The dark, pie-charted heart of college football rivalries

Every rivalry has something that makes it burn hot.

Rivalry is often defined as “that moment when someone sees a stranger dressed in a team’s colors and, despite being down by three scores and on national television, still shoots both middle fingers at them and accidentally creates a Renaissance painting.”

No one really says this. They should, though. Every other definition of rivalry is just as bad as this one and leaves out the part about being eager to shoot middle fingers at each other for no reason other than the color of a shirt.

Even if there is a great definition, quantifying rivalries in college football gets squirrelly. They’re less constant standards of emotion, and more more like a currency. Currencies, I should say, because there are a ton of them, all in different states of repair or being, and all of them susceptible to circumstance, politics, and random acts of God.

For instance: Some are dead, which is why we really don’t talk about Georgia Tech/Alabama anymore. Some are in stasis or suspended animation, like Texas/Texas A&M. Some rivalries are alive but in a long, one-sided kind of rut. See: Alabama/Tennessee, still heated enough to merit double middle fingers, but right now leaning 11 games to zero for Alabama since 2007. The emotion and intensity of the game is still real, and the competition portion of the festivities is not.

Let’s check in on some rivalries. A few basic ground rules for inclusion here:

  1. Rivalries are evaluated mostly on the last four or five years. No one on the roster was there before that. The coach probably wasn’t either. The student section was in high school, and so were the players, and there is a strong chance no one remembers anything that happened in the rivalry prior to four or five years ago. But that epic game in ‘68! Stop hipstering dead rivalries to life just because you read about them. Dormant does not count here. We need live, fiery contests with spite and consequences on the menu.
  2. There are exceptions to this, like the Kick Six, which happened and was hilarious. My God, was it funny. If that happened to my team against a team I hate as much as Auburn, I would never stop being mad about it, especially because it is the kind of play that gets a name, and then joins the other plays with Proper Names, and then even young football players and children know their name, and repeat them even after being reminded of the other team’s recent dominance over their rival. Is this triggering? It should be triggering for you, Alabama, because that is the entire point of this.
  3. The rivalry has to at least be competitive over the past few years. What does competitive mean, exactly? The games should be close. If they are not close, then teams should take at least turns giving and receiving blowouts. If neither of these happen, then it means whatever I want it to mean in order to count something as a rivalry for my own purposes here. If this displeases you, please make your own list, and then email me at celebrityhottub [at] gmail [dot] com to show me what you’ve made!
  4. Rivalries should have some tusslin’ and hollerin’. In non-hilljack terms, some fighting, scrapping, some personal fouls, various football-related misconducts, brawls, resulting legislation following said incidents, bowl bans, international sanctions, and general extracurricular conflict. It all helps. For example: Alabama/Auburn is always at least a baseline rivalry, and sometimes it blooms into something where trees get poisoned, babies get named after key players in a moment, and in the most lasting moment of all, triumphantly mocking bumper stickers are made. That’s obviously a step up in intensity, and any ranking of rivalries should recognize that.
  5. The games should matter in the larger scheme of things. Again, this can mean a lot of things. Does the rivalry often determine larger conference or national outcomes? Does one team consistently ruin their rival’s seasons? Or, most exotically, do both teams ruin each other’s lives every year, no matter who wins or loses, because the results of the game are repellent to one and irrelevant to the other? Are we talking about the Egg Bowl? We are definitely talking about the Egg Bowl.
  6. You left one off! Yes, yes I did. Your favorite one, probably. I did it on purpose, because you bankrupted my family, took the family farm, stole my woman, and left my children to starve in a Topeka flophouse! This is my revenge for all that, and I’ve waited years for it.

A PIE-CHARTED INDEX OF SELECTED CURRENT RIVALRIES

REAL HEAT YOU GOTTA MEASURE IN KELVIN

IRON BOWL

Alabama/Auburn. Historically beyond credible, as it has both its own literally-metal-as-hell nickname (THE IRON BOWL), multiple games with their own nicknames, and a history so fraught the game was called off for a few decades.

