College Football's Lifeblood

It's the hatred...

What is the source of college football’s greatness? What’s the lifeblood of a fanbase? From my perspective, one of the main things that makes college football special are the intense and often bitter rivalries that have developed over the course of decades. In many households they can turn brother against brother, children against parents and – particularly in college football-crazy regions like the Southeast they spice up workplaces as well.

For NFL and pro sports fans who aren’t as into college sports, it can be hard to understand just how important the outcome of one (or two) rivalry games on a team’s schedule truly are. I mean, Joe Steelworker in Pittsburgh gets that the Ohio State-Michigan game when both teams are in the Top 5 or 10 is a huge game. But he may not really understand why a game in Mississippi between two teams with .500 records going in is SO important to the future of everyone in both programs and watched intensely by at least half the adults in the state.

People that have read my first three columns know that I’m an Alabama homer (full disclosure). One of the great Alabama-related sports authors is Warren St. John and in his seminal work Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer, he writes about how NFL rivalries compare to college football ones. For a Philadelphia Eagles fan, they hate the New York Giants – but if they lose once, they get to play later in the year. A season that ends in a Super Bowl for, say, the Baltimore Ravens, would not be diminished even by two regular season losses to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL. For the fans of many college teams– they live with the results of the last rivalry game for 364 days – particularly when it’s the final game of the year, which it often is. A winning season that ends with a loss to your rival leaves an incredibly sour taste in your mouth, even if you go on to win a bowl game or compete for the conference title. Conversely, an otherwise underachieving year can feel salvaged by upsetting your hated rival. Some fans (mistakenly) would rather their team beat their hated rival than win a conference or even national championship.

Make no mistake – coaches can often be retained or fired based on how they do in one game – particularly if they’ve not built up much good will or have had an unexpectedly mediocre season. Using Alabama as an example - after Bear Bryant (who dominated the Auburn rivalry in the 1960’s, 1970’s and early 80’s) retired following the 1982 season, the Tide fired two coaches with winning records at least in part because of their inability to beat Auburn (Bill Curry, who was 26-10 with an SEC Title his final year, although technically he resigned, and Mike Shula, overmatched as a head coach but a year after winning 10 games. They were a combined 0-7 against Auburn). Just last year, Ole Miss had been planning to keep their head coach Matt Luke at least another year despite a losing season but a last second embarrassing loss in the Egg Bowl – yes that’s what it’s called – to Mississippi State led to his dismissal. College football program-building is all about momentum and nothing makes fans, big donors and athletic directors feel stagnated like an unexpected loss to a rival – especially if it feels to them like you had the better team.

Before we get to my unofficial ranking of the greatest rivalries in college football – programs that are trying to build a winning tradition often struggle when they don’t have a rival to aim for as a measuring stick. For example, I think that has hurt Maryland’s program – which I discussed in my last column. They had a series with West Virginia at one time. There used to be a rivalry of sorts with Virginia when both teams were in the ACC but neither was what you’d consider a football power typically. They now play Penn State every year like they used to in the 1980’s and early 90’s. That’s a natural rival, particularly when you consider that they both recruit the DMV region heavily. For it to become a real rivalry, however, Maryland has to start winning against Penn State more consistently. For more on what a real rivalry can do for a football program trying to build, check out what Bill McCartney did at Colorado when he took over their moribund program in the early 1980’s.

Now to the rankings – my evaluation, seasoned with my own perspective of course, is based on not only bitterness or intensity of rivalry, but also level of national or regional importance over the years and relevance to the history of college football. Beyond the “top” ranking, I’ve also provided a list of really fun rivalries that don’t get a lot of national attention. Here we go!

Ready Rivalry Ranking:

1. Army-Navy – from the marching in of the cadets and midshipmen, to the historical resonance from when service academies were major powers before the 1960s, to the fact that the game is usually played in Northeastern cities in a throwback to when college football was king, you can’t top this game for tradition and pageantry. You also can’t beat the fact that they run traditional option and throw back, single-wing football. For many years following the 1960’s, it was a great game between teams that usually weren’t very good in the grand scheme of things. Elite college football talent is not going to the service academies – the five year commitment to serve following graduation before being able to enter professional football or other endeavors and the academic stringency of the institutions limits the pool considerably. However, in the past decade, both programs have risen to be very competitive at the same time, with Army ending a 14 year losing streak three years ago, then Navy winning again last year after two straight losses in the series. The best part of this rivalry is that you know these are players truly doing it for the love of the game and that they are willing to sacrifice their lives for our freedom. Plus it’s always an intense competition for sixty minutes.

2A. Alabama-Auburn- Yes I’m biased, but the “Iron Bowl” has unmatched year-round ferocity between fans and players and for the last decade with only 2019 as an exception, at least one and often two participants in this game have been in the national title picture. It’s also given college football three of the most iconic games of the decade (2010, 2013 & 2019)– sadly all won by the Barn. Seasoning this rivalry further is the 41-year gap in the two teams playing each other between 1907-1948 because of a discrepancy over a $34 travel bill. Not joking.

2B. Ohio State – Michigan- I made this rank as “B” because it’s not an in-state rivalry and because Ohio State has absolutely dominated it in recent years. However, it’s the greatest regional rivalry and has tremendous crossover appeal even amongst those Northeastern pro sports fans. From Bo and Woody’s “Ten Year War” to Urban and Harbaugh and “The Spot,” just filled with iconic moments. There’s even been a President in this game (President Gerald Ford, Center for Michigan in the 1940’s).

4. Oklahoma-Texas- See Ohio State-Michigan and, again, this game has featured at least one and often two national title contenders year after year. Played in October at the old Cotton Bowl right in the middle of the Texas State Fair, this “Red River Shootout” defines the season for both teams (especially now that Texas and Texas A&M no longer play annually). This is a quick summary – so many great moments from these teams that used the wishbone offense to dominate college football – Texas had the coach who helped invent and implement it (Darrell Royal), Oklahoma had the innovator (Barry Switzer).

