Pep bands, cheerleaders, tailgating, student sections, cornhole and especially rivalries. All of which makes college football the greatest sport on the planet. With one of the best weeks of the calendar year upon us, the Athlon staff is giving thanks for the 25 best rivalry games in college football history.
1. Army-Navy (Navy leads 57-49-7)
Go ahead and try to attend this game without experiencing a surge of patriotism. If the Super Hornets’ flyover doesn’t get you, the Army paratroopers will. If you miss the parades of Cadets and Midshipmen, then the non-stop spirit videos on the big board will stir your senses. By game’s end, no matter what the score, America wins. That may seem hokey to some, but they haven’t been there. Trust us, Army-Navy is college football in its purest state. Today, that’s something worth celebrating. Fans of the teams thirst for victory, and so do the players, who are truly playing for their fellow students. Afterward, they rejoin their classmates in preparation for military service, not an NFL career. For 364 days of the year, Army and Navy are on the same team. For three hours on a chilled December afternoon, they represent every soldier or sailor who has ever donned a uniform, walked a post or sailed into the dark of night. The football has been pretty good over the years, too. Five Heisman winners have participated in the rivalry, and dozens of Hall of Famers have taken the field representing the academies. Though Navy has dominated the scoreboard over the past decade, the game remains a huge draw and a still thrills fans across the country. Most important, it pits future military and government leaders against each other as they fight for their Academies and provide the country with an afternoon of prideful competition.
2. Alabama-Auburn (Alabama leads 42-34-1)
When Bill Curry was coaching at Alabama, he went to a Birmingham elementary school one day to speak with children about football and life. Upon entering the classroom, he saw a boy standing in the corner, sobbing. Curry wondered what was going on, and a student told him, “Jason is an Auburn fan, and we took care of him.” Curry brought Jason out of the corner and told him it was all right to root for the Tigers, no doubt angering the young Crimson Tide supporters in the room. Truth be told, it isn’t all right to be an Auburn fan — if you follow the Tide. Tiger fans feel the same way about Bama. If you live in the state of Alabama, you have to choose; you either yell “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle.” You’re either a fan of the big-brother Crimson Tide, or Auburn, which has its roots in agricultural education and resents the perceived arrogance of its rival. In a state with no major professional sports team, Auburn-Alabama football is a religion. Curry’s minister once told him it was more important. It has been that way from the game’s earliest days, which proved to be so contentious that the schools stopped playing each other for 41 years. Once they resumed hostilities, they did so at a geographically neutral site, in Birmingham, but Auburn fans groused for decades because Legion Field was the Tide’s home away from home. That changed when the game moved to campus, but the vitriol has not abated. Fans of both teams crave victory, and a loss means a full year of misery from friends, co-workers and even family members. It’s enough to make someone want to stand in a corner and cry. And for the first time in Iron Bowl history, an SEC West —and potential BCS national championship — hangs in the balance for these two college football powerhouses.
3. Michigan-Ohio State (Michigan leads 58-45-6)
Some think the story is a tall tale, but others swear it’s true. After his Ohio State team scored its final touchdown late in a 50–14 rout of Michigan at the end of the 1968 season, Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes elected to go for two points, instead of kicking the PAT. When asked afterward why he did that, Hayes reportedly said, “Because they wouldn’t let me go for three.” Hayes’ hatred for “that team up north,” as he referred to Michigan, was legendary. Rest assured that Wolverine fans harbor no affection for the Buckeyes, either. The schools have met every year but five (1913-17) since 1900 — the teams’ first game was in 1897 — and their contests have become appointment viewing for much of the country, late in November, usually under gun-metal gray skies with a hint of winter in the air. More important, Big Ten supremacy is usually at stake, especially since Bo Schembechler took over in Ann Arbor in 1969 to turn the U-M fortunes around and provide an irascible counterbalance to the cantankerous Hayes. Since that point, Michigan-Ohio State has been the nation’s most consistently competitive and heated rivalry. Because the games have so much significance and occur at season’s end, a loss can be doubly haunting. Not only does the vanquished team lose to a hated foe, but its season can be destroyed also. There may be games that match these schools’ animosity for each other, and there may be contests that are as consistently important. But none combines the two into such a volatile package.
