of college football's most memorable season-opening games, listed chronologically:
TEN MEMORABLE SEASON OPENERS
The Longhorns posted 21 wins in 1963-64, but their offense grew stagnant and in '67, they were held to fewer than 20 points in six of 10 games. Coach Darrell Royal needed something new and offensive coordinator Emory Bellard came up with the Wishbone, a triple-option system that featured two split halfbacks and a fullback lined up close to the quarterback. The No. 4 Longhorns unveiled the new offense against No. 11 Houston and trudged to a 20-20 tie. But two weeks later, the Longhorns started a 30-game winning streak that included two national titles. And in a just a few years, the Wishbone would be the most popular offense in college football.
Some times, something greater than championships are at stake. That was the case when No. 3 USC traveled to Birmingham to face 16th-ranked Alabama. The Crimson Tide was all-white and USC had an all-black starting backfield of Sam Cunningham, Clarence Davis and Jimmy Jones. Cunningham rushed 12 times for 135 yards and two touchdowns in the Trojans' victory. Afterward, Bear Bryant invited Cunningham into the Alabama locker room to meet the Crimson Tide players. Bryant began recruiting black players that season, prompting the legendary quote from Alabama assistant Jerry Claiborne: "Sam Cunningham did more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. accomplished in 20 years."
The first AstroTurf game at Little Rock's War Memorial Stadium matched No. 4 Arkansas and No. 10 Stanford. Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett passed for 262 yards and two touchdowns. Arkansas, which had finished No. 2 in the nation in 1969, came up with three interceptions, but Stanford's defense was even more impressive, with a final-play goal-line stand that clinched the win. The victory catapulted Stanford to a memorable season; it finished 9-3, won the Pac-8 and stunned Ohio State 27-17 in the Rose Bowl. Plunkett also won the Heisman Trophy.
The Huskers came in with a 32-game unbeaten streak, had posted back-to-back national championships and had scored at least 31 points in all 13 games the previous season. Nebraska's offense featured quarterback David Humm and dynamic wing back Johnny Rodgers. Meanwhile, UCLA was coming off a dreadful 2-7-1 season. But the Bruins had a new quarterback: Mark Harmon, a junior college transfer whose father, Tom, won the Heisman for Michigan in 1940. With Harmon running the Wishbone, UCLA confounded the Huskers in a shocking upset. The Bruins went on post an 8-3 record and finished second in the Pac-8. Nebraska went 9-2-1, routed Notre Dame 40-6 in the Orange Bowl and finished fourth in the final poll. Rodgers went on to win the Heisman Trophy, while Harmon has become a successful actor; he currently stars in the CBS drama "NCIS."
The inaugural Kickoff Classic turned into a classic butt-kicking. Penn State was the defending national champion, and Nebraska was the preseason No. 1. The previous season, the Huskers let a late lead slip away in a 27-24 loss to the Nittany Lions – their only loss of the season. This time, they took a 21-0 halftime lead and never looked back. Quarterback Turner Gill passed for 158 yards and a touchdown and ran for another. Nebraska remained atop the polls until falling to Miami 31-30 in the Orange Bowl. Penn State finished 8-4-1.
The Bulldogs were coming off a lackluster 6-5 showing in 1979 when they went to Knoxville on Sept. 6. Georgia was ranked No. 16, but few knew the Bulldogs had a secret weapon. The Volunteers took an early lead, but then the secret weapon – true freshman running back Herschel Walker – was unveiled. Walker rushed for 84 yards and two touchdowns to lead a Bulldogs rally. He went into the game as the Bulldogs' third-team tailback but would become a national phenomenon. Georgia would go on to win the national championship.
Coming off a 11-1 record and a No. 2 finish – behind Miami – in 1987, Florida State entered the '88 season ranked No. 1. The "Seminole Rap" – a self-congratulatory recording made in the offseason and modeled after the Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle" – was the most-requested song in Tallahassee. The Hurricanes were ranked eighth in the preseason, but Hurricanes quarterback Steve Walsh threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns and Miami grabbed five interceptions to humble the Seminoles. The Hurricanes finished 11-1, and only a controversial one-point loss to Notre Dame prevented them from winning consecutive national titles. Florida State rebounded and also finished 11-1.
Hawaii native Reggie Ho converted a 26-yard field goal with 1:13 left to give the 13th-ranked Irish a 19-17 lead. Michigan kicker Mike Gillette, who had given the Wolverines a 17-16 lead on a 49-yard field goal with 5:34 to play, missed from 48 yards on the game's last play. Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Michigan finished with nine victories.
Without star quarterback Peyton Manning, who had graduated after the '97 season, 10th ranked Tennessee opened the season on the road against No. 17 Syracuse. Junior Tee Martin was the new Volunteers quarterback, while Donovan McNabb led Syracuse. Tennessee led 24-13 after three quarters, but Syracuse rallied behind McNabb, who threw a touchdown pass and rushed for another in the fourth quarter. The Orange then took a 33-31 lead on a 19-yard field goal with 2:28 left. But Martin moved the Volunteers downfield on the ensuing possession – helped along by a fourth-down interference call on Syracuse – and Jeff Hall kicked a game-winning 27-yard field goal on the final play. The Vols would go on to win their first national championship in 47 years.
Division I-AA champion Appalachian State was a decided underdog to Michigan, which was ranked fifth in the country. But App State quarterback Armanti Edwards kept the Wolverines' defense off-balance all day and threw for 227 yards and three TDs. The Mountaineers took a 34-32 lead on a 24-yard field goal by Julian Rauch with 26 seconds left. Michigan still had a chance to avoid the monumental upset, but Corey Lynch blocked a 37-yard field-goal attempt on the game's final play. Appalachian State went on to win another I-AA national championship.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.