College Football's Greatest Traditional Rivalries
These slides have not been arranged into any exact order of greatest-to-least or least-to-greatest. They have been selected as representatives of the most important rivalries in college football. There will undoubtedly be debate about what was left out.
In these 10, there are too many great rivalries to subject them to a ranked score based on artistic merit. Besides, I do not have the East German judge or the French judge to cheat on someone's behalf and thus legitimize the results.
I may be preaching to the choir here, as the saying goes, but I hope "outsiders" take notice. I think the virtues of college athletics bear repeating to the largest number possible, almost like a manifesto.
College football is not professional football. And if it is merely the farm system for the professionals—as so many cynics and critics indict it for being—then it is the only under-league to put on a better show than the act above it.
College football is not the blanket corporate product of the NFL, where the only thing discernible between the presentations around the country, television or in person, is the weather late in the season.
I have been around some, and the game day experience at an NFL stadium is nearly interchangeable with its next closest brethren, with few exceptions. Green Bay, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and New Orleans—rural teams, except for the latter, with immense pride and history, except for the latter—can claim something of the spirit of a Saturday at a college football game.
New Orleans made the list because of the music of the place, and because the local color and food and culture of that ancient river settlement set it apart.
This is because college football remains intensely regional. It looks and sounds and smells different everywhere you go. The game is different, the emphasis between offense and defense, the stakes each conferences plays for, change with the time zones and the points on the compass.
No one would claim, for example, that having oysters, boiled lobster and crab with cold local beer on a boat floating on Lake Washington, Seattle, looking at the vaunted decks of Husky Stadium and waiting for the afternoon game to begin, was anything like having gumbo, suckling pig and fried alligator at Baton Rouge on the fields in front of Tiger Stadium waiting for the sun to set and the madness to begin.
So there is also something in college athletics for the geography enthusiast, special places with unique ways of enjoying life that might go barely noticed otherwise. Towns and cities like Corvallis, Berkeley, Fayetteville,South Bend, Tuscaloosa,Gainesville, Chapel Hill, Happy Valley, to name but a few.
And what person, once they've experienced it, prefers watching football without the pulsing back-beat of the bass drum and the sharp snap of the snare? The beat that carries a college football game through its courses.
And there is real kinship in the silver tongues of the trumpets and the big brass sound of the band paying the fight song as a stadium filled with say, 103,000 people, sings along.
College football certainly is an almost primal gathering, primitive in its basic tribal aspect. An afternoon watching the ritualized cheers, listening to the rhythmic chants, seeing the strange moves will convince the outsider there is some kind of atavism to the game. But it is done out of pure enthusiasm, which is contagious.
It is also an aspirational game, played by the young, who are still on their journey and not arrived at their destination, making it a romantic undertaking. It is played, mostly, with the special passion, enthusiasm and pure love of the game that people in their late teenage years and early 20s have.
It is also played for pride in a university, its uniform, its traditions, its stadium and fans, and for one another—passions often passed down through a family over generations. It is played, most of all, for memories.
Thanksgiving Day Game: Texas vs. Texas A&M (Now Defunct)
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This pairing was the flagship college football rivalry in Texas; the beautiful man-of-war steaming at the fore of a fleet of lesser ships.
It had an allure that attracted a nation, and a massive Thanksgiving day audience—an astonishing feat for two schools from a state as polarizing as Texas.
What was it that General Sheridan said after crossing western Texas into Mexico, with an order to deliver an American boot to French forces squatting there? "If I owned Hell and Texas"—I believe the general said—"I'd rent Texas and live in Hell."
Many otherwise calm, right-thinking patriots, who'd made a life-long virtue of repudiating every policy, program, proposal, incorporated business, national politician and presidential candidate that swaggered out of the Texas broiler, left this game lovingly coupled with Thanksgiving as something like a special course. There was very much a bowl game, one-day playoff atmosphere about the rivalry, which lent it much of its appeal—it was part of an established holiday tradition.
And it had endured. The game between the land-grant, agricultural school and the state's premier university was staged first in 1894, when Teddy Roosevelt was polishing his rattan club on the way to becoming police commissioner of New York City.
It had been played, until this season, every single autumn since 1915, the second year of World War I. It was the third longest running rivalry in college football.
With the site alternated between Austin, Texas and College Station—an almost straight east-to-west axis of 120 miles—it was a big, colorful embodiment of all the personal passion and pageantry that college football produces.
From the huge, glistening marching bands, the drums beating a belilgerent rat-a-tat-tat as they marched in formation on and off the field, to the ritualistic chants, cheers and synchronized calls from the enormous swell of revelers, it was nothing less than a landed festival thrown each season deep in the heart of Texas.
But the 2011 game—the 118th in the series—appears to have been the final show for an indefinite period of time. The now forced-dormant rivalry has instead become a manifestation of everything that's wrong with one of the big time, revenue producing sports in college athletics.
But for both the greed and petulance of these two institutions, alloyed with the massive, conflict-of-interest corporate interference by ESPN in securing for Texas a network for the exclusive use of their university, at the price of $300 million, this game would have continued carrying an important standard for the sport.
The deal with ESPN was so pernicious, so octopus-like in its reach and suction, that it actually sapped Texas's sovereign right to sign television broadcast agreements with third party providers. This meant a Big XII television network—which would have come to fruition—would go on without the Longhorns, and hence been worth prohibitively less money to the conference without a right to broadcast Texas's football games.
For the Horns to accept nearly $11 million a year in direct payments from ESPN, in a 12 team league that does not evenly distribute revenue, along with a contractual proscription against a conference television network, was for everyone else a bridge too far.
With that unilateral contract Texas projected a conviction that their regular fan base was so robust, and their pockets so deep, that the school could arrange a 12 game burnt-orange and white season and a legion of diehard followers would gather to make it profitable.
It's not clear why Texas does not declare independent status and make the belief in their financial invincibility, which they clearly harbor, explicitly known. The symbolism of it would be something for the author's to study.
The ESPN deal was black ingratitude and the apotheosis of Machiavellian selfishness. It was a metaphorical shove from behind into a pasture for Bevo to steer-kick cow-pies at the traditional rivals that made Texas football relevant to everyone who is not sworn to the Longhorn religion.
It also nearly destroyed the conference—which has become a reorganized, geographically eccentric league after Missouri and A&M both abandoned ship, to be replaced with TCU and West Virginia.
But then, too, there was A&M, an otherwise proud, well regarded university with an almost embarrassing "little brother" complex with Texas, which caused it to renounce its league in a fit of pique and storm away to the SEC. But the Aggies wanted more money, their own platform, a fair showing, and distance . . . metaphorical distance from Austin and the cash appetite of a behemoth corporation.
The Aggies' resolve on the issue was made adamantine almost exclusively as a result of UT's greed with the network, the ludicrous new platform for self advertising Texas was gifted by ESPN, and a sense of historical injustice.
It was as commercial, corporate, cash driven and embarrassing a scenario as college football has had from a perspective of tradition, values and purpose in its entire history.
But what ever force rules the cosmos, the great unknown power that seems so cavalier in the administration of men's fates, showed in what may be the series' final game it had not lost its whimsical, jesting humor at the expense of the Aggies, and that the Longhorns' remained the apple of its eye.
As the hour grew late on Thanksgiving night, A&M scored on a dramatic, colliding touchdown pass to capture a 25-24 lead over the Longhorns in front of a boiling sea of 83,000 souls at Kyle Field in College Station.
It looked for the world like A&M would dispatch Texas to Austin with a righteous knockout to remember them by. There were 1-minute, 48-seconds remaining on the clock when the Aggies kicked the ball back to Texas, needing one defensive stop to win.
But at the end of the one the most incompetent, bumbling offensive drives imaginable, Texas's confused quarterback lizard-legged a 25-yard scramble through the middle of the field to put Texas in range for a 40 yard kick with :03 seconds to play.
Of course the kick sailed through the splits with the clock showing 0:00 and UT ahead, 27-25. It couldn't have been more horrible, or perfect.
The series stands at 76-37-5 in favor of Texas; but the match has been 21-19 over the last 40 years.
Both institutions, with an eye to the greater good, and a feeling for the heart of what made college football for so many generations a superior game, are now burdened with finding a way to rekindle this rivalry, because the sport won't be the same without it, and neither will either school.
Army vs. Navy
Barbara Johnston-USA TODAY Sports
Go Army! Beat Navy!
Go Navy! Beat Army!
With those simple words, a rivalry of a different order begins.
