TAMPA — We're happy to give the occasion all the deference it deserves. When the third College Football Playoff national championship game is staged Monday night at Raymond James Stadium, we'll douse it with watershed-moment status.
After all, how often has the bay area served as college football's epicenter? Locally, the game will be groundbreaking, grand, even glitzy.
But the greatest? We'll reserve judgement.
We tapped into memories and microfiche to come up with the 10 greatest college football games played in Tampa. Our criteria included the games' significance, stakes and sheer excitement. Will Alabama-Clemson crack this list? Probably, but it'll darn sure have to earn its way onto it.
1. Florida A&M 34, University of Tampa 28 (Nov. 29, 1969)
A year before John McKay's Southern Cal team won at Alabama, the Rattlers and Spartans staged what is believed to be the first interracial college football game in the South. While that alone propels this one to the top of our list, it also turned out to be a doozy of a game (the teams combined for 1,135 total yards). Iconic FAMU coach Jake Gaither had spent years lobbying Florida's Board of Regents for permission to play a white school, and he finally found a willing ally on the other side in UT coach Fran Curci. When the game finally came to fruition, more than 46,000 crammed into old Tampa Stadium to see it. "I remember the east stands were totally African-American and the west stands were almost all white," State Vacuum of Tampa owner (and former stadium ball boy) David Epstein told the Tampa Bay Times in 2013. "I didn't notice any racial tensions. It was just electric."
2. Miami 32, Florida 20 (Sept. 1, 1984)
Collectively, the rosters for this Labor Day weekend clash featured 54 players who ultimately made NFL teams. On a humid Saturday night in Tampa Stadium, the Gators put the national champs on the ropes behind freshman QB Kerwin Bell. A walk-on from Mayo, Bell had been thrust atop the depth chart when starter Dale Dorminey blew out a knee earlier in the week. Bell's 5-yard TD pass to Frankie Neal gave UF a 20-19 lead, but 41 seconds left was plenty of time for Bernie Kosar, who drove the 'Canes 72 yards in five plays. Kosar's 12-yard TD toss to Eddie Brown with seven seconds left sealed things, and Tolbert Bain's pick-six on the final play made for a deceptive final score. It was the first regular-season night game broadcast live by ESPN.
3. Georgia 28, Purdue 25 (Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2000)
In terms of the point deficit conquered, no bowl game had featured a comeback greater than the first one of the 2000s. Heisman finalist Drew Brees (who tied or set six Outback records) staked Purdue to a 25-0 first-half lead before the Bulldogs clawed back behind QB Quincy Carter. On his final possession, Carter drove Georgia 94 yards in 13 plays, connecting with tight end Randy McMichael on an 8-yard rollout scoring pass that had been tipped by two defenders. The extra point tied the score with 1:19 to go, and the Dawgs won it on a 21-yard Hap Hines field goal in only the second overtime in college bowl history.
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4. University of Tampa 24, Mississippi State 17 (Oct. 26, 1968)
Most in the under-40 demographic might not realize that UT — which dropped football after the 1974 season — was a small-school force. In his story from the game, the Spartans' first win against an SEC program in 12 attempts, former Tampa Tribune sports editor Tom McEwen called the upset "the most significant victory in the school's history." Spartans left-handed quarterback Jim Del Gaizo's 32-yard touchdown pass to Bobby Fernandez cut MSU's lead to 17-16 with 6:31 to play before Spartans coach Fran Curci opted for a risky two-point try. The result: Del Gaizo found receiver John Benedetto — who became Pasco County's winningest prep coach at Land O'Lakes High — isolated in the end zone for the go-ahead points.