Recency matters most here, though. Fortunately for it, the Iron Bowl’s immediate past has enough heat all by itself to merit inclusion in top-flight status. The 2013 34-28 Auburn victory with the Kick Six happened, but so did a raucous 55-44 shootout in 2014, and last year’s 26-14 upset of an undefeated Alabama in Jordan-Hare Stadium. There are two clankers in there where Alabama just went ahead and won outright, but rest assured: They are hateful, intensely felt clankers on both sides.

For extra spite, the Tigers celebrated last year’s win with an extremely giddy and sarcastic postgame playing of the Alabama stadium standard “Dixieland Delight.” Oh, someone got shot over the game in Mobile, too, but don’t worry, they lived. (Not always the case with Iron Bowl-related shootings!) The game matters in-state for recruiting, but it’s the cultural angle that has always been the real tinder here: Stereotypically, Auburn University is the G.I. Bill and agrarian school that actually does work, while the University of Alabama is the school for the gentry. Whether that is completely accurate or not most days of the year, it is the absolute gospel truth during the four hours or so the Iron Bowl is on.

Note: For all Alabama’s dominance elsewhere, the last five years have Auburn going 2-3 against Alabama, about as well as anyone else over the same span and number of games. Even in rivalries, it’s important to grade anyone fighting a living dynasty on a curve, especially one as systematically and consistently cruel as Alabama’s current regime.

Michigan State/Ohio State. Mean as hell for a lot of reasons, most notably the thin margins in games short on points and long on brutal, zero-sum, field-position football. No one is beating Ohio State consistently in the Urban Meyer era, but Michigan State has been the best or worst matchup for the Buckeyes because of their stubborn, ponderous pace, steady tackling, and their willingness to punt on every possession.

The 2017 edition of this game undermines our whole argument—a 48-3 terror of a loss for the Spartans that showed what happens when a low-margin team completely loses the ability to tackle, punt, and keep the game close against an explosive, deeper team. But 2-3 in their last five meetings overall is solid plowing for Farmer Sparty, particularly when one of those brutal knuckups secured MSU a Big Ten championship.

Oh, and it actually matters. Like, a lot, especially since the Big Ten sandwiched all of their major powers into one hallway fight of a division, and because Ohio State has to emerge from that division mostly unscathed in order to compete for national titles. Michigan State and Ohio State don’t have any obvious cultural clashing to do. They can even bond over both hating Michigan, which if anything lowers the temperature of the rivalry with an enemy-of-my enemy vibe to embrace.

But if the built-in neighborly hatred of Michigan/Ohio State isn’t there, two other vital factors are: being a competitive game with an uncertain outcome, and having national and regional stakes.

Oklahoma/Texas: The problem with the Red River Rivalry is that it’s played at 11 a.m. Central time. The players’ body clocks are running behind, no one really wakes up until the third quarter or so, and the action feels more random than anything else. This works well for the random viewer. The random viewer might otherwise opt out of a game where over the past five years Texas has rolled in reeling with multiple losses, and looked weaker on paper.

The solution to the Red River Rivalry, however, is playing it at 11:00 a.m. Central, because totally random outcomes and unexpectedly competitive games have been the recent norm, not the exception. In 2013, a teetering Mack Brown and his final team blindsided Oklahoma 36-20. The 2015 game got even weirder: a shambolic Longhorns team that came into the game 1-3 rolling for 313 yards to give the Sooners their only loss of the regular season. OU went on to lose in the College Football Playoff. Texas went 5-7 and got Charlie Strong fired, and none of this mattered.

Correction: None of this mattered save for spite, malice, and the satisfaction that something beautiful met something ugly, and when the two parted there was one more new ugly thing in the world. Combined with fans who genuinely dislike each other on a molecular level, possible conference stakes, and the only recorded instance of a fan tearing another fan’s scrotum in a bar fight, and it’s very, very real.

Bonus spite: Oklahoma going on long streaks of dominating this series despite being tiny, underfunded Oklahoma to gargantuan, wealthy Texas.

Ohio State/Michigan. Let’s be super clear here, because a lot of lawyers went to Michigan, and because a lot of Ohio State fans like to yell at people on the internet. This is canonically a great rivalry. It is inherited, and still passed down from generation to generation, and still represents a great eternal conflict between two states that once actually fought over the city of Toledo.