4. Oklahoma-Texas (Texas leads 60-43-5)
One of the most unique characteristics about Dallas’ Cotton Bowl is that the teams’ locker rooms empty into a common corridor, so that players take the field through the same tunnel. On more than one occasion, as Texas and Oklahoma have prepared to charge onto the hallowed stadium’s turf, they have encountered each other in a highly charged, emotional moment that could have ignited an inferno. Instead, they decided to enjoin the fight on the gridiron, in front of 95,000-plus fans divided evenly into crimson and burnt orange enclaves. Rarely has the flame from the ensuing collision failed to heat the passions of all in attendance. While the Texas State Fair rollicks on around them, and vendors offer to fry anything that doesn’t move — and some things that do — the Longhorns and Sooners offer a mid-season football feast that dates back to 1900, when Oklahoma wasn’t even a state and Texas was just beginning to tap into the huge oil reserves deep below its surface. The neighbors harbor a significant dislike for each other, and tempers have boiled over many times on nights before the game. It doesn’t help that many OU grads now live in Texas, lured south by jobs in the petroleum industry. And plenty of Lone Star football talent has headed north to Norman, especially when Barry Switzer was pillaging the state’s top programs for all-stars. The action on the field rarely disappoints. Although there have been several blowouts over the years, including 2011’s 55–17 Sooner wipeout, the action is usually taut and has national implications. Though the game is played in October, several championship runs have been spawned by a victory in Dallas, and several high hopes have been dashed.
5. USC-Notre Dame (Notre Dame leads 45-35-5)
The nation’s top intersectional rivalry owes a debt of gratitude to some unfriendly residents of Lincoln, Neb., and Bonnie Rockne’s love of warm California weather. At a time when traditional gridiron matchups are being torn asunder by the whirling conference kaleidoscope, Notre Dame and USC continue their annual hostilities, treating the nation to a classic matchup of iconic programs. The schools almost didn’t get together. But in 1925, after ND dropped a 17–0 decision at Nebraska, before an inhospitable crowd of Cornhusker fans, coach Knute Rockne and his wife were joined on the train back to Chicago by USC athletic director Gwynn Wilson and his wife, Marion. While Wilson tried to convince Rockne to ditch the burgeoning rivalry with Nebraska for an annual trip west, Marion Wilson and Bonnie Rockne became fast friends in another train compartment. Rockne resisted Wilson’s entreaties, but his wife was enthralled with the idea of Los Angeles in the late fall. She later convinced her husband to play the Trojans. The resulting rivalry has lasted 85 years and has filled the college football history books with dozens of classic tales. More Heisman winners have played in the Notre Dame-USC game than in any other rivalry, and many a national championship hope has been validated with a victory in the game. Though the teams alternate between their home sites, playing in late November in L.A. and mid-October in South Bend, the game retains a glamour that defines it and is a product of two of college football’s most storied programs.
6. Georgia-Florida (Georgia leads 49-40-2*)
The festivities begin at “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” around Tuesday, when the big boats start cruising up the St. John’s River in Jacksonville. By game time, everybody is in a festive mood – except the players. The Bulldogs and Gators have engaged in some classics over the years, from Georgia’s thrilling comeback in 1980 to Florida’s soggy 1993 triumph. Cheers! What's more special about this rivalry? These two programs can't even agree on how many times they've actually played. Florida claims the two have met 90 times while the Bulldogs have 91* outcomes in the record books. The Gators claim the 52-0 loss in 1904 doesn't count because they had not yet technically started playing football yet.
7. Miami-Florida State (Miami leads 31-27)
For a while there during the 1990s, there was more talent on the field when the ‘Canes and ‘Noles met up than in some NFL stadiums. And everybody wanted to put on a show. This matchup lacks the tradition and history of other rivalries, but the hostility is just as high. And there have been some classics. FSU fans still wince when they hear the words “Wide Right,” while Miami backers still cringe at the 34-3 beating their heroes absorbed in ’84.