5. Florida A&M 27, Bethune-Cookman 17 (Nov. 25, 1978)
The first of 17 consecutive Florida Classics in Tampa might have been the most dramatic. Before a Tampa Stadium crowd of 40,868, the Rattlers' run to a Division I-AA national title hit a first-half pothole as Bethune-Cookman raced out to a 17-0 halftime lead. FAMU rallied in part behind Hillsborough High alumnus Ike Williams (15 carries, 134 yards), but the biggest play might have been a busted one late in the fourth quarter. Down by four and facing fourth and 16 from the Wildcats' 19-yard line, Rattlers quarterback Albert Chester was flushed from the pocket, scrambled back to the B-CC 40, then burst upfield before being tackled at the 1. FAMU scored on the next play for a 20-17 lead. "(FAMU coach) Rudy (Hubbard) made some bad decisions," B-CC coach Andy Hinson told the Tampa Tribune, "but he came out smelling like a rose."
6. USF 21, West Virginia 13 (Sept. 28, 2007)
When USF wants to show recruits what Bulls football can be (and has been), it uses clips and crowd shots from this nationally televised Friday night game. Staged before what was then the program's largest home crowd (67,012), USF further embedded itself in the nation's consciousness with trademark Jim Leavitt defense. Facing a fifth-ranked Mountaineers squad averaging 47 points, the Bulls forced six turnovers (compensating for four of their own). Senior linebacker Ben Moffitt returned one of his two interceptions for a 26-yard touchdown, and his cohorts forced Mountaineers quarterback Pat White to the bench with a thigh injury before halftime. Less than three weeks later, USF was No. 2 in the BCS standings.
7. Auburn 38, Northwestern 35 OT (Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, 2010)
Fittingly, this dizzying contest ended with a foiled fake field goal. Before that, it featured a 100-yard interception return (by Auburn's Walter McFadden), a two-point conversion pass by Wildcats receiver Andrew Brewer (on a reverse handoff) and 78 — SEVENTY-EIGHT — pass attempts by Northwestern's Mike Kafka (532 yards, four touchdowns). But the indelible image is 'Cats backup kicker Steve Flaherty lining up for a short tying field goal, only to have the ball snapped to upback Dan Persa, who slithered it through his legs to receiver Zeke Markshausen, who made it to the 2-yard line before Auburn's Neiko Thorpe made the game-ending tackle.
8. Michigan State 33, Georgia 30, 3 OT (Outback Bowl, Jan. 2, 2012)
Spartans quarterback Kirk Cousins already had been intercepted twice before staging one of the signature drives of his career. Down by seven with no timeouts and 1:55 left in regulation, Cousins engineered an 85-yard scoring drive capped by Le'Veon Bell's 1-yard touchdown with 14 seconds to play. Three overtimes later, nose tackle Anthony Rashad White blocked Blair Walsh's 47-yard field goal to seal the Spartans' first bowl win in 10 years. Reports had Cousins screaming, "You like that!" to reporters en route to the winning locker room.
9. USF 80, Kentucky Wesleyan 3 (Sept. 6, 1997)
What this game lacked in suspense, it atoned for with significance. More than 20 years after the University of Tampa's program was shut down, college football returned to Tampa. A sellout crowd of 49,212 filled the reconfigured Houlihan's Stadium to witness the first game in USF history. For you trivia buffs, the first touchdown in Bulls lore was scored by Rafael Williams, on a 1-yard run with 7:14 to go in the first quarter.
10. Bethune-Cookman 16, Florida A&M 14 (Nov. 29, 1980)
While we consider the 1978 game the most dramatic of the 17 Florida Classics staged in Tampa, this one was the closest. The Wildcats, seeking their second consecutive win against a rival that had previously owned them, blew their chance to ice it when Kenny McMillan was sacked by Ernest Wright on fourth and 2 with a minute to go. Starting at their 33-yard line, the Rattlers ran on three of the ensuing five plays, with tailback Greg Fashaw breaking off runs of 12 and 16 yards to set up a 42-yard Vincent Coleman field goal with 13 seconds to go. The ball was deflected by Wildcats defensive back Wayne Jones, becoming the Rattlers' fourth botched kick or punt of the day.