This is the final regular season game of every college football season, the headline act on the main stage in the new frost of a Saturday in December.
The President of the United States, poised at mid-field to shake the hands of captains before flipping the ceremonial coin, retires afterward to the stadium-side of one academy to watch the first half, and to the other's to look on during the second.
For the first 50 or 60 years of the 20th century, this was the biggest football game of the year, the Super Bowl of the fall football season. It has been broadcast nationally every autumn since 1945—when the television was a giant, cornerstone like tube of glowing heat flickering home grainy images of black-and-white to families sat around the binding hearth.
It is a game played in the cradles of the country, the vaunted crucibles where a nation was forged: Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York, Chicago; Franklin Field, John F. Kennedy Stadium, Veterans Stadium, Memorial Stadium, the Polo Grounds, Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field—resounding names all.
There is much in this clash for those who love the pageantry of a martial display. The sharp geometry and beauty of a painted field for a stage, as the Corps of Cadets' long gray line marches to place in the precision of 36 companies.
Then, as the winter green sod clears, the navy-blue suited, white-hatted Brigade of Midshipmen arrive in formation to demonstrate for West Point their equal.
There is that, too, for enhancing the game: the enduring, internal competition between America's armed forces of land and sea.
And in the game itself, carried along with the turbulence of a capacity crowd, are more than the vestiges of what Teddy Roosevelt saw in college football for America's young men. The martial sport demanding for success skill and trust and leadership, endurance, and old fashioned toughness, played under pressured scrutiny by the young officer corps of a nation's military.
The rigors and trials of the game alloying firmly with the rigorous academic curriculums installed at each academy: mechanical engineers playing against physicists, electrical engineers, chemists and civil engineers pitched against political scientists, future professionals and the elected leadership of a country.
"Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds that upon other fields, on other days, will bear the fruits of victory," was how General MacArthur framed it.
The poignance of the moment is profound. Young men playing truly for pride in service—because one is not enrolled at a military academy without it—for a commitment to their country and with a deep love for the game, with not professional football and contracts for millions waiting, but military enlistments beginning afterward for the First Classmen on both sides.
There have been at both academies days of dominance on the field. In the 1990s, Army beat Navy for five consecutive seasons, and the Midshipmen appeared to be a permanently crippled fleet. But there has never been a streak like the one Navy is on now, having opened the guns on the venerable redoubts of West Point for 10 consecutive falls, winning from 2002 through 2011.
And there were days of glory, too. When Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis won back-to-back Heisman Trophies for the Cadets as the nation returned from Europe in 1945 and '46. The awards augmenting Army's back-to-back-to-back national championships in '44, '45 and '46.
And Navy's national crown in 1926, aggrandized by Joe Bellino's Heisman in 1960, and Roger Staubach's in '63.
When the game has played its act upon the stage, and the victor is known, the uniformed teams, standing in the frosted December twilight, grass stained and bloodied, move as units one behind the other, first to the losing teams massed student body in the stands, then to the winners. They honor the brigade and corps by singing the respective alma maters.
For the Cadets, that campus with gray granite buildings on the bluffs that make the Hudson River Valley, the dawn calls to march with gray capes flapping in the wind, the officers' hats straight and squared, the words of the alma mater rise:
And when our work is done,
Our course on earth is run,
May it be said, "Well done..."
No less proud, the Midshipmen, arrived from their Naval Yard built on the ancient shores of the Chesapeake, a protected estuary to the blue earth, wearing dark, double-breasted pea coats braced against the cold, sing:
So long as sunset gilds the sky,
Above the ocean blue,
Un-lowered shall these colors be,
Whatever fate they meet...
After 112 meetings, the battle still hangs in the balance, with Navy holding the advantage at 56-49-7.
Florida vs. Georgia
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They gather as the sun rises over the broad esplanade at Jacksonville Landing, their iced cocktails mixed already in the day's first light, clinking now brightly in their glasses, with the big current of St. Johns River behind them sliding toward the sea.
They are brightly dressed in the colors of their schools, while the flags of their fathers—stuck up like standards on a medieval battlefield—puff lazily in the warm breeze overhead. The encampment is the site of a drunken pageantry almost too fine to describe.
Unfortunately, significant color was bleached from the game when the seated authorities—anxious after the prospect of sun-stroked, drunken and raving football partisans drubbing each other on the plain in front of the river before seizing the football field to loot whatever remained of the day—began an earnest campaign to cease referring to the affair as "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party."
It is said the campaign has been very effective. That is, in many quarters, regarded as an enduring shame.
Behind the teeming, tented parties on the riverbanks, with the smoke from grills rising through the trees, rests the terraced hulk of what used to be called Jacksonville Municipal Stadium (renamed Everbank Field). It is 76,000 seats of twin-decked glory, split down the middle into brightly massed contrasts of red-and-black and blue-and-orange.
This assembly bellows like driven beasts, or shouts like primal savages when the hunt goes well, for four or five hours, with only a break for halftime, until the outcome is known.
The entire production is everything a rivalry was meant to be.
This series between the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs has been played at a neutral site reluctantly shared between the two sides since 1915, with very few exceptions. The schools find very few other facts to agree on.
Georgia says it leads the series 49-40-2, with a win in 1904 over the Florida Agricultural College counting in their favor.
Florida says it was not its football team Georgia beat that day, therefore marking the series at 48-40-2.
That count feels reflexively wrong, though, like the snapshot of Truman with a Cheshire cat smile holding aloft a newspaper proclaiming Dewey the victor.
For anyone who began watching this game in earnest in the 1990s, it is difficult to remember the vintage Georgia wins. In the last 23 meetings, Florida has gone 18-5, often executing the football equivalent of an alligator crushing a prey in its powerful jaws and viciously barrel-rolling it before drowning it at the bottom of the swamp.
The history of the game does clearly show there was a time in the 1970s and 80s when Georgia ran off a 15-5 run against Florida.
And UGA does, according to the record, hold a fairly commanding all-time lead in the series. The Bulldogs have also spoiled many Gator campaigns, as has been done the other way as well.
Which is what truly infuses a rivalry with malice.
The 1966 Georgia win, for example, may have revealed itself—24 years later—as a Pyrrhic victory for the Bulldogs.
The Florida quarterback bested that day was a Southern gentleman who answers to the name Spurrier. Steve Spurrier.
If Spurrier had been reincarnated in another earlier era, he would have been one of those red-eyed demons on horseback that caused a war that should have exhausted itself in a month and instead dragged on for four bloody years.
The Gators were 7-0 in 1966 and on track for their first SEC championship and a presumptive bead on the national championship. Spurrier would win the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season. But he threw Georgia three interceptions that afternoon in Jacksonville and apparently never fully healed from the 27-10 defeat.
Spurrier would ride back into Gainesville in 1990 to take command of his alma mater as head coach of the football team.
After the 1995 game in Athens, one of the few games played on campus while the new stadium was assembled in Jacksonville—a sixth consecutive win for Spurrier's team over Georgia—he colorfully displayed a cold-blooded instinct for the kill.
Why, Spurrier was asked by the press, did he have his team passing for touchdowns with a minute remaining in the game and ahead 45-17? (Florida would win 52-17.)
"We wanted to hang half-a-hundred on 'em," said Spurrier in that terse, clipped voice you never forget, like the sound of a hornet becoming annoyed.
Why "half-a-hundred?" the press wondered.
"We heard no one had ever done that before," Spurrier informed them.
He'd meant no one had done it in Athens, because Florida had "hung half-a-hundred" on Georgia just the year before in Gainesville, when it won 52-14.
That game remains the one with most points ever scored against a Georgia team at Sanford Stadium.
The entire Spurrier era felt like one protracted delivery of cold-blooded revenge. Spurrier left Florida in 2001 with an 11-1 record against the Dawgs.
What happened during the "Old Ball Coach's" 12 years of service may have given the Bulldogs a complex of some kind. Georgia has tried wacky stunts to turn the game's psychological current, which seems to run against it with the remorseless weight of the Gulf stream.
During the 2007 game, for example, the Bulldogs sent the entire team onto the field to celebrate their first touchdown. Strangely, Georgia did win that year's edition.
In the 11 years of the new millennium, Georgia has posted a 4-7 record against Florida.
But rivalries are defined by their endurance, and there are generations ahead—as the past inexorably recedes—for Georgia to change the flavor of the series.
UGA currently rides atop the swelling surge of a two-game winning streak.