5A. Florida-Florida State- Before Spurrier arrived at Florida (and certainly before Bowden came to Florida State in the late 1970’s), this was a heated in-state rivalry but not an important one. Neither team had much tradition of success or excellence. Bowden built FSU into a national power in the 1980’s while Florida was up and down between success and probation because of cheating to get the success. Once Spurrier got to Florida in 1990 that all changed and this rivalry went from heated Panhandle battle to one of national importance. From 1990-2001 this game held major national sway featuring amazing moments and games - from “Free Shoes U” to “the Choke at the Doak.” Since then, with a brief blip in the mid-2000’s, at least one team has been a major national player. You watch this game for great players as much as anything else.

5B. Florida State-Miami- You can’t tell the story of modern college football (post-1980) without this rivalry. From Wide Right I, II & III to Miami missing an extra point to lose in excruciating fashion four years ago and from Charlie Ward and Fastbreak offense to Ed Reed, Santonio Moss, and Willis McGahee, this was always a mid-season game you didn’t want to miss. It’s only this far down the list because for the past few years neither team has been particularly relevant nationally. Hopefully for the sake of college football and our entertainment - that’s changing.

7. Notre Dame-USC- Another rivalry with a lot of historical significance. Both teams are among the winningest programs in college football history. Notre Dame built it’s program in the 1920’s-1930’s as an independent without conference affiliation because it was willing to go on the road and play cross-sectional opponents all over the country, including the service academies (who were major powers at the time), Michigan, and academic powers like Stanford. The greatest of these games that became an annual tradition was the matchup with USC. Every other year, the Fighting Irish play the Trojans in L.A. in the final game of the year and in mid-season back in South Bend, IN. While the two teams have ebbed and flowed in how dominant they are at one time, it’s nearly always an important game nationally. The penultimate moment from the rivalry…either the 2005 game (The Bush Push) or the 1988 game where the two teams were ranked #1 and #2 and Notre Dame went on to win the game and then the national title.

Other great in-state and state adjacent rivalries to enjoy in 2020:

Florida-Georgia – “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” mid-season game that is usually pivotal in the SEC East race. “Gators wear Jean Shorts” is the common refrain from Georgia fans aimed at their rivals whilst Florida fans can ask Georgia fans how long it’s been since they’ve won a national title. (1980)

Alabama-Tennessee – “The Third Saturday in October.” Alabama is arguably Tennessee’s most hated rival because they’ve traditionally dominated in-state Vanderbilt and neighbor Kentucky. Old school Alabama fans often will claim that they care a lot more about beating the Volunteers than beating Auburn.

Auburn-Georgia – “The South’s Oldest Rivalry,” an intense game that often has at least SEC, if not national importance. Some great/painful memories on both sides in this one, including the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare.”

Ole Miss-Mississippi State – “The Egg Bowl” and if you think something in YOUR life is important…you should see how State and Ole Miss people feel about this game.

Washington-Washington State – “The Apple Cup,” classic metropolitan, elitist university versus rural “little brother,” Seattle versus Pullman, West Coast versus Eastern Washington. Usually a great game.

USC vs. UCLA – This would’ve been higher up on the list if both programs hadn’t been doing some wilderness wondering the past few years at different times. However, it’s still the battle for L.A. and the two teams both wearing their home, dark-colored jerseys in the sunshine in December while we are all freezing back East makes this aesthetically pleasing if nothing else.

Oklahoma-Oklahoma State – Known as “Bedlam,” Oklahoma almost always wins…but every once in awhile Bedlam does strike and all you need to know about how important this game is is the looks on coaches’ faces when it’s over.

Georgia-Georgia Tech- “Good Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” between the Techies and the Bulldogs. Of late Georgia has dominated this non-conference, end season series but Georgia Tech’s new coach Geoff Collins seems to be rebranding the Yellow Jackets as Atlanta’s team and improving recruiting. We’ll see if it can get back to more of a coin flip like it was in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

BYU-Utah – This matchup is “The Holy War” in VERY Morman Utah, this used to be a conference matchup but now it is an early season game that sets the tone for both teams for the entire year.

Cal-Stanford- “The Big Game” in not the very college football-crazy Bay Area, Cal-Stanford was the scene of one of the greatest and most bizarre moments in the history of the sport in 1982. If you’ve never heard “…and the band is out on the field!” – then you owe it to yourself.

Michigan-Michigan State – This one’s nasty.

Virginia-Virginia Tech – Virginia just broke a loooooong losing streak in this series but it’s an intense rivalry nonetheless with a lot of great games.

Oregon-Oregon State- Used to be a close, good game every year. Oregon has dominated Oregon State of late in the “Civil War” (apparently they are going to change that name because the only civil war ever fought was America’s…?). We’ll see if Coach Johnathan Smith can keep making OSU competitive and bring the Beavers back to beat the Ducks.

Iowa-Iowa State – there’s a crude term that the college football blogosphere has for this game that I won’t repeat – but basically it’s an early season game that was historically dominated by Iowa until the 21st Century. It always ends up 18-16 or 17-15 or some other sort of weird score. Always. Don’t bother checking the records.

There’s more…much, much more (Clemson-South Carolina/Wisconsin-Iowa/Minnesota-Wisconsin/Arizona-Arizona State/Alabama-LSU/Oregon-Washington/Penn State-Ohio State)– the final two weekends of the season are filled with them. I look forward to talking more about these memories and matchups as we get into the run-up to the 2020 Season. Feel free to share your memories and favorite rivalries with me @JustinReady on Twitter.