UCLA and USC fight for Los Angeles, Oregon and Oregon State battle in the Civil War, Steve Spurrier has another chance to take down Dabo Swinney, Florida State gets a chance to add to Florida's nightmare season, Urban Meyer gets to kick Brady Hoke while he's down and the Iron Bowl gets a epic revival quicker than even Gus Malzahn's offense moves.
But for all the games that deservedly get attention on the final full weekend of college football, the annual meeting between Notre Dame and Stanford has a chance to become one of the best—and most important— rivalries in college football.
After a few off decades, even with a disappointing three losses this season, Brian Kelly's Irish have won eight games or more in four consecutive seasons for the first time in 20 years. Meanwhile, after Stanford bottomed out under Walt Harris with just one win in 2006, Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw have built one of the premiere programs on the West Coast by using a tremendous blend of power and innovation.
A rivalry that began in 1925 at the Rose Bowl with Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen traveling to Pasadena, Calif., will feature the 28th meeting between Notre Dame and Stanford on Saturday, with the series only missing two seasons after a reboot in 1988.
As two of the premiere private academic institutions playing major college football, Notre Dame-Stanford has the makings of being a classic rivalry.
Let's walk through a few of the big reasons as to why.
The Head Coaches
Both Shaw and Kelly are among the elite head coaches in college football today. Kelly's path to Notre Dame is well known. After a long and successful run at Grand Valley State, Kelly jumped from Central Michigan to Cincinnati to Notre Dame after three-year stops in each place.
Shaw grew up a coach's son before playing wide receiver at Stanford under Dennis Green. He then jumped immediately into coaching—first at Western Washington before heading to the NFL. He returned to the college game to join Jim Harbaugh at the University of San Diego as his passing game coordinator. A year later, the two were in Palo Alto, Calif., with Shaw coordinating the Stanford offense.
Harbaugh rebuilt the program, but Shaw has steered it more than capably since taking over. He won 23 games in his first two seasons, succeeding with, and without, former top NFL draft pick Andrew Luck.
Just like Kelly, who spent a few days mulling a job with the Philadelphia Eagles, Shaw has heard his name come up in NFL coaching circles. But Shaw has clearly professed his love for Stanford, signing a long-term contract extension following the 2012 season. Shaw told The MMQB earlier this fall:
When teams reached out to me last year, I said, ‘Okay, you tell me which NFL city is better than Palo Alto. And then explain that to my wife.
Kelly and Notre Dame announced a contract extension earlier this season, though the terms and buyout clause were left undisclosed. It likely means that both Shaw and Kelly will, hopefully, continue this battle for many seasons to come.
Similar Schools with Plenty of Connectivity
Depending on the measuring stick, Notre Dame and Stanford student-athletes each finished at, or near, the top of all academic performance ratings last year. Notre Dame ranked atop the NCAA's Graduation Success Rate for the sixth straight year at 99. Stanford edge Notre Dame in the Federal Rate, with the schools finishing 1-2 in that measurement.
Not surprisingly, the connectivity between the two schools doesn't end with excellence in the classroom. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swabrick got his law degree from Stanford. Meanwhile, Stanford athletic director Bernard Muir spent six years climbing the ranks in the Notre Dame athletic department.
Both schools proudly share former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with the current member of the College Football Playoff committee being the former provost of Stanford and the owner of a master's degree from Notre Dame.
The connectivity doesn't end with famous alums and administrators. Of course, both schools had Tyrone Willingham stoically wander their sidelines. Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart spent a season on Charlie Weis' staff. Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco coached with Stanford's Pete Alamar at Eastern Michigan.
Even though over 2,000 miles separate Palo Alto from South Bend, there's a lot of familiar territory on the recruiting trail. Notre Dame captain TJ Jones was a one-time Stanford commitment, and so was freshman linebacker Doug Randolph. Stanford returned the favor by snatching away linebacker Blake Lueders. Scroll down Stanford's roster and a true recrutnik will see plenty of top prospects who turned down South Bend to head to The Farm.
Just as importantly, every year that Notre Dame and Stanford compete at a high level, both on and off the field, it serves as an example that college football teams can do it right and still win big.
A Competitive Series High on Drama
Historically, Notre Dame-Stanford hasn't been much of a series, but after the Irish had won seven consecutive games starting in 2002, Notre Dame's overtime victory over Stanford last season ended a three-game winning streak for the Cardinal.
In 2009, Harbaugh put Weis out of a job, with Toby Gerhart running for over 200 yards as a 45-38 loss ended the former coach's tenure in South Bend with four straight excruciating November losses.
In 2010, Harbaugh put Kelly's first Irish squad on notice with a 37-14 whipping that showed Stanford to be a far more physically imposing team than Notre Dame. In 2011, Luck and the Cardinal again overwhelmed the Irish, holding Notre Dame to just 1.8 yards a carry, as both Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix were overwhelmed by the Cardinal pass rush.
In 2012, Notre Dame got revenge against Stanford with an epic 20-13 overtime victory, capped by a goal-line stand in overtime that ended with Shaw claiming running back Stepfan Taylor's final effort got him across the goal line. Shaw also cried foul that a whistle from the stands helped out the Irish earlier in the red zone.
Close games, plus bad blood, equals a true rivalry.
Stanford is a heavy favorite on Saturday, with the beat-up Notre Dame defense not expected to stand up to the challenge of facing off with a Stanford offensive line that's paved the way for Tyler Gaffney all season. Stanford's defense also ranks in the top 10 in rushing the passer and stopping the run, making for an interesting battle for an Irish offensive line that has protected Rees wonderfully this season.
Then again, Notre Dame does match up well with Stanford, and is strong enough to hold its own at the point of attack. The Irish handed USC its only loss under interim head coach Ed Orgeron, a team that just gave Shaw's team its second defeat of the season.
As late-season games between high-profile, non-conference opponents go the way of the dinosaur, the fact that both schools pledge to continue playing this series on an annual basis says something about both programs.
With Stanford playing a nine-game conference schedule, a yearly showdown against Notre Dame raises its already impressive strength of schedule. For the Irish, stepping away from regional opponents like Michigan and Purdue solidifies Notre Dame's desire to keep a national schedule. (The schools nearly turned the rivalry international, but that talk was tabled once former Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby left for the Big 12 commissioner job.)
Notre Dame enters Palo Alto with the chance to play spoiler on Thanksgiving weekend. If it does, the Irish will write another great chapter in a rivalry that's already very good for college football.