Texas vs. Oklahoma
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This one is washed in the bright October sunshine of the south. It is another neutral site game, played in the Cotton Bowl, in Dallas, Also known as "The House that Doak Built." It is one of the two most historic, evocative college football stadiums in America.
The setting and large-scale pageantry of the game are as unique and colorful as the history between the two border states the pairing represents.
When the team busses roll through the monstrous morning crush of fans and revelers at the Texas State Fair—the beautiful 1930s era stadium waiting, with the pristine pitch of clean painted, fairway-cut sod, and 96,000 partisans split at the middle—it is an enormous spectacle.
The name of the rivalry, called after the Red River separating the states, is redolent of the Old West of lore: the Lone Star Republic, Longhorn ranches, cattle drives in the scope of animal migrations, and homesteading—the settlers of the land and the seeking men who couldn't wait: the Sooners.
It is what college football does better than any American sport—preserves a colorful regionalism that is steadily and inexorably eroding away. The game both conserves in its institutions our heritage, and celebrates the mighty land.
For generations—from grandfathers-to-fathers-to-sons—this game was known as "The Red River Shootout," which made a lot of sense. It may have, in fact, summoned just the right vortex of past and present, given the territories' histories.
But the name fell prey to the corporate locusts that threaten to strip bare everything that gives major college sports their nourishment. The game became "The Red River Rivalry," a great success for those marketers who feel a "commodity" just isn't salable until it's fully alliterated, and patently inoffensive to the greatest multitude.
It is not that this particular cosmetic change to tradition was especially atrocious, but rather the notion behind it was. The corporation, with its ambition of gathering currency and influence from the largest possible audience, forced, through the volume of its financial contribution, the buckling to a vociferous and vengeful minority the selection of a non-threatening, "politically correct" substitute name.
What does that say about the idea and virtue that gives the principle of personal responsibility, and the capacity to teach right thinking its force? The word "shootout" was deemed too dangerous and controversial to use in a free society. As if the name was a reason, a viable excuse or engine of motivation for an actual Old West style shootout—which may have been always more a feature of film and myth than reality. It was an absurd capitulation on the grounds it was made, but the game was always far stronger than the name.
The birth of this rivalry goes back to those sepia tinted, black-and-white photographs of the covered wagons barreling along in front of rising, swirling clouds of desert-prairie dust.
It was first played in 1900, when Oklahoma was still a federal territory, and some 70-years after the tribes and nations of American Indians in the southeast had been uprooted and forced over the Trail of Tears to make it their home.
Afterward, the land had been grabbed by railroads and settled by landless farmers and ranchers. The game was already seven years old when Oklahoma was officially welcomed to The Union.
In the middle of the 20th century, two of the resounding names of college football history coached in this rivalry. For Texas it was Darrel Royal, and for Oklahoma, Bud Wilkinson.
Wilkinson grabbed for the Sooners the GI boys back from the war and built with them a football power. He won 14 Big Eight championships, and three national championships, in 1950, '55 and '56. From 1947 to 1963, his teams won 83-percent of their games, including 55 in a row, a streak blown apart by Notre Dame on a gray November day in Norman in 1957.
Royal's Texas teams won 77-percent of the games they played. Over 20 seasons from 1957 to '76, the Longhorns won 11 Southwest Conference championships, and Royal presided over three national titles, in 1963, '69 and '70. Texas's 100,000 seat, on campus stadium has been christened the Darrel K. Royal Memorial Stadium.
Before Royal had retired, Oklahoma began under Barry Switzer winning the additional laurels that would make them the championship standard in the rivalry. Switzer was promoted from offensive coordinator to head coach in 1973, and given the august job of feeding the "Norman football monster" that devoured victories along with the vital energy of the men who had engineered them.
Switzer nearly matched Wilkinson, though, winning 12 Big Eight crowns in 17 seasons, and three national championships, in 1974, '75 and 1985. Billy Sims won the Heisman Trophy for the Sooners in 1978.
Wilkinson finished at Oklahoma with a record of 145-29-4, while Switzer went 157-29-4, an eery parallel at a school that drove both men to the pinnacle, and exhausted them completely in the exact same number of seasons.
Switzer finished 3-0-1 against Royal, who was not quiet about his loathing for the young gun in Norman.
Texas carries an overall series lead at 59-43-5 in 107 meetings.
But since World War II, when Oklahoma filled out its enrollment, and joined the fray in earnest, the series rests at 32-32-3.
In the first decade of the 21st century, as both schools cycled back to the uppermost echelon of college football, six of the preceding 12-seasons the winner of this game has played for a national championship. Oklahoma won their seventh in 2000, while Texas won their fourth in 2005.
The coaches at the head of the resurgence—Mack Brown at Texas, and Bob Stoops at Oklahoma—may one day join their predecessors in the Pantheon when their time in the pressure cookers is up.
USC vs UCLA
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It might endear Los Angeles to a few counties of the country—some of the pristine coastal Edens and far-flung country hamlets that despise the city as a wasteland of degenerates and a paradise lost—if it could be convinced of its value as a college sports town.
Running hard within that sea-side vat of human interest is a heavy current of passion, and even fanaticism, for college sports.
Los Angeles is without doubt a college football town, sharing in common with Lincoln, Nebraska; Norman, Oklahoma; Iowa City, Iowa; Tuscaloosa and Auburn, Alabama and many other fine college hamlets cross the country, the complete absence of professional football.
The old Los Angeles Rams are genuinely missed by the people who grew up with them. The Raiders are not missed by anyone the corporate world pays attention to. It is the National Football League and the business interests that accompany it, far more than the people of Los Angeles, that ache for the return of professional football to the city.
The city's general contentment with its football options is easy enough to understand, when, in that sprawling encampment of civilization, you have two nationally elite, hyper-competitive universities dug-in just 12 miles apart, surrounded and "backed" by five millions of people essentially split in their loyalties.
There is an intense, enduring hatred and competition between every affiliated and unaffiliated partisan of the two schools. Like a lot of other competitive sports, the people who have nothing to do in real terms with the universities may be the most intense, furious and violent contingent of all. The term "irreconcilable differences" comes to mind when you're talking about everyone associated with this rivalry.
Beyond the athletic competition, which runs through every sport—men's and women's—that the schools compete in, there is also the public school, UCLA, versus the private university, USC, which adds an incendiary element of class and political warfare to the already volatile mixture.
One night in the Coliseum, for example, I sat high up in the closed end of the stadium, looking out over the field and beyond that to the peristyle arches running white and Roman below the Olympic Torch curling into the night.
I sat amazed as USC's band moved through "Tusk"—the Fleetwood Mac song—with a seething mass of 92,000 Trojans sort of singing along. There is a sequence to that tune that takes five deliberate beats as the music rises toward a crescendo—a natural window for the crowd to shout something of their own.
As the beats began to sound, the message rose up in around-the-world fashion from every section of the stadium, its collective force flickering the flame of the torch high over the stadium . . . . "U . . . . C . . . . L . . . . A . . . . SUCKS!"
It was halftime of the Trojans' huge rivalry game against Notre Dame.
USC loathed UCLA from its very foundation, in 1919, when the University of California, headquartered at Berkeley, established a southern extension of their system in Los Angeles. It was like an older sibling being forced to share the room he'd enjoyed to himself all his life. It seemed spoiled and selfish for USC to take it so badly; it may still seem that way now.
While USC had been playing football—and competing at a high level—since 1888, UCLA did not play its first game until 31 years later. USC was a charter member of the Pacific Coast Conference in 1916. UCLA gained admission in 1929.
The acrimony between the pair intensified in 1928 when they began sharing a sandbox, with UCLA's move into the Coliseum. They would co-habitate the enormous Olympics venue until 1982—each donning their home darks for the rivalry game—when UCLA moved to the Rose Bowl.
It was a show of decency, and even the slightest affection—a feat at least as rare as tracking, spotting and photographing a Himalayan snow leopard at the top of the world—when, on the game's 80th anniversary, in 2008, the two teams again wore their home uniforms for the game at the Rose Bowl.
For the visiting team to wear the home darks on the road was of course an NCAA rules violation—dating back to the days when black and white photography required a light and dark contrast to develop good pictures—with the penalty a forfeiture of a timeout for the visiting team.
USC was the visiting team, and Pete Carrol surrendered one of the Trojans' timeouts to the cause. UCLA's coach, Rick Nueheisel, volunteered a Bruins timeout to balance the conditions. Both teams and both sets of fans applauded briefly in recognition of a shared history and enduring hatred, then kicked off the yearly business of trying to break each other for an afternoon.
