I have been planning to write a lengthy analysis of college football’s top rivalries for several months now, and I thought this would be the perfect time to publish it. The first few “end of year” rivalry games (more on that classification in a bit) took place this past Saturday, and the next two weeks will be filled with rivalry grudge matches from all across the country. It’s time to just sit back and enjoy the best few weeks of the college football season!
Let me begin first by stating the parameters and factors I have used to conduct this analysis of college football rivalry games. The first rule I have established is that only FBS games are being considered. Sorry, I know that Lafayette-Lehigh and Harvard-Yale are as intense and historic rivalry games as any, but I just don’t follow enough non-FBS football to properly evaluate those games. Secondly, the focus of this rivalry analysis will be on the intensity of a rivalry, and not necessarily its history or its aura. In other words, I care more about how much two teams hate each other than about how many famous players, coaches, and great games a particular rivalry has possessed.
Now that you know what I’m trying to do here, I am going to discuss the criteria I relied on most heavily in my analysis. There are three controversial premises I used as the baseline for my evaluations: (1) The first is that intrastate rivalries are superior to interstate rivalries; (2) the second is that inter-conference rivalries are superior to intra-conference rivalries; and (3) the third is that “the animosity must be mutual”. I obviously took into account other factors such as historical significance, the quality of games, the level of play the success of the participants, etc., but when push comes to shove, a rivalry’s importance can be boiled down to the three components mentioned above. I will now explain each of these premises in more detail.
Premise # 1: Intrastate rivalries are superior to interstate rivalries– Ohio State fans have argued this point with me until they were blue in the face. They insist that their rivalry with Michigan is the best in the country, and while it definitely makes my top 10 list, it can’t even approach the top spot because of its interstate nature. Intrastate rivalries are just so much more personal than those between two schools from different states. When you graduate high school in a state where there’s two big state universities, typically half your friends go to one university and about half go to the other. As a result, you’re left with friends, relatives, co-workers, and neighbors who are divided in their athletic allegiances. Every day at work there’s taunting. At every neighborhood block party there’s bickering. And whichever team wins the annual rivalry game gets bragging rights for the next 365 days. This may seem like an exaggeration to some of you, but that’s what exactly what happens in states like Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, and Mississippi. The same phenomenon just doesn’t exist in interstate rivalries like Ohio State-Michigan, USC-Notre Dame, or Oklahoma-Texas. In those situations, the teams are separated geographically so the schools and their fanbases don’t have to interact with the enemy on a daily basis. The bottom line here is that: the greater the familiarity and interaction between fan bases, the more passionate a rivalry will be.
Premise # 2: Inter-conferernce rivalries are superior to intra-conference rivalries– This premise is definitely the most controversial of the three that I have used for my rivalry analysis. Many people will disagree with this contention stating intra-conference rivalries carry with them greater implications because they can affect conference and/or division title races. While that may be true in some cases, the phenomenon known as “conference cheering” trumps any potential benefits of having an archrival from your own conference. I have criticized and sneered at conference cheerers for years now, yet it seems like they are expanding exponentially. Quite simply, conference cheerers are those who will cheer for any team in their favorite school’s conference in any non-conference game they play. These people are the scourge of humanity in my opinion… the folks who will sell their soul to the devil and cheer for their archrival all because they are imaginarily representing their school’s conference in a non-conference matchup. SEC football fans are notorious for this of course. They want to see their fellow SEC rivals and competitors do well against anybody from any other league. This phenomenon is not just limited to the SEC though, in fact it extends nationally. I personally know Pac-12 fans who cheer for Pac-12 teams. I have Wake Forest and UNC friends who cheer for the Puke Blue Devils to do well in the NCAA tournament. And yes, I even encountered an Ohio State fan this fall who was cheering for Michigan to beat Notre Dame, just so the Big 10 would appear more respectable. All in all, this conference cheering phenomenon is one of the most absurd aspects of college sports, and it can really put a damper on a good rivalry. Red Sox fans would never cheer for the Yankees. Redskins fans would never cheer for the Cowboys. Why then did thousands of Alabama fans cheer for Auburn in the BCS Title Game last season? The golden rule of a rivalry is “thou shall never root for my archrival.” Not if they’re playing North Korea. Not if they’re playing Al-Qaeda. And certainly not if they’re playing Oregon.