That border war is described as “almost bloodless,” a clever turn of phrase summing up the Michigan/Ohio State rivalry in 2018. The blood is mostly Michigan’s at this point, with Ohio State winning six in a row in mostly dominant fashion. The flames are still real on both sides—hello, Marcus Hall—and in the sardine can of the Big Ten East, the game still matters for all kinds of strategic reasons.

This remains a must-win for both teams for reasons beyond identity politics. But if a viewer wanted a game where the outcome was less than certain? Even given a certain spot, and an unending debate whether it was good or not? Ohio State/Michigan is in the stage of rivalry where the game transcends reality, and has become (for the moment) a powerful myth, and myths have a serious narrative problem for the college football fan: They always end the same way.

Still, it pains me to admit how good the rivalry still is as entertainment, and how good it could be if Michigan ever starts to win these again.

West Virginia/Oklahoma. OK, first: There is no real case to be made for this being a recently competitive contest on the field. Oklahoma has won every matchup between the two teams since the Mountaineers played their first Big 12 season in 2012, and it has not been particularly close.

This is is not about that. This is about the matchup with the highest chippiness quotient of any recent continuous conference matchup. In 2015 there was some “pregame jawing” between the two teams in Norman; a combined 240 yards in penalties followed. In 2016 in Morgantown, the Sooners gathered at the West Virginia logo at midfield, and a pregame scuffle broke out before kickoff. The fighting proved to be West Virginia’s most competitive work of the day: The Mountaineers went into the half down 34-7 and lost 56-28.

The 2017 matchup finally spilled into the game itself — mostly thanks to West Virginia, the team that made the brilliant calculation that the Sooners could not win the game if they were all watching from their locker room. Playing well past the whistle on almost every play, the Mountaineers managed to slow down the game itself, with at least three stoppages for extracurriculars in the first half. Those all came before the Oklahoma offense and West Virginia defense got sideways yet again just before the half, and Oklahoma lineman Dru Samia got ejected.

Oklahoma scored on that drive anyway, which sums up about how well the “get everyone kicked out of the game” strategy worked for the Mountaineers in a 59-31 loss. (In Dana Holgorsen’s words postgame: “Well, we won time of possession.”) It might be possible that the only unifying thread here is Baker Mayfield, and that he was just that irritating for everyone he played against. It might also be possible that, for reasons no one can really explain, the cliché might actually apply here: These teams, for lack of a better or more innovative set of words, really don’t like each other.

And if two teams that irrationally dislike each other and play frequently isn’t a strong definition of rivalry, then I am not sure what exactly is.

USF/UCF. Objectively, maybe the best or at least best unsung categorical rivalry? Two teams located an hour and twenty minutes apart, fighting over many of the same recruits and territory, play at the end of each season for both maximum dramatic framing and (because they share a division) actual stakes. Occasionally, one of them might be angling for a national title, or at least an undefeated season they will claim as a national title. That team might go a little too far with this, and that is their right and privilege as Americans.

American is an important angle here. The American Conference is a fine football conference like any other. The reborn/zombie Big East features players one might not find in other, more monied conferences, players other, more monied teams might not give a full chance. 2018’s UCF squad featured one-handed linebacker and future NFL draft pick Shaquem Griffin. USF 2018 had Quinton Flowers, the archetypical Great In College Quarterback who put up massive, streaky numbers for the Bulls, including consecutive seasons with over 2,000 yards passing and a thousand yards rushing. Because we cannot pay Quinton Flowers for all the joy he brought in college, please: Some team keep Quinton Flowers on an NFL roster long enough to pick up a pension.

This series lacks a whole lot of off-the-field drama, but wait on that. It’s young, and learning, and if it keeps up at this pace, the War on I-4 could grow to something large, wild, and wonderful in the way that only things in the Sunshine State can be. By this, I mean that it could involve hurricanes, a deposed governor, the Army Corps of Engineers accidentally opening up sinkholes beneath both stadiums, some heavy insurance fraud (related and unrelated to the sinkholed stadiums), and several people in the game’s crowd being eaten or kidnapped or both. It could be all of that and so much more.

USF and UCF had to wait until the Arena League folded to legally use the name “War on I-4” because the original “War on I-4” name belonged to the Orlando Predators, until the Arena League team went out of business in 2016. They got the nickname of the whole thing on consignment, y’all. This is the best rivalry in Florida right now, and that is before remembering that the whole thing is named after a sun-blasted stretch of highway dotted with spectacular car wrecks and terrifying anti-abortion billboards. The winning trophy should be a sign reading “PLEASE MOVE WRECKAGE TO THE SIDE,” that is nothing but a sincere compliment.

