Rivalry: (noun) competition for the same objective or for superiority in the same field.
As Google, per Merriam-Webster, so eloquently puts it, a rivalry is simply a competition. A competition between two opposing forces battling for the same objective, or superiority over the opposing force.
Being dominant and championing over one’s objective or goal, or easily stated, just being the better of the two forces.
Letting those thoughts resonante for a minute while reflecting on the current state of college football really drives the claim that the rivalries in college football are what make the sport so great. Yes, the traditions, the tailgating, the bands, the pageantry, and everything in between are all great, but it’s the rivalries that really make the sport come alive every season.
Year in and year out fans across the sport bicker, argue, and war against each other about which team is better, or more superior. This bickering and back-and-forth conversation mostly stems from fans of opposing, or rival, teams.
The rivalries in college football are what make the sport great by adding just enough extra drama to a season’s story. In analyzing what constitutes a great rivalry, and what essentially makes for the greatest of them all, one can go crazy trying to decipher all of college football’s greatest rivalries.
In order to streamline this into an article and not a novel, I have differentiated college football’s rivalries into categories. Yes, some of these rivalries qualify for multiple categories. From the categories, determining what’s the best rivalry from there may take further analyzation, and any and all debates over the “greatest rivalry” can take place in my mentions on Twitter (@themrberger).
Without further ado, the categories and the rivalries that accompany them:
Nothing gets the blood boiling like some random fan blowing up your social media with some smack talk from your team’s in-state rival. The wins in these rivalries can be the best as one can gloat and brag for a year, while the losses can feel like that year lasts 365,000 days. These games usually bring out state politicians, local celebrities, and families going back-and-forth leading up to the game. These games though have provided fans on the outside of the rivalry the enjoyment of an annual showdown nonetheless. Some of the best in-state rivalries today are Auburn vs Alabama, Florida State vs Florida, USC vs UCLA, Michigan vs Michigan State, Clemson vs South Carolina, and Oregon vs Oregon State.
These games have an added element at stake every year: a conference win or loss is always on the line. A win can put a team in its conference championship game, or better yet, even win them their conference title at times. On the other hand, a loss could end the team’s season abruptly, or even derail a team’s postseason plans. Nevertheless, the conference rivalry is always great because of what’s at stake within the conference. Some of the best conference rivalries (not including any rivalries mentioned above) are Georgia vs Auburn, Alabama vs Tennessee, Florida State vs Miami, Ohio State vs Michigan, Cal vs Stanford, Oklahoma vs Oklahoma State, North Carolina vs Virginia, Lehigh vs Lafayette, and Harvard vs Yale.
Cross Conference Rivalries
Naturally, some rivalries will consist of teams from opposing conferences. A handful of in-state rivalries consist of teams from two separate conferences. With nothing at stake but pride, and sometimes postseason play, these games can, at times, be pretty intense. With the pride of one’s team winning this heated rivalry also comes with the satisfaction that the winning team makes their conference look superior to the losing team’s conference. It may seem a little far-fetched, but the “S-E-C, S-E-C, S-E-C” chant most likely started in one of these heated cross conference rivalry games. Some of the best cross conference rivalries (not including any rivalries mentioned above) are Notre Dame vs USC, BYU vs Utah, TCU vs SMU, Georgia vs Georgia Tech, LSU vs Tulane, Cincinnati vs Miami (OH), and Air Force vs Army/Navy
Neutral Site Rivalries
Some rivalries started out so heated that long ago it was decided these games shouldn’t be played on the teams’ campuses, but rather a neutral site. With the tickets split 50/50 for these games, no one fan base has the upperhand in these games. Typically loud throughout, these neutral site rivalries give fans a different experience and perspective on college football and the pageantry that comes with the sport. The experience at a game like this is uncomparable and truly gives the sport an unique flair. The neutral site rivalries are Texas vs Oklahoma, Georgia vs Florida, Colorado vs Colorado State, Arkansas vs Texas A&M, and Army vs Navy.
Winning a rivalry game and having bragging rights for 365 days is great and all, but having something to show for it is even better. Rivalry games featuring a trophy to the winner adds a little extra spark to the rivalry and gives teams one more ounce of something to fight for come kickoff. Whether it’s an axe, a keg of nails, a golden egg, a golden boot, a wagon wheel, one of many “victory bells” or “governor’s cups”, an oaken bucket, a jeweled shillelagh, or even a little brown jug, the teams in these rivalries fight for something to add to their trophy cases. Some of the best trophy game rivalries (not including any rivalries mentioned above) are Mississippi State vs Ole Miss (Golden Egg Trophy), LSU vs Arkansas (Golden Boot), Michigan vs Minnesota (Little Brown Jug), Minnesota vs Wisconsin (Paul Bunyan’s Axe), Cincinnati vs Louisville (The Keg of Nails), Virginia Tech vs West Virginia (Black Diamond Trophy), Washington vs Washington State (Apple Cup), Iowa vs Iowa State (Cy-Hawk Trophy), Nevada vs UNLV (Fremont Cannon), UTEP vs New Mexico State (Silver Spade), and Iowa vs Minnesota (Floyd of Rosedale).
Old Rivalries (currently not played every year)
Historically, some of the best rivalry games are against teams that sadly aren’t scheduled every year currently. Over time conferences have expanded by adding teams causing scheduling issues stemming from conference game requirements and limiting the number of non conferences games a team can play. Sometimes these issues have been resolved over the years, while sadly, some rivalries have suffered because of aforementioned scheduling issues. Nonetheless, some of the best old rivalries that many fans would love to see played consistently (not including any rivalries mentioned above) are Texas vs Texas A&M, Michigan vs Notre Dame, Clemson vs Georgia, Auburn vs Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh vs West Virginia, Kansas vs Missouri, Nebraska vs Colorado, Utah vs Utah State, Baylor vs Texas A&M, Florida vs Miami, Missouri vs Nebraska, and Penn State vs West Virginia.
The Best of the Best
Traditionally, certain rivalry games have stood the test of time as being consistently some of the best games in all of college football every year. Games such as Ohio State vs Michigan, Texas vs Oklahoma, Georgia vs Florida, Alabama vs Auburn, Notre Dame vs USC, and Army vs Navy provide the nation with the extra drama that makes the sport so amazing.
With that said, it’s truly hard to give one sole rivalry game the title of “Greatest Rivalry in College Football.” That distinction makes way for so much controversy and debate. In order to fully grasp the complexity of the honor, one single rivalry can’t possess the title alone, so, in turn, the title of “Greatest Rivalry in College Football comes down to a three-way tie between Alabama vs Auburn (best in-state rivalry), Ohio State vs Michigan (best in-conference rivalry), and Army vs Navy (best neutral site rivalry).
Some day in the future this debate will have to be revisited, and maybe then there will be one singular winner. Maybe there will even be a trophy for the winner, who knows? But one thing is for sure, that trophy will have to be some large golden-bell-cup thing with an animal on top holding some antique furniture piece that makes all the other rivalry trophies look inferior in comparison.
Have a wonderful and safe Fourth of July!