The game gets its juice from the high stakes it's generally played for. The Bruins and Trojans have played one another with the winner of the game both conference champion and Rose Bowl participant at the end of 19 regular seasons. One of them has had a spot in the "Grandaddy of Them All" on the line 36 separate times.
Between the teams, there have been 44 appearances in Pasadena on New Year's Day for a bowl game played 98 times; though 32 belong to Southern California, leaving UCLA with 12.
The two Los Angeles schools—without any disrespect at all to the other very fine western universities, places like Oregon, Washington, and Stanford—have over time been the athletic pride of the west. Since the formation of the Pac-10 in 1959, which became the Pac-12 in 2011, USC has won or shared 25 conference championships. UCLA has won or shared 11 of their own. Between these two are owned 36 of 53 league titles.
USC took the weather gauge in the crosstown series early on. The first two games in 1929 and '30 were such massive blowouts that the game was suspended for five seasons, from 1931 to '35, to allow UCLA time to establish its program. The game was played again in '36 and ended a 7-7 tie. For UCLA, it was enormous progress.
Through the '29 game, the remainder of the 30s and 40s, USC went ahead 12-2-2. But in the six decades since 1950, after Red Sanders came to UCLA and put down the rivalry gauntlet when he said: "Beating SC is not a matter of life or death, it is more important than that." The schools have split the decades 3-3.
USC made a trophy of the 60s and 70s at 14-5-1, while UCLA mounted the 50s, 80s and 90s: 20-8-2. The longest winning streak in series history came when UCLA won eight in a row over the Trojans at the outset of the '90s.
Southern California became a national behemoth again with Carrol commanding their ship and took the 2000s: 9-1. The one loss, though, came at the Rose Bowl in 2006, when the Bruins completely jammed-up USC's offense, punted beautifully and ground out an ugly 13-9 win. The loss scuttled SC's sail toward the national championship game. It would have been its fourth consecutive appearance.
But there is never truly payback or redemption for seasons lost to your most bitter rival. This game has re-routed several high-flying seasons directly into the side of the mountain. The 1967 clash at the Coliseum, for example, was one of five or six "Games of the Century," and in it, USC halted both a Bruins Heisman Trophy winner and a national championship campaign.
This is the game that O.J. Simpson made that 64-yard, sideline run on 3rd-and-7 for a Trojans touchdown in the fourth quarter. The grainy-filmed highlight was shown all of the time in college football nostalgia clips—or it used to be, rather, for the obvious reasons.
Gary Beban, UCLA's quarterback and Heisman winner, was knocked out of that game, only to come back again and again all afternoon. By game's end, his ribs were so badly injured he could barely breath. USC won dramatically, 21-20, and beat Indiana in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day to win the national championship.
The '67 game had come following two consecutive UCLA series wins and back-to-back Rose Bowl trips. The following two years were Trojan wins and Rose Bowls, including another victory in 1969 with both teams entering the arena undefeated.
USC leads the overall series, 46-29-7.
The teams began playing for the Victory Bell in 1942, a 295 pound brass bell that swung atop a Southern Pacific railroad locomotive before being converted. It is painted the color of the winning school for the year it is kept.
The bell had instigated a near war between the two schools when a group of covert USC students stole it from UCLA and secreted it around Los Angeles, hiding it in basements and safe spots in the Hollywood Hills. The bell was covered once in a haystack when the heat from a recovery mission got too close.
A picture of the bell published in a USC magazine revealed who had kidnapped it. The rivalry was almost cancelled as retaliations for the theft escalated, until the schools agreed to play for it on the football field.
So, they've been at it a while now, in Los Angeles, which is always talked about like it's a new place. The prestige of the universities, their suffocating proximity, despite the immense size of the city they share, and the intensity of the competition on and off the field make it one of college football's most unique rivalries, and one of its very finest.
Florida State vs Miami
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If this list had been made during any season between, say, 1990 and 2004, this game may have capped it.
There was a time when a man skipped weddings without feeling a gnawing obligation to defend himself, ignored friends and family indifferent to the circumstance, delayed with powerful drugs the birth of children and set back funerals if the deceased had poor enough form to slough off his mortal coils the week Florida State played Miami.
This rivalry directly altered—not in a secondary markets or by some rippling butterfly effect—the course of college football history. The game seemed, year after year, to somehow force fate to reveal her hand.
If not for Miami alone, Florida State likely would have played for seven national championships between 1987 and 2000, rather than the five they did maneuver to skirmish for.
Miami won national championships in 1983, '87, '89, '91 and 2001 and were a mighty scourge across the land; the terror of college football, really.
The team was the barely sanctioned equal to a band of modern Vandals that, when the fighting days of autumn came, stormed over the countryside and broke down the gates everywhere they went, ran off with the women and raided the coffers with devil-might-care grins twisted onto merciless faces.
The Canes played it up, too, making an August arrival at a national championship game decked out in combat fatigues, looking like a sadistically eager mercenary force gone to battle. On the field, it employed a style of conduct that could understatedly be called arrogance—though the Hurricanes and their partisans had it called swagger.
The team wore snow white helmets with a half-tropical green and half-orange "U" distinguishing the sides and stripes of the same color in a triple pattern down the center. It started calling itself "The U."
In this name, and in those colors, was wrapped everything that disgusted and frightened decent and civilized people across the country.The team enjoyed a great success in many quarters.
But to the enduring outrage of its legions of detractors and enemies, there was tremendous substance behind the flamboyant, violent style, as Miami put as hard a hitting, swift of foot and spectacular a football team onto the field year after year as there ever has been at the college level.
While it felt generally that if Miami played its way into a national championship game, it won, the Canes suffered defeats in the final game of the 1986, 1992 and 2002 seasons. That is still a 5-3 record on college football's biggest stage. Florida State, for its part, has fared 2-3 at the champion's feast.
It was bewildering, in a certain way, that a smallish private university in Coral Gables, heralding a sparkling academic reputation, could assemble a fearsome, mighty football team every season. The roster was larded with players from talent-fertile Dade County and hard-scrabble places in southern and central Florida. All places rich with athletic talent, but perhaps not traditional "Miami material" in the university sense.
There was a compelling documentary called "The U" which showed as well as anything could how and why this had happened. The university would pay a price in reputation and prestige for the conduct of their football team, but the on-field glory appears to be forever.
In the context of college football, the epic scale of the clashes between these two schools in the golden years quickened the pulse. The amazing circumstance of what was for many years a non-conference game between teams on the northern and southern boundaries of a large, exotic state, played every autumn with a national championship in sight, and professional-grade talent literally all over the field, felt like too good a fortune.
There was also the tribal, pulsing, war-drum rhythm to the games in Tallahassee, the chanted "chop" sounding deep and hauntingly through the rumbling din of the stadium. And the way the games began, with a piece of tradition preserving the blood consecrated upon those southern fields.
Osceola, the great Seminole Chief, striding into the arena atop his Appaloosa horse, the feathered spear of war burning with malice to rear-back at mid-field and plant the totem of battle into the turf. It is the most riveting pre-game tradition in American sport.
The games in The Orange Bowl at Miami were staged in a commensurate setting for high-stakes sport. The Hurricanes storming onto the field through an eruption of white smoke obscuring mystically the stadium's tunnel. The bright Cuban neighborhood in Little Havana, and the venerable two-tiered stadium rising orangely and winsomely above it, with the rows of tall green palm tress at the semi-open end of the horse shoe blowing brightly in the sub-tropical air.
It was an absurdly colorful, picturesque stage that somehow held everything that makes Miami the sea front settlement it is charged into its atmosphere.
The rivalry has been markedly less since 2006, when the Hurricanes moved from The Orange Bowl into the almost cartoonishly generic, Dolphins—(I can't remember this year's corporate sponsor)—Stadium. That venue used to be called Joe Robbie Stadium, which had at least the dignity of being called after a human being.
But as corporations continue campaigning to convince the world they are people, too, with expensive feelings, the stadium no longer has even that to speak for it. It is mostly empty for Miami games, and the soul of the Old Place had the wrecking ball to send it into eternal slumber.
The sporting landscape as a whole has been diminished by the loss of The Orange Bowl, which had so much history webbed within its stately decks. I think, too, that the mystique of Miami football has been shrunken since.
College football has always celebrated and preserved what made its game unique, which were the regional and the local ingredients that gave the presentation its flavor. Miami lost its claim to one of the most famous connections to place in the entire sport. That kind of loss is not easily recovered.