Ole Miss/Mississippi State. The hypothesis here: The Egg Bowl is the only rivalry in college football where both teams somehow lose the game every year.

Recent history has done nothing but add to the mounting pile of robust evidence that while life is pain, the Egg Bowl remains the drug for people who need a deeper more powerful brand of existential agony. Last-minute game-tying TD drives do not fail quietly. No, they instead end with Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace getting stripped and fumbling in the endzone in Mississippi State’s 2013 victory.

Possible appearances in the SEC Championship game don’t just die in the Egg Bowl, as they did in 2014, when Ole Miss upset the No. 4 Bulldogs. No, they also take possible national title aspirations away at the same time, but that’s okay because it’s not like CBS showed the Egg Bowl instead of the Iron Bowl that year. EXCEPT THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENED AND THE WHOLE NATION SAW IT. Then Alabama won the Iron Bowl over Auburn, and shut the door completely on Miss State’s beautiful fantasies of larger relevance.

Again: Maximum pain, every time.

Continued! Ole Miss needed a win to get bowl-eligible in 2016, and instead took a hefty 55-20 brick straight in the teeth from Mississippi State. That’s the game where Dan Mullen reminded everyone that his quarterback, Nick Fitzgerald, was only recruited by Miss State and UT-Chattanooga. He ran for 258 yards that day. Dan Mullen can be, for lack of a more accurate word, a real dick in a rivalry situation.

There is so much more. Both schools constantly rat each other out to the NCAA. The fanbases split along the same lawyer-class/farmer-engineer type lines Auburn and Alabama fans do, with one group favoring seersucker and bowties, and the other leaning more towards hunting gear, dark jeans for formal occasions, and a real fondness for pointing out how they grill their own meat. (An actual stated point of pride, since open flame is banned at The Grove, and the food is—spits on ground—catered.)

If the rivalry has a weakness, it’s that there usually isn’t a whole lot on the line in the larger picture when the two meet. Counterpoint: when there is something on the line, the underdog destroys the favorite’s dreams and ruins their year. Watching all this might sound sort of like sadism, but that would be inaccurate.

The Egg Bowl is sadism.

ALTERNATES LIST: SUB-BOILING BUT STILL QUITE WARM

Arizona/Arizona State. MEAN. Competitive, heated, and good for a serious upset every other year or so. Like the Egg Bowl, the Territorial Cup is made better not in spite of two in-state teams scrapping over scarce resources, but because of them.

Army/Navy. It’s great! It’s also super watchable because it is really rare now to see two teams both running the triple-option well! And if we’re all going to be honest, it comes a week after the rest of college football’s regular season finale, when we’re all sad, and involves two teams no one outside of their fanbases watches regularly, and both teams have to display real, touching respect each other at the end. That this is so perverse says a lot about college football rivalries in general, but it’s where we’re all at (except for Army and Navy, obviously).

Michigan/Michigan State. Listen: I’m trying to be kind to Michigan, because they have taken a lot of flak here already so let’s see, that’s eight out of the last ten for Sparty and yup let’s just keep it movin’—

South Carolina/Clemson. Would be way higher if Dabo Swinney hadn’t created a perfect recruiting machine and put South Carolina on the whoopin’ end of a very solid stick for a while. Four in a row and no real signs of a Clemson slowdown mean South Carolina will have to play the hard-fighting but winless underdog for a long time here. (In other words: They’ll just have to be themselves.) Actual brawls happen on the field in this rivalry, so it’s basically one Gamecock upset and a fistfight away from hopping back into the upper echelon.

DORMANT

Texas A&M/Texas. Maybe the only real sleeping feud that makes me sad to think about, if only because the two fanbases still talk about each other constantly like a recently divorced couple who clearly is going to get remarried after a few years of festive mistake-making. They’re so good together, and so awful together at the same time.

West Virginia/Pitt. Dormant, but coming back in 2022 at which point it will rocket into the top echelon of college football rivalries based on sheer amount of moonshine and Iron City beer involved.

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