Rivalry…a word that stokes the emotion of sports fans everywhere. Rival teams despise each other. Fan bases can’t stand to be around each other before, during or after the game. Rivalries get the blood boiling, the nerves shaking and the trash-talk raging. And in my opinion, no sport has perfected the rivalry better, than college football.
First, let’s look at why the other sports fall behind in the context of the heated rivalry. Pro sports have had a tougher time keeping long time rivalries alive over the long-term. Free agency, parity and expansion have shifted rivalries to shorter term propositions. For example, the Colts and the Patriots had a strong back and forth going, however you could argue that fans were more into the QB rivalry between Manning and Brady than between the two teams. Hockey…well unless you live in one of the “Original Six” hockey towns, you don’t turn this sport on until the Stanley Cup Finals. And then there’s baseball. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox are a heated rivalry. West Coast fans get fired up for the Giants and Dodgers. Beyond that, excitement in baseball is driven by the where the two teams are in the standings, not what cities they represent.
College football’s sibling, college basketball, has a few fierce rivalries that can capture our attention, with “few” being the key word here. In fact, basketball even promotes the fact that it can fit all of these games into a “rivalry week” where football has enough to showcase them throughout the entire season. Let’s face it, in basketball after UNC vs. Duke, the national level of interest starts to drop quickly. Rankings are what drive the attention to basketball games and if the ranked teams aren’t on the court, the remote control changes the channel.
Now…let’s look at how college football owns the rivalry concept. Border wars, civil wars and holy wars are just a few of the monikers given to the rivalries across college football. One rivalry is plainly described as just “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.” That’s priceless. The only way to begin to describe the hundreds of rivalries is to put them into some type of category. So, here we go…
As with anything worth talking about in sports, there is a debate about the oldest rivalry. I’ll settle it here…Yale/Princeton wins the award with the first game being played in 1873. It makes sense to have Princeton here since they also played in the first college game ever in 1869 against Rutgers. Sorry Harvard, you didn’t start playing Yale until 1875. If you’re keeping score at home, these games were played only a handful of years after the conclusion of the biggest rivalry in American history…a little something involving teams called “The North” and “The South”. For those fans in Eastern Pennsylvania about to crucify me, calm down. Fittingly called “The Rivalry”, the matchup between Lafayette and Lehigh dates back to 1884, after Yale and Princeton’s debut, but lays claim to most games played in a rivalry at 148, and still counting.
BIGGEST RIVALRY CASUALTIES OF CONFERENCE RE-ALIGNMENT:
I would like to yell from the rooftops about the end of the Nebraska/Colorado series that started in 1898 leading the way here. Others would mention “The Border War” that has pitted Kansas against Missouri since 1891. There’s “The Backyard Brawl” between Pittsburgh and West Virginia. But hands down, this discussion begins and ends with Texas vs. Texas A&M. The ending of this rivalry cannot be defended. Period. Moving on…
BEST RIVALRY TROPHIES:
This may be the best way to show the beauty of the rivalries in college football. “The Civil War”, between Oregon and Oregon State, sends the winner home with the Platypus Trophy. The “Floyd of Rosedale” is a statue of a pig given to the winner of Iowa and Minnesota, who originally exchanged a live pig as the bounty for victory. Oklahoma and Texas fight for The Golden Hat. Washington and Washington State play for The Apple Cup. One of the coolest prizes is Paul Bunyan’s Axe. This six-foot mammoth of a trophy goes to the victor of the Wisconsin and Minnesota game. The original trophy, called “The Slab of Bacon”, went missing for years and was eventually replaced by the Axe in 1948.
However, my pick for the winning trophy, in homage to the spirit of sports-glutton, goes to a newer rivalry on the scene. That rivalry would be “The Battle of the Bones.” It pits Memphis vs. UAB with “pits” being the key word here as the barbecue-cooking contest between the rival fan bases hailing from the barbecue meccas of Memphis and Birmingham attracts as much attention as the game itself. And fittingly, the trophy awarded to the winner of this game is a bronze 100lb rack of ribs. My mouth is watering just thinking of this rivalry.