But both schools made a great advantage out of their home venues over the years. The all-time NCAA record of 58 consecutive home victories at The Orange Bowl belongs to Miami, a streak that rolled out over the autumn of 1985 into September of 1994.
The Hurricanes hold also two of the longest winning streaks in college football history, with 29 consecutive wins from 1990 to 1992 and 36 in a row from 2000 to 2003. Both runs began in obvious ascendancy, crescendoed in national titles and ended with a clashing fury in the national championship game as the Canes tried to blow down back-to-back titles.
Florida State went unbeaten in 54 consecutive games at Doak Campbell Stadium from 1992-2001, a streak broken at both ends by Miami. Who else?
But it is the games that make this rivalry. Without hyperbole, two of it are equal to any other two in the history of college football. They could hold their own against all challengers.
As a general atmosphere, Florida State would come into the game having beaten everyone it had played— good schools—by three, four, five, six, sometimes more, touchdowns. The Noles carried scalps from road skirmishes with the Titans of college football in which they'd drubbed senseless a pride-filled and beloved institution in front of its own horror-struck and sickened fans.
The Seminoles won 29 consecutive conference games after joining the ACC in 1992 and nine consecutive conference championships. Their 1995 team scored 70 or more points against three conference rivals during the same season.
No one has ever entered a league and so robustly abused the seated membership. The fact is, there was not a team in the conference that had the power, personnel or forces to stop them.
But the Hurricanes were the team the Seminoles could not vanquish when they needed it most, like some champion heavyweight against the one man who had his number. The heartbreak for the Florida State camp on this front has been profound.
To see it more clearly, consider this: The Noles have finished 11-1 or 10-1-1 six times since 1979. In four of those campaigns, the one setback was to Miami—in the other two, it was the University of Florida, including the tie. They have finished 10-2 eight times since 1977. In five of those seasons one of the losses was to the Hurricanes, and in two, the second loss came the week following the Miami game.
Bobby Bowden, the man with more wins than any coach in major college football history, the chief who at the height of his powers led the Seminoles through 14 consecutive seasons with 10 or more wins and a Top 5 finish in the final national polls, garlanded with two national championships and a pair of Heisman Trophy winners along the way, has acknowledged several times over the years his peculiarly cruel destiny against Miami.
Bowden gave an interview to the Tampa Times in 2009 in which he very rightly noted that most major powers dropped their regular season series with Miami because the Hurricanes were smothering national championship runs before they could collect from the boilers enough steam to make the run.
"We were going 11-1 every dang year, and what I was thinking when I said that was, 'Daggum. What we ought to do is drop Miami like those people did,' " said Bowden. "Notre Dame played them and dropped them. Penn State played them and dropped them. Florida, too. I was thinking, 'At least, I played Miami.'"
Coach Bowden got it right also when, after another knee-bucking loss to Miami, in a flash of what must have been agonizingly lucid self-awareness as to how coaching legacies are handled, he said: "I think the curse is that they're on our schedule. They're going to chisel on my tombstone, 'He played Miami.'"
The 1991 and '92 games were the first two in a trilogy known in modern football mythology as Wide Rights I, II and III. They are the Greek tragedies or Roman triumphs of college football, depending on your loyalty. The first two were unexplainably, indescribably good, compelling and bloodily fought football games. These are the games that will stand with any other in the long annals of college football.
As a boy being indoctrinated into the religion of the sport, I remember absorbing the intensity of the first game so profoundly that—having sat riveted for three-and-a-half hours—I fled the oppression for the grass field outdoors and the big lonesome willow tree, the target for the football I carried, while State's kicker Gerry Thomas came on for a 35-yard field goal.
There was :40 seconds to play, and Florida State trailed in Tallahassee, 17-16. I came quietly back inside for the news: the kick had sailed wide to the right. Miami had won, 17-16, and took fairly Florida State's No. 1 ranking, which the Seminoles had owned and defended with great panache for nine consecutive weeks.
Florida State would lose its next game, the last of the season, at Gainesville, against a fifth-ranked, very hungry young Florida Gators team, 14-9.
Miami would finish the season 12-0, crowned national champions.
Florida State would win the Cotton Bowl and conclude the year at 10-2.
It had been like watching some beautifully built ship, some proud man of war, get stunningly disfigured by one clean shot through the hull, and then, as her crew nobly tried to repair the ship to fight again, a second clean shot blew through the decks and sent her to the sea's floor. It was a stunning, bitter, irrevocable end to their season.
It was, in the glory and the abyss, the apotheosis of college football.
The feeling that fate was repeating itself in 1992 was almost too pungent to share the room with, like when the durian fruit is sliced open in a Bangkok fruit market. The game went back to The Orange Bowl. It was another splendid, pulse-quickening, palm-sweating Saturday of football under the south Florida sun.
Again, everything was on the line. The Hurricanes, defending champs, second-ranked, undefeated. And Florida State, third-ranked, undefeated, back for the rematch. And these two behemoths slugged it out.
The Hurricanes' Michael Barrow annihilating Florida State's Tamarick Vanover on a wide receiver screen is indicative of the kind of game it was. It was remarkable for the number of decleatings and clean, vicious hits on both sides. It was a stifling, powerful game. And of course, it was grindingly close from wire-to-wire.
But the game is called Wide Right II for a reason—it was nearly identical to the kick in Tallahassee the year before. Miami would finish 12-1, with its single loss to Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, that years' national championship game. Florida State would finish 11-1 and ranked No. 2.
There are several more series defining games not written of, including the third of the wide right trilogy, which happened in 2000: great games, thrilling games.
But the rivalry is not now what it once was. Those earlier days, from this vantage point, are almost as a dream, that strange mix of real and unreal.
The University of Miami is again looking at probation and NCAA sanctions for major rules violations, and the Seminoles are working, after the Bowden era, to resume their place as a decorated chieftain at the big council fire of college football.
The winds have blown a 31-26 series lead in favor of the Hurricanes, but there is much here yet to be written.
Alabama vs Auburn
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There is a Yaknapatowpha brooding over this game, a touch of the Gothic mystery of the deep south to its dark machinations.
Once a year, for the rest of the country, it is the ticket to a boiling, pride-filled ritual, watched almost with astonishment through a curtain of Spanish moss raised briefly over the boughs of ancient oaks as the autumn mists begin to rise.
And let there be no doubt, there is an intensity to this game palpable to the most bewildered outsider. It is a close sporting equivalent to an American country boy finding by accident a European Cup soccer match on the satellites and listening as some ominous chant or tribal war-cry resounded through the arena for two-and-a-half consecutive hours.It would cause a confusion, but the feeling of having watched over a momentous event of some kind would be borne upon him.
This game is taken seriously in the way of ancient loyalties and blood vendettas sworn over sacred oaths. The glowing, furnace-like hatred smoldering between the partisans of each school here is real, which seems representatively southern in its bewildering fury.
The out-of-perspective madness of the feud was given a dazzling moment in the national spotlight on Paul Finebaum's radio show two years ago. Harvey Updyke, the Crimson Tide's madman, called in to announce he'd poisoned the oak trees at Toomer's Corner on Auburn's campus.
The oaks had grown there for more than a century, and the corner for generations had been the sacred gathering spot for Auburn University's family. It was a merciless, cruel attack carried out with malice and forethought at the very hearth of the school's home—and Updyke knew it to his core.
But was Updyke just some football-deranged vermin who'd nothing else to live for? Or had he gone mad?
Probably the latter is the unsettling conclusion. Updyke was a former Texas State Trooper who'd, at one time, been charged with the full vested authority of the state's government to take private citizens' lives into his hands on the interstates and highways spanning Texas.
But this football rivalry became a madness for him. He'd called his first son Bear Bryant. His daughter was named Ally Bama. Updyke's wife drew the line at Crimson Tide for their third child. Updyke couldn't understand it.
If there is a platoon of fans on either side willing to carry the fight to the extreme that Updyke reached, they have not, to the rest of the country's relief, revealed themselves. But the simmering malice between the two camps is obvious almost everywhere they're brought into contact. The only thing they really agree upon is in their hatred—their haughty disdain—for college football teams from The North.
This rivalry was first staged back in 1893, with a long stoppage standing out in the record books. After the 1907 game, Auburn essentially told Alabama that its pre-snap backfield shifts were as good as cheating and that Auburn didn't play cheaters.
Then the schools argued over per diem expenses for the teams.
