Ranking Best College Football Rivalry Names
How can you tell it's a big game? It's all in the name.
It's Rivalry Week in college football, with many of this weekend's biggest matchups pitting longtime rivals who don't have very nice things to say about each other. Records aside, these games are often the most important ones on the schedule year in and year out, with another year of bragging rights (and maybe some sort of trophy) up for grabs.
Each rivalry considers itself the biggest one in the country, but the most significant ones tend to stand out because of their names. These monikers either describe the series' history or tap into the schools' rich tradition, adding to their lore.
We've ranked the 10 best rivalry names in college football, listing ones that are on tap for Friday and Saturday as well as ones held at other points in this season. Rather than basing them on how big the games are, either regionally or nationally, the rivalries are rated in order of how much their name resonates.
We limited our rivalry-name ranking to ones that remain an annual event, which meant having to pass on some great ones that are either on hiatus or only get played every now and then. College football's recent realignment craze contributed heavily to this, with schools that used to be in the same conference no longer able to fit each other on the schedule.
Some of the most notable:
Backyard Brawl: Pittsburgh-West Virginia: Played 104 times since 1895, these schools separated by about 75 miles last played in 2011. West Virginia's move from the Big East to the Big 12 in 2012 prompted the series' pause, with no future games currently scheduled.
Border War: Kansas-Missouri: The longtime Big 8/Big 12 rivals first played in 1891, but when Missouri jumped to the SEC in 2012, that marked the end of the series.
Holy War: BYU-Utah: Utah's two biggest schools have played on and off since 1896, including every season from 1922 to 2013. Many of those were as members of the same conference, but in 2012 Utah moved to the Pac-12 and BYU became an independent team in football. They're next scheduled to play in 2016.
10. Rocky Mountain Showdown
Matchup: Colorado-Colorado State
Played since: 1893
Series record: Colorado leads 62-22-2
Probably one of the least known rivalries in the country, the annual game between Colorado and Colorado State has become a staple at the start of the regular season for both teams. And most meetings over the past 15 years have been in Denver, rather than played in one school's home stadium.
Colorado State won this year's game 31-17.
The name just sort of materialized over the years, with no main reason other than that it describes the region the schools play in. Sometimes, a lack of a story is just as good as a lengthy anecdote.
9. Apple Cup
Matchup: Washington-Washington State
Played since: 1900
Series record: Washington leads 68-32-6
Though the two Division I teams in Washington have met for more than 100 years, the game has only been known as The Apple Cup since 1962. The change was to recognize the state's affinity for producing the delicious fruit.
The name doesn't sound particularly ominous—it could almost double as the name of a golf or tennis tournament—but the rivalry is as heated as any in the country. Some of that has to do with one school (Washington) being in the urban setting of Seattle, while Washington State is in the more rural eastern half of the state.
Very few of the games in the series have had much riding on them outside of pride, as is the case this year. Washington State is 3-8 and will not be playing in a bowl, but as host of Saturday's game, it hopes to hand 7-5 Washington one last defeat.
8. Duel in the Desert
Matchup: Arizona-Arizona State
Played since: 1899
Series record: Arizona leads 47-39-1
Waged like an Old West gunfight the way the schools fire shots at each other throughout the year, the Duel in the Desert is one of the most hate-filled rivalries in the country. Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports summed it up perfectly by describing how the fanbases refer to each other.
"ASU backers refer to Tucson as a cowtown located in Greater Mexico," Forde wrote. "U of A backers cite their older academic standing and dismiss the former teacher's college that is little more than background noise in a pro sports city."
This year's game is one of the biggest in series history, the first since 1986 where both teams are ranked. The winner on Friday also will claim at least a share of the Pac-12 South Division title, winning it outright if UCLA loses to Stanford.
7. The Big Game
Played since: 1892
Series record: Stanford leads 60-46-11
Maybe the most simple of rivalry names, The Cal-Stanford clash is always the biggest one on each team's schedule. That being said, it makes sense that it's been known since 1900 as nothing more than "The Big Game."
It's traditionally been played around Thanksgiving, but with Stanford hosting Notre Dame that weekend every other year, the date has been as early as mid-October and as late as the first Saturday in December. Whenever it's held, though, a memorable play almost always comes from the game.
