Rivalries are the driving force behind college football.
One game can define a record, a season or a legacy when two classic rivals meet on a college football field. More than anything, it defines an overall sense of pride for a year, and the value of those bragging rights simply cannot be measured.
So how do you weigh the value of one rivalry against another? Does it have to be in-state? Is it a state school vs. a private institution? Does it have to be in conference? How does national interest factor in?
Every rivalry has regional ties, and Sporting News’ panel had more than a few sharp disagreements when trying to determine the top 10 college football rivalries. The Iron Bowl, The Game and the Army-Navy Game all received first-place votes, and it was a tight finish.
As part of Sporting News’ continued CFB 150 celebration, we look at the top 10 rivalries in college football history:
10. Clemson-South Carolina
The 2004 brawl is an ugly reminder of the heated rivalry between the next-door neighbors. It’s always petty — like the time South Carolina quarterback Steve Taneyhill signed the paw at Memorial Stadium in 1992 or the time Clemson receiver Rod Gardner made “The Catch” (or “The Push-Off,” depending on whom you ask). The back-and-forth between Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney produced more than enough bulletin board material for both sides, and the teams have traded five-game win streaks over the last 10 years.
This West Coast rivalry always looks good on television with USC’s cardinal-and-gold smacking into that UCLA blue-and-gold with either the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum or the Rose Bowl serving as the backdrop. It was always a national rivalry, and it peaked with six top-10 showdowns between 1965-76. The 1967 featuring star players Gary Beban and O.J. Simpson remains one of the crown jewels of the series, but it’s a rivalry that has lost some luster this century. Both teams have been ranked for this game only three times since 2000.
How many rivalries go by the “Holy War?” The religious implications are thick knowing BYU is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and Utah is a public school. Urban Meyer, no stranger to big rivalries, used to make Utah players refer to BYU as the “Team Down South.” The Utes have won the last nine meetings, but seven of those games have been decided by one score.
7. Ole Miss-Mississippi State
The Egg Bowl is coming off a third-quarter brawl last year where seven players were ejected and Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead confronted Ole Miss deputy athletic director Michael Thompson on the field. That’s just the latest in a tradition laced with anger on both sides, and this is one rivalry where the records truly don’t matter. Need proof? Ole Miss and Mississippi State have only six ranked meetings in their 111 previous matchups, but it’s consistently more entertaining than the Thanksgiving NFL games.
6. USC-Notre Dame
USC and Notre Dame each have seven Heisman Trophy winners, and most of them made their mark in this game. This is a rivalry that made fans wave crucifixes at Anthony Davis and claim, “You must be the devil!” The Irish and Trojans have played so many huge games on the national stage, but that quote alone shows the sometimes-supernatural power of this blue-blood rivalry. This series might have peaked with the “Bush Push” game in 2005, a 34-31 USC victory with a thrilling finish at Notre Dame Stadium. The Trojans and Irish have split 14 meetings since.
The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party — yes, that is what it’s called — stirs up all kinds of emotions from the Bulldogs and Gators in Jacksonville, Fla. It has had an abundance of big-time players and coaches. Who could forget “Run, Lindsay, Run!” in 1980 or “Half a hundred between the Hedges” in 1995? The rivalry had a few signature moments when Georgia’s entire team rushed the field for a mass celebration in 2007, and the Gators took a few extra timeouts to soak up the victory the following season. In its current state, Florida and Georgia have played top-10 showdowns each of the last two seasons under Kirby Smart and Dan Mullen. It has the potential to be the hottest current rivalry in the FBS as a result.
The Red River Showdown is a bucket-list item for so many reasons. It’s set in the heart of the Texas State Fair in the Cotton Bowl, and the stands are a 50-50 division between crimson and burnt orange. How hot does it run? Former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer used to wear a hat on the sideline that simply said “Beat Texas.” The traditional October date sets the course for the back half of the Big 12 season, and the Longhorns and Sooners have played 17 top-10 matchups against each other, including five since 2000. The rivalry between Mack Brown and Bob Stoops seamlessly transferred to Lincoln Riley and Tom Herman. Last year’s Big 12 championship game matchup won’t be the last, either.
The pageantry during the game between the Black Knights and Midshipmen is second to none. It’s draped with patriotism, a sense of duty and honor for the players who play classic option football for three hours while the servicemen on both sides wear full uniforms. There is no scene quite like it in any sport, and that is the reason this game is always the last regular-season game on the schedule. The tradition of both sides singing “March on/Honoring the Fallen” after the game was voted Sporting News’ best in-game tradition in college football’s 150-year history. It’s “Beat Army” and “Beat Navy,” yes, but it’s so much more than that. This is an easy choice for the top 10.
No in-state rivalry comes with more bitterness, and many of this series’ chapters were so impactful as to deserve titles: “The Run in the Mud,” “Punt Bama Punt,” “Bo Over the Top,” “Wrong Way Bo,” “The Kick,” “The Drive,” “The Camback,” “Kick-Six.” Alabama holds a 46-36-1 lead heading into this year’s installment, but this game has been close this millenium, with Auburn holding a 10-9 edge since 2000. Either Alabama or Auburn has represented the SEC West in the conference championship in 10 of the last 11 seasons. Those stakes have made this the biggest rivalry through the BCS era into the College Football Playoff. There’s only one rivalry that can even make an argument it’s better.
1. Michigan-Ohio State
You want numbers? Alabama and Auburn have had eight top-10 showdowns. On Saturday, The Game between Michigan and Ohio State will be a top-10 matchup for the 23rd time. There isn’t a rivalry with more national significance, and that peaked with the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 matchup in 2006. Before that, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler ignited the Ten Year War, a sacred period in the rivalry’s history in which both teams were ranked in the top 10 seven times. Just say a name out loud: It can be renowned, like Heisman Trophy winners Archie Griffin or Charles Woodson. It can be obscure, like receivers such as Anthony Gonzalez or John Kolesar. It defines coaching legacies to this day — just ask Urban Meyer or Jim Harbaugh, who are 7-0 and 0-4 in this rivalry, respectively. It’s not without its fair share of controversy, either. Simply put, the best place to be on Rivalry Week each year is either The Shoe or The Big House. For that reason, “The Game” remains the standard for all other college football rivalries to follow.