8. Harvard-Yale (Yale leads 65-57-8)
The Crimson and Bulldogs may not have played the first-ever college football game, but both schools had hands in how the game developed into what we have today. The late-November meeting between the schools is a history lesson wrapped in a high-class tailgate party. Harvard and Yale no longer compete at college football’s highest level, but they remain forever linked to the sport’s earliest days.
9. Florida-Florida State (Florida leads 34-21-2)
For years, this was a big brother/little brother battle, with the establishment Gators looking down on the upstart Seminoles. Then, FSU started to win games – a lot of games – and things changed. This may lack the in-state hate of Auburn-Alabama, but don’t worry; the two sides harbor plenty of dislike for each other. During the past three decades, as both have competed for national laurels, their games have become more than just neighborhood brawls.
10. Cal-Stanford (Stanford leads 51-43-10)
To some, The Big Game is the province of the wine-and-cheese crowd, and the schools’ NoCal addresses reinforce that. But there can be no denying that these schools thirst to defeat each other. It’s a classic battle of private (Stanford) against public (Cal), and bragging rights go well beyond which side brings the best pinot to the pre-game party. Plus, what other rivalry can boast a game with a crazy ending as the 1982 contest: “The band is on the field!”
11. Pittsburgh-West Virginia (Pitt leads 61-40-3)
Only 75 miles separates the two combatants in the Backyard Brawl. Unfortunately conference realignment (Pitt to the ACC, West Virginia to the Big 12) meant that last season this game didn't take place for the first time since 1942.
12. Texas-Texas A&M (Texas leads 76-37-5)
This Thanksgiving weekend tradition has been suspended, at least temporarily, with Texas A&M's move to the SEC. A Texas state legislator has introduced a bill that would require the two in-state teams to play each other.
13. Oregon-Oregon State (Oregon leads 60-46-10)
The Civil War has come a long way since the Ducks and Beavers played to a 0–0 tie in 1983.
14. BYU-Utah (Utah leads 53-31-4)
The Holy War might be the best name for any rivalry in the nation.
15. UCLA-USC (USC leads 46-29-7)
The Southern California showdown was dominated by UCLA from 1991-98, but the Bruins have just two victores (2006, '12) since.
16. Alabama-Tennessee (Alabama leads 51-38-8)
The Third Saturday in October means only one thing to people in the South: Alabama vs. Tennessee.
17. Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (Oklahoma leads 83-17-7)
T. Boone Pickens’ interest in the Oklahoma State program was piqued after the Pokes, 3–7 at the time, knocked OU out of the 2001 national title game with a 16–13 win.
18. Clemson-South Carolina (Clemson leads 65-41-4)
These two schools were bitter rivals well before they started playing football in the 1890s. South Carolina has won four straight, but Clemson holds a 65–41–4 advantage in the all-time series.
19. Mississippi State-Ole Miss (Ole Miss leads 61-42-6)
The Egg Bowl is often the only way to salvage a season for these two programs that have struggled to win consistently in the SEC.
20. Auburn-Georgia (Auburn leads 55-54-8)
It’s the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry and it dates back to 1892. Auburn holds the slimmest of margins, with a 54–52–8 edge in the series. The Prayer on the Plains from this year has only added to this historic battle's legacy.
21. Michigan-Michigan State (Michigan leads 68-33-5)
It pains MSU fans that Michigan’s biggest rival is Ohio State, but the “Little Brothers” from East Lansing have won the five of the last six in the series, including this year's most lop-sided Spartans win since the 1960s.
22. Minnesota-Wisconsin (Minnesota leads 59-57-8)
The winner of the Gophers vs. Badgers showdown takes home the prized Paul Bunyan Axe. It’s the most played rivalry in FBS football, dating back to 1890.
23. Michigan-Notre Dame (Michigan leads 24-16-1)
These two traditional powers have only played regularly for the past three decades, but they produced a ton of memorable moments. Strike a pose, Desmond!
23. Georgia-Georgia Tech (Georgia leads 63-40-5)
You know it’s a good rivalry when the book about the series is called Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
25. Lafayette-Lehigh (Lafayette leads 77-67-5)
The Rivalry, as it’s called, pits two small private schools located 17 miles apart in Eastern Pennsylvania. Lafayette and Lehigh have met 146 times, including every year since 1897.