There is much debate as to which rivalry in college football is the sport’s greatest. Depending on what part of the country you live in, one would probably hear that region’s rivalry named more often than others.
The rivalries in college football are a large part of what makes the sport great and sets it apart from other sports. Army-Navy, Auburn-Alabama, Florida-Florida State, Harvard-Yale, Notre Dame-Southern Cal, Ohio State-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, and USC-UCLA are just some of the outstanding rivalries that college football fans enjoy every football season.
As to which rivalry is truly the greatest, I believe there are eight components that make a great rivalry and using those components as criteria one can determine which rivalry is indeed the greatest in college football. Here’s how some rivalries meet or fail to meet those components.
1. A LONG HISTORY OF PLAYING EACH OTHER WITH CONTINUANCE OF PLAY.
Harvard and Yale have met 126 times beginning in 1875. Army and Navy have played each other 110 times beginning in 1890. There have been 106 meetings between Michigan and Ohio State beginning in 1897, and Oklahoma and Texas have played one another 105 times beginning in 1900.
Obviously, playing a long time against a rival like Harvard-Yale isn’t enough to make it the greatest rivalry.
Nebraska-Oklahoma had a great rivalry going, but when the Big 12 was established with divisions forming that split, the Huskers and Sooners, for the first time after 70 consecutive years didn’t play one another.
The Big 10 learned from that faux pas and even though Michigan and Ohio State will be in different divisions beginning in 2011, they’ll still play each other every year.
2. NEAR EQUALITY OF SERIES RECORD AND THE RIVALRY ISN’T ONE SIDED FOR LONG PERIODS OF TIME.
In the very best of rivalries, there shouldn’t be any long periods of dominance by one team over the other.
For example, as great as what Pitt fans believe their rivalry with Penn State was, since 1966 when Joe Paterno took over as head coach at Penn State, the Nittany Lions hold a 23-7-1 edge over Pitt. A hammer and a nail confront one another all the time, that doesn’t make a rivalry.
In the Iron Bowl, from 1959 to 1981, Alabama won 19 of the 23 times they faced Auburn and nine in a row from 1973-1981.
In the ‘90s, UCLA had an eight-game winning streak over USC. From 1999-2009, USC won 10 of the next 11 meetings.
Perhaps no series has had more long one-sided streaks in the modern era than Notre Dame-USC. From 1967 to 1982, USC dominated the series 12-2-2. From 1983 to 1993, Notre Dame turned the tables defeating USC 11 straight times, then tying in 1994 and winning again in 1995. The Trojans finally won in 1996 ending a streak of 13 years without a win against the Irish. Since 2002, USC has beaten Notre Dame eight straight games, many of the games in blowout fashion.
As for equality of series play, from 1919-2009, Michigan leads their series with Ohio State by the slimmest of margins, 44-43-4. Since 1930, the Ohio State-Michigan series record is 38-38-4. That’s right, for the past 80 years, the series is dead even. No other rivalry can match that. Between 1979 and 1987, neither team won more than two consecutive games.
Other rivalries that are close to series equality, at least lately, include The Red River Rivalry. Since 1945, Texas leads OU in the series 33-30-3. However, since 1930, Texas leads the series 44-33-4.
Since 1976, in the Florida vs. Florida State rivalry, the Gators lead the series 18-17-1. All-time the Gators lead the series 33-19-2.
Navy leads their series with Army with a record of 54-49-7. That’s remarkably close to even for a series that old.
3. THE GAMES ARE CLOSE.
As simple as that sounds, if the games are one-sided and without tension, excitement and drama, it doesn’t make a good rivalry even if each team wins every other year.
In the Red River Rivalry, from 1942 to 1954, 10 of the 13 games between Texas and Oklahoma were decided by seven points or less. From 1974 to 1997, 15 of those 24 meetings were decided by that same slim margin.
For an even longer period on the west coast, 23 of the 42 games between USC and UCLA from 1956 to 1997 were decided by seven points or less.
From 1971 to 2006, 21 of the 36 games between Ohio State and Michigan were decided by a touchdown or less.
Deserving mention as well is that from 1979 to 1997 in the Iron Bowl, 12 of the 19 games between Alabama and Auburn were decided by seven points or less.
4. THE GAMES ARE OF SIGNIFICANCE – WHAT’S AT STAKE IS MORE THAN JUST BRAGGING RIGHTS.
A year’s worth of bragging rights of course go to the victor over their rival, but in the greatest of rivalries there is much more at stake. Perhaps a conference title, a major bowl bid and even national championship hopes can be at stake.
