Most Intriguing New Rivalries in College Football
College football rivalries—the lifeblood of the sport, as some would have it—are in a weird place right now.
The old guard remains just as strong as ever. Last year's Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama was perhaps the game of the season, and the SEC chose to keep historic cross-division battles such as Auburn vs. Georgia and Alabama vs. Tennessee instead of shifting to the nine-game schedule favored by the other power conferences.
At the same time, however, an uprising of modern college football rivalries is coming to displace the old guard. Even without being steeped in tradition, some of the things that have transpired on the field the past few seasons have made a number of these new rivalries feel just as vital.
More often than not, the basis for the new rivalries has been conference realignment, which has now reached its fingers into every power conference in the country.
But that's not the only way modern rivalries are forged. Sometimes it's just a matter of timing—of two programs getting hot at the same time and dovetailing into one another.
Either way it happens, though, it's always a treat to watch.
UCLA vs. Arizona State
UCLA and Arizona State have been annual opponents since 1999 and regular opponents since long before that, but the modern series between these teams did not start feeling like a proper rivalry until the last three meetings, which were decided by a total of eight points.
Arizona State clinched the Pac-12 South with a win at the Rose Bowl last season, taking a 35-13 lead into halftime before holding off a late UCLA rally to win 38-33.
One year before that, though, the Sun Devils were not so lucky, scoring what they thought was the game-winning touchdown with 1:33 remaining before losing, 45-43, on a field goal as time expired.
One year before that, for good measure, UCLA scored the game-winning touchdown with 49 seconds on the clock to best the Sun Devils by one point, 29-28. That was the most sedate of their last three meetings and was still filled with adrenaline from wire-to-wire.
And that's what a great new rivalry is.
Texas A&M vs. Ole Miss
Like the other Texas A&M rivalry on this list—perhaps you can guess which one I'm talking about—this one is all about the percentage of good games since the Aggies joined the SEC two seasons ago.
Specifically, 100 percent.
Johnny Manziel worked his heroics twice against the Rebels in two seasons. In 2012, he led two touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter to erase a 10-point deficit. Then, in 2013, he led two similar scoring drives (for 10 points) late in the fourth quarter to erase a seven-point deficit .
The latter of those games featured one of the signature highlights of Manziel's career and ended on a walk-off field goal as time expired.
What more could you ask for in terms of drama?
Nebraska vs. Northwestern
No one wants to be Northwestern's rival—at least not in earnest.
Calling the Wildcats that word makes a program feel inferior because it's Northwestern. As in, the team that until recently hadn't won a bowl game since the Truman Administration. How could it be a rival of a program like Nebraska, a team that's supposed to compete for national championships?
But so is the beauty of modern rivalries.
Nebraska and Northwestern have played nail-biters in all three years since the Huskers moved from the Big 12 to the Big Ten.
It started in 2011, when then-backup quarterback Kain Colter led 4-4 Northwestern to an upset over No. 10 Nebraska in Lincoln, and it continued the following year when Nebraska scored two late touchdowns to come back and win, 29-28, in Evanston.
But the series hit it's obvious apex one season ago, when Nebraska's Jordan Westerkamp caught a 49-yard Hail Mary as time expired to win the game and throw salt in Northwestern's season-long wound.
The Huskers can deny it if they want, but Northwestern, not Iowa or Wisconsin, is their biggest current rival.
Utah vs. Utah State
This isn't a new college rivalry so much as a renewed one; it was founded in historical precedent but has taken a different tenor the past two seasons with Utah State's revival.
The Holy War between Utah and BYU has long been Utah's traditional and most important rivalry, and between 1998 and 2009, Utah had beaten Utah St. 12 consecutive times by an average of 24.1 points.
But that all changed when Chuckie Keeton broke onto the scene two seasons ago. The Aggies star quarterback led Utah State to an overtime upset win in 2012, and even though the Utes got back on track with a win in 2013, the game came down to the wire, ending in thrilling fashion and with the teams looking genuinely equal.
Before that, equality was the only thing holding this rivalry back.
Baylor vs. Texas
Texas doesn't want to be Baylor's rival.
Texas wants to be Baylor's landlord, to charge it the fee of one annual beatdown for the right to reside in its state.
That was how the relationship worked for a long while, with Texas winning 12 consecutive meetings between 1998 and 2009. But the Bears have flipped the script under Art Briles the past few seasons, beating the Longhorns three times in four games by an average of 17.3 points.
This past year's meeting decided the Big 12 champion, and Baylor rolled away with it in the second half, winning by the decisive score of 30-10. The loss (and ostensibly Baylor's recruiting momentum) got UT linebacker Steve Edmond angry, prompting him to make some scrappy comments, per Mike Finger of the San Antonio Express-News (h/t SB Nation):
I really don’t like Baylor. I still feel they’re trash.
Y’all think it’s funny, but I’m dead serious. They’ve had some good players. … But I don’t understand how we lost to Baylor.
Baylor gets a win and act like they haven’t won before. They won it. So what? They still suck to me.
That's not how a landlord talks about one of his tenants; it's how an equal talks about one of his equals.
It's how a rival talks about one of his rivals.
Clemson vs. Florida State
There was a time not too long ago when Clemson vs. Florida State was just a game, not a game that could decide the fate of the ACC at large and definitely decide the fate of the ACC Atlantic.
But it feels like that was forever ago. No team beside Florida State or Clemson has won the Atlantic since Boston College in 2007. And that was the Matt Ryan team. The team that Ryan had ranked No. 1 in the country…at Boston Freakin' College.
Doesn't that sound kind of ancient?
Since that year, though, the winner of this series has won the division six consecutive times. And especially in the last three seasons, as the national profile of each program has improved, it has become a keystone part of each year's college football narrative.
And it doesn't show any signs of stopping.
Oregon vs. Stanford
One of the few things—and sometimes the only thing—holding Oregon back from becoming an Alabama-type power the past few seasons has been its inability to beat Stanford.
The Ducks were ranked No. 1 in the country when the Cardinal beat them, 17-14, on their home field two seasons ago. And they were ranked No. 2 when Stanford beat them, 26-20, in Palo Alto last year.
The most amazing thing about this series has been the Kryptonite factor. Against teams that aren't Stanford the past two seasons, Oregon has averaged 50.1 points per game. Against the Cardinal, it has averaged 17.
That Stanford can claim to be the more physical team—and that it can also claim the inverse: that Oregon is soft—is the kind of thing that imbues a good rivalry with subtext.
Combined with the national relevance of these teams the past few seasons, that makes this a difficult matchup to compare with.
Alabama vs. Texas A&M
This game, one could rightfully argue, has been one of the five best of the college football season each year since Texas A&M moved into the SEC. It's been important for other reasons, too.
Specifically, Alabama-A&M was the platform that launched Johnny Football to the world two seasons ago, and it was the stage where he reaffirmed his dominance in 2013. In two games against a defense that many viewed as impregnable, the undersized Aggies quarterback went off for 907 yards of total offense and (arguably) posted the three best highlights of his highlight-aplenty career.
Perhaps even more than winning the first Heisman Trophy by a freshman, his ability to flummox Nick Saban and Kirby Smart might be what we remember best about Johnny Manziel 10 years from now.
Can the rivalry live up to its billing in the post Manziel-AJ McCarron era? That much remains to be seen.
Considering how each school recruited this cycle—when both landed three of the top 10 overall players on the 247Sports Composite—it appears the series will remain in capable hands.