Then—proudly cutting off their noses to spite their faces—they found common ground in calling the whole thing off.
The good news for the alumni of both schools and the rabid fans of the game was that it took only 41-years—and an explicit threat from the state legislature to withhold funding from both universities if they didn't play one another—for the sides to finesse out the wrinkles of their dispute.
The game resumed in 1948, and Auburn was throttled 55-0.
Of course, that is one essential component of what makes this rivalry so compelling: the inferiority complex nursed by Auburn, which has made the series over the decades, both on and off the field, explosive and vindictively competitive.
Bear Bryant, the legend himself, the embodiment of southern pride and southern football—a pair of concepts as tightly coupled as a Rebel to his way of life—belittled Auburn University, calling them "That cow college on the other side of the state."
But Auburn has taken its pounds of flesh and measures of vengeance over the years. It hung up Bear's pelt a few times, too, like in 1972, when it blocked two punts in the final 10 minutes of the game and returned both for touchdowns, beating the second-ranked 10-0 Crimson Tide, 17-16.
Then again, there was the 2010 game in Tuscaloosa with 101,821 souls inside Bryant-Denny stadium. Auburn went down 24-0 in the first half before roaring back in the second to win, 28-27, and head off to win its second national championship. This was the 'Bama loss that germinated into Updyke's covert operation of sabotage against the unhonored enemy.
For most of the last century, the game was played at Legion Field in Birmingham, Alabama—the biggest venue in the state. Because of Birmingham's important seat as a southern steel processor, a manufacturer in an agricultural land, the game was given its name, the Iron Bowl.
But Auburn argued the site was not really neutral, in spite of the 50/50 ticket split, because Alabama at that time played most of its home schedule at Legion Field. Auburn is also 110 miles outside of Birmingham, while Tuscaloosa broods approximately 58 miles away.
A former Auburn athletic director once said that Auburn fans felt "Birmingham was about as neutral as Normandy on D-Day."
That is the kind of language this rivalry inspires.
Both schools continued to find money to expand their on-campus stadiums until the day came when each surpassed Legion in both capacity and luxury. Auburn could no longer be denied their opportunity to play Alabama at their campus.
The Tiger's first chance to battle the Tide at Jordan-Hare came finally in 1989. It was a huge day for the predatory War Eagle. The Crimson Tide rolled in undefeated, the second ranked team in the land, regarding with a glinting smile the prospect of a seventh national championship.
But the Tigers battered the Tide behind the ecstatic malice of friends and family, winning 30-20 and derailing 'Bama's national championship charge.
The game record at Legion Field was 32-15 in favor of Alabama. In the games played at Jordan-Hare, Auburn leads 7-4. Amazingly, Auburn has been even better in Tuscaloosa, holding a 7-2 advantage on the enemy's turf.
The overall series record is 42-34-1 in favor of the Crimson Tide.
But for as many fine teams and glorious history as Auburn football has had—and there have been an abundance of both—Alabama is a mighty football program before the Lord.
They are the pride of the south, an avatar at various times for an entrenched, tough region that felt scorned, dominated and emasculated after the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Movement, as Bill Curry, the former 'Bama player and coach, has explained it on several occasions.
ESPN's encyclopedia on college football published a quote, followed by an anecdote that pointed right to the heart of the matter.
For southerners, in the old gray days of college football lore, went the quote, Alabama was the team that "Crossed the country to win Rose Bowls." The Tide had rolled over the land by train and beaten Washington 20-19 in the 1926 playing.
The anecdote told of a 1922 game against Penn, which Alabama had won, 9-7. According to ESPN, a simple sign was hung in a shop stating just that, 'Bama 9 Penn 7. It stayed hung up for 20 years. Probably nothing more behind that, right?
The Crimson Tide has won 14 national championships, 22 SEC championships and have played in 59 bowl games, with a record of 34-22-3. And for all he is sung of by the muses in lore and legend, the brass-tax history of Paul "Bear" Bryant at Alabama offers an idea of what a master leader he was.
In 24 seasons as head coach, through several of the most turbulent post-World War II decades in the country, Bryant's teams won 82 percent of their football games, 14 SEC championships and six national championships.
Bryant did it with white players, he did it with black players, he did it on the ground, through the air and always with rigid, slugging defenses. The seasons of his career roll out as a blazing banner of consistently superior performances.
And for the abundance these schools have added to the colorful tapestry of college football, there is with both an essential understanding of what lies at the heart of the game. Auburn's best loved coach, "Shug" Jordan, said it sharply: "College football is meant to be played on campus and on grass."
It's as simple as that.
USC vs Notre Dame
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It's the finest intersectional rivalry in American sport.
It is also a comparatively pacific front of a holy schism, the great Protestant revolt that once fractured the western world, from the ancient days when Notre Dame called themselves the Catholics and USC had made a mascot of the Methodists.
These are two prestigious private universities that bestride the entire country with thundering, colossal football traditions. They are passionately loved by millions all over the world, and profoundly hated by even more.
An aspect of this rivalry unprecedented to the others is the rollicking pitch of intensity it sustains given the sheer gulf separating the schools' campuses. One team plays on the quiet, rolling plains of northern Indiana, while the other calls the mountain fortressed, coastal basin of Southern California its home, some 2,500 miles distant.
The story of their unlikely pairing—a debated fable—goes back to the almost mythical period of the games' forging decades.
But—skipping the cosmology—there is an essential component at play that lends this rivalry its national relevance and force: These teams, over time, have won big.
In 125 years of football, Notre Dame has captured 864 games against 301 losses and 42 ties, claiming victory in fully 73 percent of its opportunities. The Fighting Irish have housed seven Heisman Trophy winners and had 469 players taken in the NFL draft, second only to USC, who marks 472.
There are 10 Golden Domers enshrined in Canton, Ohio at the Professional Football Hall of Fame, second again only to the Men of Troy, who keep 11.
Southern California, which began playing football the year after Notre Dame, in 1888, has won 785 games against 318 losses and 54 ties, a 70 percent clip. The Trojans too have built seven Heisman winners, though Reggie Bush, who won it in 2005, returned his statue to the Downtown Athletic Club for "offenses" unrelated to his scintillating brilliance on the football field.
USC has won 38 Pacific Coast and Pac-10 conference championships and captured victories in 31 of 47 bowl games, including 24 of the 32 Rose Bowls it's played in, the gaudiest of all laurels.
Notre Dame, as part of the DNA of college football, has such a powerful following and enormous reach that it has never been compelled to join a conference. The Fighting Irish collect revenue from a television contract to broadcast their football games exclusively, the only such deal in America.
If you were to look over the history books, you could follow the conquests of these schools through the decades like a ribbon unspooling back over the 20th century and carry a touchstone with every generation you met.
Both teams have been led by coaches sung of by the muses of football lore: Knute Rockne, Howard Jones, Frank Leahy, John McKay and Ara Parsegian.
The national championship years between them are a powerful testament to both programs' enduring excellence. One or the other was crowned the nation's best team in 1924, '28, '29, '30, '31, '32, '39, '43, '46, '47, '49, '62, '66, '67, '72, '73, '74, '77, '78, '88, 2003 and 2004. Notre Dame will play for the crown again in 2012. Each claim 11 for their record books.
The NCAA will tell you the 2004 'SC championship has been ejected from their annals, "erased from existence," as Stalin would have liked it, for the same reasons Bush sent back his trophy. But that championship was won on the field, legitimately, in a crushing route over Oklahoma, and the NCAA is daily becoming an increasingly illegitimate governing body.
I have been to several of these games—they are organically enormous productions; rare atmospheres. The big masses of people are incredible, the revelry like an encampment scene out of Homer.
In South Bend, you can stand on the grassy south quad with the mosaic of Touchdown Jesus looking benignantly down on your worship. The marching band will move sharply along a narrow tongue of pathway, looking as much like an imperial legion as a football band, banked by rows of fall clad revelers, toward a classically-proportioned stadium rising sharply from the campus plain, the golden and deep red trees of fall for background.
There is a flash of trumpet, resounding ring of brass, the sharp snap of snare and hollow thud of bass as the uniformed procession moves toward its ground and the swollen assembly.
The game is played on a rich green field of Kentucky bluegrass in a stadium built in 1930, modified to hold 80,000 souls.
In Los Angeles, it is the grounds at Exposition Park, where the world's finest athletes gathered in 1932 and '84 to make the Summer Olympiad. USC's marching band—with Notre Dame's one of the nation's finest—has a menu of traditional songs: "Fanfare," "Tribute to Troy," "Fight On," "Conquest..." all performed ritualistically, tribally, with their partisans and team.