You can’t get much more significant than in 2006 when #1 Ohio State played #2 Michigan for not only the Big 10 title, an undefeated season on the line for both teams, but also the right to play in the BCS National Championship Game.
Four times between 1970 and 1975, Ohio State and Michigan were both ranked in the top five in the country when they met. The only regular season games Michigan lost from 1970-1975 were to Ohio State. In 1993, 1995 and 1996, Ohio State entered the Michigan game undefeated. Each time they lost and their national championship hopes eliminated. From 1968-2009, in 35 of those 42 years, either Ohio State or Michigan won or shared the Big 10 title. This year’s no different. Ohio State needs to beat Michigan to claim a share of the Big 10 title.
In the ‘90s, in every game of the Florida-Florida State series, both teams were ranked in the top 10. In 1996, the Gators were ranked #1 and the Seminoles #2 when they met. In that decade, the Gators and Seminoles combined for three national championships. Each of their games impacted the college football landscape.
Between Texas and Oklahoma, in six of the last 10 games, one of the two teams has played in the national championship game.
In the last 40 years, the Fighting Irish gave USC their first loss of the season in 1973 and 1995. USC spoiled Notre Dame’s national title hopes in 1964, 1970, and 1980.
In the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, the Sooners gave Nebraska their only regular-season loss in 1964, 1966, 1975, 1979 and 1987. Nebraska did the same to Oklahoma in 1971 and 1978.
Since 1961, either USC or UCLA, have won or shared a PAC-10 title 33 out of the last 50 years. To say the Trojans-Bruins Battle of Los Angeles often has PAC-10 title implications is definitely an understatement.
5. LARGE UPSETS OCCUR – ONE CAN TRULY THROW AWAY THE RECORD BOOK WHEN THESE TWO TEAMS PLAY.
A perfect example of this would be the 2007 edition of the Backyard Brawl. Pitt, a 28-point underdog with a 4-7 record, went into Morgantown to face #2 ranked West Virginia sporting a 10-1 record and needing only to win to play in the BCS National Championship Game. Pitt had lost four of the last five games in the series before that game so there was no reason to believe Pitt would even be able to compete with the Mountaineers let alone win. Yet, Pitt pulled off the huge upset 13-9 ruining West Virginia’s National Championship hopes in the 100th meeting between the two schools.
This ties in closely with the next component.
6. UPSETS OF SIGNIFICANT CONSEQUENCE.
Some examples are: Pitt’s upset over West Virginia in 2007 ruining their national championship hopes. Penn State’s 48-14 win over undefeated and #1 ranked Pitt at home in 1981 ruining Pitt’s national championship aspirations.
In 1964, Notre Dame traveled to USC undefeated and was an 11-point favorite over unranked 6-3 USC. The Irish led 17-0 at halftime but the Trojans fought back and upset the Irish 20-17, costing Notre Dame the national championship.
In 1970, Notre Dame was 9-0 and ranked #2 while USC was 5-4-1. Despite Joe Theismann throwing for a school-record 526 yards, the Trojans upset the Irish 38-28.
In the game that would define their rivalry, in 1969, #1 ranked Ohio State was in the midst of a 22-game winning streak. The Buckeyes “visited that school up north” and were upset in Ann Arbor by the Wolverines 24-12. Woody Hayes called it his most disappointing loss ever.
In 1993, Ohio State was 9-0-1 and faced a Michigan team that had lost four times during the year. The Wolverines shocked the Buckeyes 28-0.
In 1995, Ohio State was 11-0 and ranked #2 coming into the Michigan game and facing an 8-3 Michigan squad. Again the Big House was a House of Horrors for the Buckeyes as they were upset 31-23.
In 1996, Ohio State was again ranked #2 coming into the game with a perfect 10-0 record facing a 3-loss Michigan team. It mattered not that the game was in Columbus. The Wolverines upset the Buckeyes 13-9 again ruining Ohio State’s national championship hopes.
In the Iron Bowl in 1972, undefeated Alabama was leading 16-3 with six minutes left in the game. Underdog Auburn blocked two Alabama punts returning both for touchdowns to win 17-16 ending Alabama’s national championship hopes.
In 1989, in the first game in the Auburn-Alabama series played at Auburn, Alabama came into the Iron Bowl unbeaten and ranked #2 in the country. Their national championship hopes vanished as Auburn upset the Crimson Tide 30-20.
In 1997, the Florida State Seminoles were undefeated and were heavy favorites vs. Florida who came in with an 8-2 record. A win and the Seminoles would be thinking about the national championship. The Gators had other ideas and upset the Noles 32-29.
