LOS ANGELES — Rivalries are part of the lifeblood of college football about as much as anything.
One can rarely talk about Alabama without later mentioning Auburn. Duke and North Carolina dominate the national conversation as much as they do Tobacco Road. There’s a reason that Ohio State and Michigan play in the simply — and aptly — named “The Game” on the final week of the regular season each year.
While most of those rivalries have been years in the making, so too is the competition among various head coaches. Jimbo Fisher and Dabo Swinney have staged the ACC’s must-see game of the season for years. Les Miles spent years clashing with Nick Saban in a battle of SEC heavyweights. Mack Brown and Bob Stoops squaring off in Dallas for Big 12 supremacy has given way to each of their protégés doing the same in 2017.
Of all the great parings in the sport though, none dominates the headlines quite like Jim Harbaugh and Urban Meyer do. The two were front and center at Big Ten media days earlier this week in Chicago and neither put any water on their red-hot desire to beat the other. Almost as soon as Harbaugh was hired in Ann Arbor, many expected a “10-Year War” redux between Buckeyes and Wolverines to command the attention of college football for the decade to come. Things have been one-sided in the win-loss column so far but year three might be the most intense yet, on the sidelines and off, given the sniping from both sides after last season’s dramatic ending.
Out on the left coast though, there’s just not quite the same loathing going on like there is in other parts of the country. The dozen coaches of the Pac-12 may be the most congenial bunch in any league, right down to the gentlemen’s handshakes and slaps on the back as they catch up with each other for the last time before squaring off in the fall. Sure there may be an occasional dig at a cross-state school to appease the fan base but even UCLA’s Jim Mora is effusive in his praise of USC and star quarterback Sam Darnold. After all, his own daughter is a Trojan at the end of the day.
Though there may not be as much public or private animosity among colleagues out west, there is a brewing battle for the northern half of the Pac-12 with two of the sport’s most accomplished head coaches in Stanford’s David Shaw and Washington’s Chris Petersen. The pair has combined for the past two league titles (and four of the past five) and may have the most stable situation of any coach in the country not named Saban or Swinney.
“It’s a couple of really good football programs,” said Shaw. “(Petersen) has that program where it was before. There are no holes, they’re good at every position. They earned that right to be picked No. 1 (in the division).”
Shaw bristled at the notion of any budding rivalry with Petersen or even the thought that they can turn into a Western version of what his old boss Harbaugh has going on with Meyer. The feeling is mutual up in Seattle, but most of that has to do with the pair being two of the most introspective coaches in the game who care far less about outside perception than most of their peers.
“We’re chasing ourselves. We’re trying to be the best we can be. I can’t say that enough, that’s what we’re about,” added Petersen. “I’m not hung up on (Stanford). We have to beat a different team every week. We’ve got to deal with Oregon State and Colorado and so on. Those guys will beat us if we don’t play our best. The margin is very thin.
“But we know who (Stanford) is getting. We do pay attention and they do a great job of coaching.”
Shaw is entering his seventh season on the Farm but won’t turn 45 until the end of July. Petersen is a few years older but is one of just a handful of head coaches with more than 100 FBS wins on his resume. Each ranks in the top 10 in winning percentage among active coaches and have reeled in numerous top-25 recruiting classes.
In other words, both are here to stay — and stay at a high level — for some time.
“Oh, it's insanity. It's crazy,” Shaw said of the division that has pumped out New Year’s Six teams with regularity for the past decade. “But it's great. You know there are no bye weeks, there are no off weeks.”
In many ways it was last season’s 44-6 beating of the Cardinal up in Seattle that set Washington on its way to the College Football Playoff. It was a drubbing that helped alter the perception of the program nationally that Petersen has been slowly but surely building the Huskies into a juggernaut just like he did at Boise State. That victory broke a three-year string of Stanford wins in a series that has been one of the most competitive in the Pac-12 since 2011.
“Every year, it’s been like they win, we win. Then they win, we win,” Huskies linebacker Keishawn Bierria remarked. “We don’t forget who we lost to and who we beat.”
Going forward especially, that means each other.
Despite plenty of inquiries about different, potentially bigger jobs at other levels, neither Petersen nor Shaw look to be going anywhere soon. One is at his alma mater and the other feels right at home in the Pacific Northwest with no need for any added attention. The Pac-12 does a good job of bringing a bit of pomp and polish to its teams in the middle of Hollywood for media days each year but isn’t exactly the type of league to beat its chest about the developing battle of the North going on that is just as interesting as any outside of Columbus and Ann Arbor.
Neither coach wants to call it a rivalry (or anything of the sort) but that’s simply not in their nature. Make no mistake, there’s plenty of evidence pointing to a lengthy conflict for years to come between the Cardinal and the Huskies for Pac-12 supremacy.
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.