So you stand outside the twin rows of Roman arches closing this modern Coliseum and watch as the Olympic torch burns through the marine mists blown in from the sea. The Trojan—armored up, with his short sword flashing in his hand as he rides atop his white charger—leads the procession into the arena.
The game is staged on bright, short bermuda grass in an arena holding 93,000, raised up in 1923.
The natural grass and the big bowls are amazingly picturesque, along with the cardinal, navy and gold colored crowds framing the field, sod lifting up from cleats as the uniforms become battered with grass as the glory grows and dusk settles in.
And fittingly, USC was the first team ever to beat Notre Dame in its own stadium, back in 1931 when the Irish were sailing behind a 26-game winning streak. The game is a vintage production that never sours or comes out of solution with age.
Those who detract from it—a crowd that numbers probably in the millions—mainly argue, bitterly, that it has become irrelevant because Notre Dame is no longer a golden-helmeted juggernaut. There is some traction behind that position, but what's also obvious is that a preponderance of them are fueled not by the debatable merits, but by a high grade strain of anti-Notre Dame hatred that allows for any lack of championship success to stand for Fighting Irish decrepitude.
And what now after this season? A return to glory for Notre Dame, at 12-0, and headed to the arena for the championship bout.
The truth is that historically great, enduring programs can sink into a decade, or generation-long slog and rise again like a Phoenix on the other side. Coincidentally, USC's mediocrity from the 1990s through 2001 is a fairly strong example of exactly that.
Even granting as accurate the current perception of Notre Dame football, I think it can be fairly said that the 2005 USC-Notre Dame contest in South Bend was the regular season game of the first decade of the century.
The calm sense of destiny USC had in those years, the defending national champions riding the crest of a 27-game winning streak, swaggering in to face a fierce rival.
The Fighting Irish decked in their green jerseys, their feeling for luck and faith in miracles in their favor with them as always.
The fall twilight settling over the field as the game crescendoed. And the Trojans' drive. That huge 4th-and-9 throw to Dwayne Jarret up the sideline, the kind of good fortune Notre Dame expects for itself at home. The Trojan touchdown with :03 seconds to play. The still percolating controversy around Reggie Bush push of Matt Leinart across the goal line to put Southern California ahead 34-31...
This is, without doubt, a college football rivalry for the ages.
Florida State vs Florida
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In the sharp, crisp gray days of the midwest in late November, this game was an odyssey by television to a far-flung land where a single, palpitating game was staged every autumn for the highest stakes the sport had to offer.
The Swamp is a massive yet claustrophobic arena of steep-sided decks, compassed by orange facades spangled with the blue painted laurels of Gator football. It is an oppressive, Everglades like eco-system for an opponent to slog into.
Doak Campbell is a brick-built, elegant bowl that by expansions and upgrades matured over the years—much like the Seminoles' football team—from a dubious youth into a mature, classical, enduring brilliance.
Each are big, Roman Coliseums of concentrated sound and fury. This dental-work hit on Gator running back Jeff Demps in Tallahassee during the 2010 game is a solid, one play stand-in for what the rivalry represents, generally.
That deep gasp you hear is the sound of 84,000 souls collectively, involuntarily acknowledging that a participant just got rocked. It will go on like that, back and forth, all afternoon.
The games too seemed always soaked in that late fall Florida sun, which sunk to make the shadows long across the field, and a glowing twilight as the contests ticked toward the crisis.
The clash of uniforms against that bright green grass, the orange and blue of the Gators, the rich garnet and golden helmets of the Seminoles—the tomahawk stickers arrayed to show a brave's triumphs over the course of a season—made an amazing canvas to look upon.
I don't know that there's been a critical rivalry game played at the very final stages of a season with more consistently hung in the balance than this one.
The actual tilts have been gripping, teeth-grinding clashes of brilliant offense and brutal, thudding defense. They are often better than they've been billed for, which is incredible given the amount of hyped-up press they usually generate.
But we've gotten ahead of ourselves here, because the rivalry itself has an interesting history.
The state legislature in Florida made two major reorganizations of their university system in the 20th century. The first, in 1904, turned the Florida State College into an all women's school, and Florida State dissolved its fledgling football program. This left the University of Florida the de-facto flagship for the state.
The second, in 1947, reconstituted the school as a co-educational university to accommodate the crush of young men returning from war to attend college on the GI Bill.
Florida State importuned Florida for a game, but Florida dallied around the request and wouldn't give State its shot. The main reason being, apparently, that if Florida State was acknowledged on an equal footing with Florida, the two universities would come into direct competition for already limited financial resources.
Again, the state legislature involved itself, threatening to write a law mandating the game be played, and Florida relented, finally. The first edition of the football rivalry came in 1958.
The Gators were savage, apex predators indeed during the series' first 19 games, going 16-2-1 against the Seminoles. When Florida State scrapped and scrambled and blitzed and somehow managed to inflict a 3-3 tie in the series' 1961 edition, Gators coach Ray Graves said the pain of it was, "Like a death in the family."
But the sea changed in Florida State's favor when Bobby Bowden was hired as head coach before the 1976 season. The flood had made, and the ebbing tide washed out the fetid gore of an alligator feast, leaving dry the appaloosa horse and proud war spear of the mighty Seminole. From '76 to '89, the game was an even 7-7. From '76 to 2012, the game went 19-19-1.
It was after Steve Spurrier had returned to Gainesville in 1990 to coach Florida this rivalry became a mighty national clash. When the decade was out, the teams had combined for 14 ACC and SEC conference championships. Six times, one school or the other had played for a national championship—including once against each other in 1997 in a rematch of the game played just weeks earlier. Three times one program wore the unified crown.
The high water mark came in a tidal-swell of five games from 1994 to '97.
It was played once during the '94 season, twice in '95, once in '96 and twice in '97. It was this middle period that included a decade worth of games where both teams entered the arena ranked in the top 10 in America, the pressure of the outcome bearing down like the gravity on the surface of some giant planet.
Twice the teams would rematch in the Sugar Bowl following the '94 and '96 games. The '97 Sugar Bowl was, as they say, for the kingdom.
The game forever fated to be known as the "Choke at Doak" came in 1994, when Florida State was the defending national champion.
The Gators took a 31-3 lead into the fourth quarter before surrendering 28 mad, inexplicable points to the Seminoles in the final 15 minutes. Florida found that luck hadn't completely abandoned it when the clock ticked out and the game was locked in a tie.
Florida State would put a spear through the Gators for good in the Sugar Bowl one month later, beating them 23-17. Florida finished 10-2-1, Florida State, 10-1-1.
The 1996 game may have set the gold standard for college football excellence in the 20th century. The No. 1 ranked Gators were beaten by the No. 2 Seminoles, 24-21, in a spectacular, riveting afternoon game in Tallahassee.
I've found a full recording of it online, and as a re-run, it is nearly as good as the original. The talent on the field is so superb, the offenses so finely tuned, the defenses unusually brutal and strong and the special teams absolutely critical to the outcome. The crowd in the stadium is a steaming cauldron of energy. As a football game, it is as durable as a piece of art.
Warrick Dunn appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated the following week in a photo that could stand to encapsulate that era of college football.
One week later, after Nebraska was upset by Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game, Florida was given a rematch against State in the Sugar Bowl for the national championship.
The Gators exploded in the second half of that game in New Orleans and won the school's first ever title, 52-20. Florida finished 12-1, Florida State, 11-1. They were 1-1 against each other.
The game the following year, less than a year after the national championship, with that group of players tied at 1-1 against each other, has become known in lore as simply "The Greatest Game Ever Played in the Swamp."
It began with a big mid-field brawl after Florida State—once again undefeated and the No. 1 ranked team in the country—moved en mass to the 50-yard line to trample the "F" logo painted onto the grass field at Ben Hill Griffin.
It ended in the gloamy twilight when Florida, clad in the home blues with that winsome orange helmet, standing behind hair raising performances from a silver mirror-visored Fred Taylor and a slippery, scampering Jacquez Green, scored with less than a minute left to beat the Seminoles, 32-29, detonating State's national championship convoy and abandoning the crippled wreckage in the swamps to be reclaimed by nature.
The amazing years, the goldenest of days of this rivalry, ended when Spurrier left after the 2001 season and Bowden's teams came back from the outer stratosphere to breathe the same air as the rest of America.