THE CURRENT “TEMPERS HAVE REACHED THE BOILING POINT” RIVALRY:
Different rivalries reach certain points in their history where the intensity level between schools reaches new heights of anger and fury. The award for that current rivalry goes to North Carolina and NC State. Starting with UNC’s football troubles a few years back, the hatred between the schools has erupted to record levels. In fact, from a UNC perspective, NC State’s fans don’t want to beat UNC on the field; they want them to cease to exist. It’s hard to have a rivalry if one of the teams no longer exists. Adding salt to the wound for Tar Heel fans, NC State was in the midst of a 5-game winning streak in football over Carolina. From a Wolfpack perspective, it was time for the “Carolina Way” to be brought to its knees and exposed as a farce. When asked, UNC’s head coach, Larry Fedora, can tell you how many days until the two teams meet. The Wolfpack’s new head coach, Dave Doeren, welcomes the chance to play UNC this year as NC State’s homecoming game. This is a bold move considering most teams schedule a sure win for homecoming.
It’s gained national attention too. ESPN’s blogger Eammon Brennan made a post in his blog directed at both fan bases on July 24, 2013: “Everyone take a deep breath. We’ve now officially reached peak insanity…Honestly, I’m worried about you guys.” Football-wise, it reached a fever pitch in last year’s game in Chapel Hill. The game went back and forth for four quarters. And then came “The Return.” A Gio Bernard 75-yard punt return touchdown with seconds remaining that sent the Kenan Stadium crowd into a frenzy not seen there since Mack Brown was walking the sidelines. Some there would argue that it was the loudest moment in the history of that stadium. That’s what a rivalry does to people.
FINALLY…THE BEST RIVALRIES IN COLLEGE FOOTBALL:
There’s no way to make everybody happy here, but here it goes. Florida vs. Georgia is great, not just for all the future NFL players on the field, but for the fact that its tailgate is called “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” Clemson and South Carolina get the Palmetto state rockin’ at the end of the year. “The Big Game” between Cal and Stanford, not to be confused with “The Game” between Harvard and Yale, reached immortality with “The Play” in 1982, where the Stanford band decided to help its team and march onto the field while Cal was in the midst of returning a kick. I have to enter some votes for the Red River Rivalry between Texas and Oklahoma, played in Dallas, and uses the Texas State Fair as its backdrop. In the Big Ten, there’s Michigan vs. Ohio State, one of the greatest sports’ rivalries of all time. This is a rivalry that deserves respect…a fact that one highly successful Ohio State coach learned after he was fired for no other reason than his inability to beat Michigan.
My runner-up is the Army/Navy game, which started in 1890 and has been played over 100 times. This game is college football at its purest. The majority, if not all, of the players in this game won’t go to the NFL. They play the right way, and conduct themselves with pride and integrity. The fans didn’t all go to these academies, but they served in the Army or the Navy, making them a part of this game. This is one rivalry where after the game the graduating players go from being on opposing sides, to being on the same team that defends this country every day.
And finally, the greatest college football rivalry in my opinion is the Iron Bowl. Alabama vs. Auburn. Roll Tide vs. War Eagle. I’ve never witnessed the unwavering bitterness between two fan bases like I did being IN the state of Alabama, not during football season, but during the Spring. Football is a year round sport in Alabama, for players and the fans. You either wear orange or you wear crimson, and you never accidentally wear the other. The indoctrination starts at a young age and can affect who you marry. There are no pleasantries between opposing fans. Both sides agree on one thing, “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” The national prominence of this rivalry is also not hurt by the fact that the last 4 BCS National Titles belong to these two schools.
So there you have it…a taste of college football’s mastery of the rivalry. And you don’t have to wait long to see it because the rivalries start next week during week 1 of the college football season. It’s an environment where mascots are stolen and painted, campuses are vandalized and pranks are conducted in ways that bring you back to “Animal House”, with the image of John Belushi wearing a sweatshirt that simply reads…”College.”
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