Premise # 3: The animosity must be mutual– This is a little more straightforward of a concept than the other two premises I have discussed so far. In order to be a true rivalry, both teams must make it their top priority to hate the other. Any rivalry that doesn’t possess a “mutuality of hate” is automatically barred from the list. Therefore, you will not see games like NC State vs. North Carolina, Kentucky vs. Tennessee, or Tennessee vs. Florida in my rankings. In all three of those cases, the first team mentioned despises the second, but the second team has another rival whom they are more concerned with.
So without further ado, here is my full list of the top 10 rivalries in college football. Feel free to comment and debate.
# 10: The Holy War: Utah vs. Brigham Young– If you read the premises I used for these rankings, you will understand that this rivalry has a lot going for it. It is an intrastate rivalry with each team regarding the other as their intense archrival. Also, it is now an inter-conference game, as both schools broke away from the Mountain West at the end of last season. Furthermore, the games in this series are typically close, as four of the last six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. This rivalry even has a great and somewhat humorous nickname- “The Holy War”. So then you may ask why is this game so far down my list of the best college football rivalries. Well, unfortunately, this matchup suffers from a major scheduling dilemma now that the two teams are no longer in the same conference. Rivalry games are best played during the last two weeks of the season for several reasons. First of all, late-November rivalry games allow each team to end its season with a huge and intense victory. Also, if a rivalry game is played at the end of the year, it can have bigger ramifications in terms of bowl bids and conference championships. Unfortunately, “The Holy War” is now played in mid-September which really puts a damper on the importance of this game. I really wanted to rank this matchup higher on this list, but “end of year” rivalry games must take precedence.
# 9: Clean Old-Fashioned Hate: Georgia Tech vs. Georgia– This is a great name for a very good intrastate rivalry. You will come to find out that this is the one of the few games on this list which meets all three of the major criteria I mentioned previously– it is intrastate, inter-conference, and both teams hate each other. The reason I’m not ranking them higher than # 9, however, is that the Georgia has so many other rivals that I am not sure the Yellow Jackets can truly be considered the Dawgs’ archrival. Georgia also has historic and hate-filled rivalries with Florida, Auburn, and South Carolina, so the Bulldogs and their fans have too many other people to hate besides Tech.
#8: Florida State vs. Florida– I have to put at least one Florida rivalry on this list, so I am going with the Noles and Gators. The problem with the Florida rivalries is that all the schools involved are like Georgia in that they have two or two different teams whom they consider as rivals. Florida has to spread their rivalry animosity between Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida State; while, Florida State is intense rivals with both the Gators and the University of Miami. It sort of takes away from the significance of a rivalry when both teams involved have other rivalry matchups dispersed across the season. Nevertheless, this is an intrastate, inter-conference, end of year rivalry game that involves two traditional powerhouses. There’s not much more a college football fan can ask for.
# 7: The Big Game: California vs. Stanford– This rivalry has some very distinct pros and cons. The cons are that traditionally (though not recently) both teams are horrible and the game lacks any tangible significance. Also, I don’t like the fact that this game is now played the Saturday before Thanksgiving, which is a week before rivalry games really gets going. However, those cons are outweighed by several other factors. First of all, no other rivalry features two schools ranked in the top 21 of the U.S. News & World Report Rankings. Personally, I think the whole public school brainiac vs. private school brainiac vibe is pretty cool. Also, “The Big Game” certainly has the most entertaining trophy presentation of all rivalry games, as these two universities have student-run “Axe Committees” who take control of the “Stanford Axe” at the end of the game. The committees from each school meet at midfield just as time expires and the school currently possessing the Axe either retains it through their committee or transfers it to the opposing committee. Finally, this rivalry clearly possesses the most epic play of any rivalry game in college football, and possibly the greatest play in the history of sports (“The Band is on the Field!”). Overall, the pros outweigh the cons here, so The Big Game gets a prominent ranking.
# 6: The Egg Bowl: Ole Miss at Mississippi State– The hilarious/absurd name of this rivalry game rockets this hatefest up the list.