In 2006, UCLA was to be just another bug on the windshield on USC’s drive to the BCS title game. USC had won 55 of their last 58 games coming into the game and had an NCAA-record streak of scoring more than 20 points in 63 straight games.
USC had beaten the Bruins the past seven times they met and destroyed the Bruins the year before 66-19 to lock up a second straight BCS title game appearance and figured to make it to the BCS title game for a third year in a row. The Bruins pulled off the upset of the year defeating their arch-rival and #2 ranked USC 13-9.
Lesson to be learned – never overlook your rival no matter how big a favorite you are or how bad their record.
7. A HISTORY OF EXCELLENCE
Since 1945, in the Texas-OU Red River Rivalry, either one or both of the two teams has been ranked in the top 25 coming into 61 out of the 66 games.
From 1969 to 1985, 11 of the 17 meetings had both teams in the top 10, five times both teams were in the top five, and 10 times one of the teams was ranked #1 in the country. From 2001-2008, the rivalry renewed its luster with four meetings featuring both schools ranked in the top five and on four occasions featured the #1 team in the country.
Beginning in 1971 in the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, in 31 of the next 34 meetings either the Cornhuskers or Sooners were ranked in the top 10. In a 19-year period from 1971 to 1988, 15 times both schools were ranked in the top 10. From 1984 to 1987, both teams were ranked in the top five each time they met.
During the zenith of the Miami-Florida State rivalry which was from 1987-2004, 13 times both schools were ranked in the top 10 when they faced one another, six times both were ranked in the top five, and 11 times either the Hurricanes or Seminoles were the top team in the country at the time. From 1987-1993, four times both were ranked in the top five, and in six of the seven meetings either Miami or Florida State was ranked #1.
In the ‘90s, the Florida-Florida State rivalry also reached new heights. Meeting 13 times including two bowl games, each meeting featured both schools ranked in the top 10, and in six of those battles both teams were ranked in the top five.
In the 13 meetings between Ohio State and Michigan between 1968-1980, a few years longer than Bo & Woody’s “Ten Year War,” nine times both teams were ranked in the top 10. On six occasions both were ranked in the top five, and five of those games featured the #1 team in the country.
In five of the 11 meetings between Notre Dame and USC from 1964-1974, which matched head coaches Ara Parseghian against John McKay, either the Irish or Trojans were ranked #1 coming into the game.
Obviously, this category of a history of excellence eliminates the Army-Navy rivalry as the best in college football. Before 1950, it probably was the best rivalry in college football. Other than this current season, the 1996 game was the last time since 1963 that both Army and Navy faced each other with winning records.
Not necessarily a prerequisite, but being in close proximity to one’s rival certainly adds fuel to the fire of a rivalry. It provides the day-to-day bragging rights in the outcome towards one’s rival’s fans and players.
In the battle of Los Angeles, the campuses of USC and UCLA are only 12 miles apart. In the Backyard Brawl, Pitt and West Virginia are separated by only 75 miles.
Michigan and Ohio are bordering states. Alabama and Auburn are both located in the same state with no professional football teams so college football there is king.
USC and Notre Dame are truly a national rivalry but lack the close proximity of most other rivalries. There’s not the vitriol that exists for this game and having to deal with a rival’s fan base everyday close by to remind one another who won the last game between the two schools.
There’s no doubt USC-Notre Dame attracts national attention in their intersectional rivalry unlike any other game. Yet there have been long periods of time where one school has dominated the other.
Perhaps no rivalry is intense and means more to their fan bases as Auburn-Alabama but there have been stretches where the Crimson Tide have dominated that series and the game only had state bragging rights on the line. Unlike this year, the last time these two teams met both ranked in the top 10 was 1994.
For periods of time certain rivalries have captured the nation’s attention, such as Nebraska-Oklahoma from 1971-2001, Miami-Florida State from 1987 to 2004, and Florida-Florida State in the ‘90s, but as far as for the greatest rivalry all-time, it’s still THE GAME, Ohio State-Michigan.
As recently as in 2007, Ohio State-Michigan had a direct bearing on the National Championship picture, and 35 times since 1968 either Ohio State or Michigan won the Big 10 title. This year is no different as Ohio State needs to win Saturday to claim a share of another Big 10 title.
Unlike all the other rivalries mentioned, Ohio State-Michigan meets all of the eight components I believe are necessary to have the greatest of rivalries.
Should Ohio State under head coach Jim Tressel’s watch continue to dominate the Wolverines (six straight wins and counting, and eight of the last nine), then Oklahoma-Texas and The Red River Rivalry may soon become “THE GAME.”
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