In the middle years of the first decade of the 21st century, when Urban Meyer went to Gainesville, the series shifted decisively in favor of Florida, who won six in a row from '04 through '09, including its second and third national championships after the '06 and '08 campaigns.
But Meyer is gone, and both schools have dug in to climb once more to the top. The players are back, and the coaches are strong. The series has gone 2-1 in the last three in favor State, with Florida winning a game in 2012 that felt something like it used to. It stands at 32-21-2 in favor of Florida.
The rivalry, its ghosts and its greatness, endures.
Michigan vs Ohio State
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It's known across the land as simply "The Game." It is not played for a trophy or traveling bauble ginned up by university presidents for the newspapers to write about; the stakes are higher than that.
The consecrated services go between the two cathedrals of the Great Lakes, in the heart of the old industrial north: Ohio Stadium, in Columbus, anno domini 1922. And Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, AD 1927.
Michigan has seated more than 100,000 souls for every service at its colossal bowl of a sanctuary since 1975 and welcome a listed 109,901 congregants on any regular, run-of-the-mill Saturday.
The Buckeyes' home is a soaring, two-tiered horseshoe bookended by stolid twin towers and an enormous, stand-alone grandstand built to close in the arena floor. The Buckeyes play to 102,329 fanatical penitents on each home Saturday of the fall season.
Like nearly every college venue—this being a line of demarcation separating the college game from professional football—these pilgrimages are untarnished by the corroding presence of corporate naming rights. This leaves the stadiums to stand for what the people who fill their vast spaces during a fall campaign stand for: their state, their land, their school and their team.
And so more than an organized religion, the gathering is more a sort of late autumn pagan festival, a blustery right of pageantry in the middle west as the trees blow empty and the days are short and dusky.
The costumed bands marching in formation, clacking their drums to a vital beat, signal its beginning. And the clash of striking uniforms and the unmistakable helmets, winged and silver, as teams dressed in maize and blue and scarlet and gray pour onto the field for an afternoon of choreographed battle on the painted field.
The game—playing to a crescendo in the sharp briskness of late autumn, with the sun low in the sky—often dispatches its victor to the warm green valley of sunlight in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
It is one of college football's beautiful traditions when those red roses begin arcing down from the stadium seats to gather along the end zones and sidelines. And the players gathering them to hold with the stems between their teeth, or wave to the darkening sky, smiling at what will be one of the indelible moments of their lives.
There was a time, from 1972 through 1981, when the winner of Michigan and Ohio State went every year to Pasadena. The overall series, in fact—a passionately felt, state-to-state war—is remarkably close.
With the first edition played in 1897, a run that has stretched now to 108 meetings, Michigan holds a daunting lead at 58-44-6, with one Ohio State win from 2010 vacated.
But If those primordial seasons, when college football was crawling from the ooze to evolve into the modern game we recognize, are removed, then from 1929 to 2011, the game is 41-39-4 in favor of Ohio State.
That is not meant to denigrate Michigan, because in those early decades, the Wolverines lorded over college football everywhere the game was played. It is done instead to give the reader an idea of how close this series has been after both schools came to an even footing.
The "10-Year War" (1969-1978), presided over by two of the game's titans, Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, is something like a decade of particular interest in America's own 100 Years War.
The winds that presaged the squalls began blowing the autumn before Schembechler arrived in Ann Arbor, in 1968, when Ohio State rolled the Wolverines, 50-14, in Columbus. Hayes, with his team leading by a freshly-scored fifth touchdown, had sent the Buckeyes out to attempt a two-point conversion.
When asked afterward why he'd done it—been so unsporting in overwhelming victory—Hayes replied: "Because I couldn't go for three."
But the Battle of Agincourt came for Hayes the very next season, Bo's first command, when Michigan buffeted by a score of 24-12 a top-ranked, defending national champion Ohio State team that was at full sail behind the force of a 22-game winning streak. The rout dumped Ohio State's chance at a repeat title and touched off the main phase of the conflict.
The yearly confrontation ended in infamy when one of the generals, Hayes—something like MacArthur in Korea—was forced to leave the field in disgrace. Hayes let the rage of impending defeat in the 1978 Gator Bowl overmaster him and punched Charlie Bauman, a Clemson player, in the face, through his helmet, as Bauman returned an interception up the sideline to seal the game.
Hayes was fired the next day. He was finished at Ohio State with a record of 238-72-10 and five national championships.
At the war's end, the teams had split 10 conference championships in 10 seasons, eight times finishing first and second to one another in the competition. Schembechler, who had been an assistant under Hayes, came out on top at 5-4-1. The league became mockingly known as the big two and the little eight.
Schembechler retired as Michigan's head football coach in 1989 with a record of 234-65-8.
Later, there were those seasons of the early and middle 1990s when Michigan spoiled three national championship opportunities for Ohio State—in '93, '95 and '96—and won a national championship of their own in '97, the school's 11th.
The Wolverines also churned out two Heisman Trophy winners over that span: Desmond Howard in 1991, and Charles Woodson in 1997.
That era—from '91 to '97—was capped at both ends in Michigan Stadium by amazingly similar punt return touchdowns against Ohio State. Both returns, begun with a sleek couple of sidesteps and then a hard cut toward open field, were sprinted into the stadium's north end zone, and sealed the Heisman Trophy for both players.
They became, for all of college football, two of the decade's defining moments, and both were immortalized at the expense of the Buckeyes.
What made that tightened frame of years from '93 to '97 taste so bitter to the Buckeyes, was that twice, they'd entered the arena unbeaten, with a certain shot at a national championship hanging in the balance, only to be manhandled and embarrassed by Michigan.
But in the about face—in '97—when Michigan entered the game with the Sword of Damocles dangling over their head, they made every play they needed to escape and marched to the Rose Bowl to win their crown.
In those years, Ohio State took the consolations of a Heisman Trophy for Eddie George in '95, and a Rose Bowl win after the '96 season. But their coach, John Cooper, who'd assembled great teams year after year, was fired without ceremony both for his 2-10-1 record against Michigan and failure to take Ohio State to feast at the banquet table of champions.
The Jim Tressel era at Columbus, from 2001 to 2010, mostly balanced out the agonizing defeats of the '90s. Tressel was 9-1 against Michigan during his decade-leading Ohio State, with one victory vacated. Four of the games weren't even close, a very rare occurrence in the series.
Tressel led the Buckeyes to their first national championship in 32 years in an upset of the defending national champion, Miami, in double-overtime at the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. Troy Smith won the school's seventh Heisman Trophy in 2006. Those were the glories.
But as good as Tressel's football teams were, they are remembered best throughout the country—fairly or unfairly—especially in the South, for two humiliating drubbings in back-to-back national championship game appearances against Florida and LSU in '06 and '07. But those games have little to do with the series at hand.
Like anything great and enduring, the rivalry finds, every decade or so, fresh springs to refill its pools. The vitriol never abated, but the game had stagnated at the end of Lloyd Carr's tenure in 2007.
The feeling changed dramatically during Rich Rodriguez's three years at Michigan, from '08 to 2010, when Ohio State dominated every game, outscoring Michigan 100-24.
But both programs are moving behind new leaders, each with strong ties to the semi-mythical old schools.
Urban Meyer, who was a graduate assistant at Ohio State under Earl Bruce—Bruce who was begat by Hayes—returned to Ohio State as one of the Golden Bulls of the new generation of coaches. Meyer's two national championships at Florida—one of them won in a thorough pounding of Ohio State—put him already, at age 48, three behind Hayes.
Brady Hoke, who coached at Michigan during their great campaigns of the late 90s, is a rising young bull himself from his outstanding work, first at Ball State, and then San Diego State.
Hoke comprehends entirely how loaded the phrase "Michigan football" remains, something Rodriguez never seemed to grasp. The new coach has connected his players to the lore in a simple but profound way. This year's squad is called Team 133. Last year's was Team 132, and it will go on like that, simply, with a certain austerity, conjuring up an unbroken connection to the pride, past glory, expectations and standard for excellence set at Michigan stretching back in time 133 autumns.
The tension and beauty recoupled with the rivalry is easy to hear in that clipped, dismissive way each coach refers to their rival.
For Meyer, it is Hayes' phrase: "That team from up north."
While Hoke simply calls the Buckeyes "Ohio," skipping the rather august "The Ohio State University" they would prefer to be hailed by.
The venerable and ancient has become exciting and new again, and the rivalry has settled in for another riveting run.