# 5: The Civil War: Oregon vs. Oregon State– Any game called “The Civil War” deserves to be ranked as one of the top 5 college football rivalries. Recently, this matchup has produced a slew of high-scoring shootouts that have had major postseason implications.
# 4: The Game: Ohio State vs. Michigan– This game would probably end up # 1 or 2 on most people’s rivalry list but as I mentioned at the beginning of this column, the factors I’m using for my analysis are somewhat unique. This game loses a lot of points in my book because it’s not an intrastate or inter-conference rivalry. Though some will deny this, there are in fact Ohio State and Michigan fans who are Big 10 homers and cheer for their archrival when they are involved in non-conference games. Likewise, even though the fanbases may hate one another, they certainly don’t have to deal with each other on a regular basis. Michigan fans are hard to come by in Ohio, and Ohio State fans are equally hard to find in Michigan. Thus, the familiarity factor is low here. Despite the fact that this rivalry game has decided multiple national championships and possesses two of the most legendary coaches in all of football, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, this game is topping out at # 4 in my rankings for the reasons mentioned above.
# 3: Army vs. Navy– This is definitely the most tradition-rich rivalry in all of sports. Also, the fact that the game is played a week after everybody else finishes their regular season is really cool. Overall, I love the Army-Navy game as much, and probably more than most college football fans, but the reason I can’t rank this game any higher on this list is because when push comes to shove these two teams and these two academies don’t really hate each other. Clearly, they have a deep-seated respect for one another and for all the sacrifices the other makes. Don’t get me wrong, that is definitely a good thing. It would be horrible for America if our Navies and Armies truly disdained one another. However, “hate” is the principal component of a true archrivalry, so this game just can’t crack my top 2 for that reason.
# 2: The Iron Bowl: Alabama vs. Auburn- I have always considered this game the ultimate sports rivalry. In fact, I ranked it as my # 1 rivalry in all of sports just last year. So then you may ask why does it appear at # 2 on this list, especially after ESPN just produced an epic documentary about it. SEC Pride is the reason. The so-called “conference cheering” phenomenon has knocked this game down from the pinnacle of rivalries. I always thought Alabama and Auburn fans hated each other so much that they would never cheer for one another no matter the circumstances. Well I was proved wrong last fall when a number of Alabama fans, including some I was very close to, rooted Scam Newton and his Auburn Tigers to beat Oregon in the national title. Their inexplicable pride in the SEC and its quest for five straight national titles caused Bama fans to compromise moral fibers and root for the Tigers in the title game. In the beginning of this column I stated that the golden rule of a rivalry is “thou shall never root for my archrival.” Not if they’re playing North Korea. Not if they’re playing Al-Qaeda. And certainly if they’re not playing Oregon. Alabama fans violated that rule and as a result this rivalry has been knocked down for the pinnacle of college sports.
#1: The Palmetto Bowl: Clemson vs. South Carolina– As both a former resident of South Carolina and a passionate Gamecock fan, this may seem like the most biased selection of all-time. However, if you carefully read the parameters I used for my analysis, then you understand why this rivalry takes the cake. First of all, the animosity is both mutual and intense. These schools really, really despise each other. In fact, I have several friends who I am either not friends with anymore or not as close with solely based on the hatred that spews from this rivalry. Secondly, this is the ultimate intrastate matchup. An overwhelming majority of college graduates in South Carolina (granted there aren’t that many of those, lol) call one of these two universities their alma mater. As a result, the entire state is divided between neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives who argue, gloat, and taunt each other throughout the year. However, the one thing that separates this rivalry from most others and catapults it to the top of the list is the inter-conference component. As I have discussed throughout this column, inter-conference rivalries are frankly more intense because there is no “brotherhood alliance” between the two universities. In other words, the South Carolina fans who adore the SEC as a whole will never have any reason to cheer for Clemson. Likewise, the Clemson fans who adore the entire ACC will never have any reason to cheer for the Gamecocks. In fact, I am confident that no true fan on either side of this rivalry would ever cheer for their opposition, regardless of the circumstance. That my friend is what a rivalry game is all about!