None is more noteworthy than "The Play," the final moments of the 1982 game in which California scored on a kickoff return as time expired that required it to lateral all over the field...and navigate through Stanford's band as it roamed onto the field after the clock hit all zeroes.
6. Iron Bowl
Played since: 1893
Series record: Alabama leads 42-35-1
The regular-season finale between Alabama and Auburn is now annually played on one school's campus or the other, but from 1904 to 1988 every meeting was held in Birmingham. Birmingham traces its history back to being a steel town, due to large iron deposits in the area, hence the name.
That blue-collar backstory doesn't have much relevancy anymore in this game, but it's still regularly referred to as the Iron Bowl. It's just become part of the vernacular—sort of how Halloween has become a day for dressing up and getting candy without much homage paid to the day's lineage.
That might also be because Alabama and Auburn fans are too busy hating each other and vehemently explaining why their side is the better one. Many of the matchups have had national championship implications, with last season's Auburn win coming as a result of the "Kick-Six" return of a missed field goal by Chris Davis as time expired.
Alabama's playoff hopes ride on this Saturday's game, as it would win the SEC West.
5. Egg Bowl
Matchup: Mississippi State-Ole Miss
Played since: 1901
Series record: Ole Miss leads 59-45-6
The media often get blamed for overhyping certain events and incidents, making them seem bigger than they really are. But if not for media manipulation, the Egg Bowl might not be as well-known of a rivalry as it is.
Though played more than 100 times, the clash between Mississippi's two main colleges didn't get much attention outside of the state until 1979. That's when Tom Patterson, sports editor at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, came up with the "Egg Bowl" name as a way of making it more than just an in-state rivalry that was played for a golden egg trophy.
According to Rick Cleveland, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, Patterson changed the name to the Egg Bowl to make the teams playing more worthy of his newspaper's award-winning sports section.
"The traditional Battle for the Golden Egg became the Egg Bowl," Cleveland wrote. "We referred to it all week as such and then we put out a special section the Sunday afterward. I can't remember who won the game, but our special section won a first place nationally."
Now the Mississippi State-Ole Miss game is always referred to as the Egg Bowl without a second thought. And this year's version is a big one, with MSU needing a win to remain in the playoff hunt.
You can thank the media for all that.
4. Red River Shootout
Played since: 1900
Series record: Texas leads 60-44-5
It may have gone through some sponsor-driven name tweaks the past few years, but the annual game between Oklahoma and Texas will always be best known as the Red River Shootout.
The Red River forms a natural border between much of the two states (outside of the panhandle area), and the early versions of the game required the visiting team to cross this river to reach the other team's school or a location in the other state. Throw in a conflict between the states in 1931 over the construction of a free bridge over the river (to compete with an existing toll bridge), and you have a rivalry name rooted in rancor.
Since 1929, however, every game has been played in Dallas, held during the Texas State Fair in early October. Despite the locale being firmly in Longhorns territory, Oklahoma routinely fills its half of the Cotton Bowl with its crimson-colored fans, while Texas, and its iconic burnt orange hue, occupies the other side.
Oklahoma won this year's meeting, 31-26, for its fourth victory in the past five.
3. Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate
Matchup: Georgia-Georgia Tech
Played since: 1893
Series record: Georgia leads 64-39-5
The best rivalries are ones where the two sides dislike yet still have respect for each other. You don't find this most of the time, unfortunately, but it is the case between Georgia and Georgia Tech. There's hatred, but without too many actual skirmishes beyond the pushing and shoving on the field during the heat of battle.
What seems to make this game stand out, in rivalry terms, is that the disdain between the schools has existed since the first meetings in the 1890s. Some of that stems from both schools originally having a dispute over the use of "old gold" as a primary color.
Georgia has other rivalry games that tend to have more importance from a national standpoint, particularly the game against Florida held each year in Jacksonville and the one the Bulldogs play with Auburn every season. But the Thanksgiving weekend game against Georgia Tech is the one that hits closest to home.
2. Civil War
Matchup: Oregon-Oregon State
Played since: 1894
Series record: Oregon leads 61-46-10
The union and the confederacy. The Hatfields and the McCoys. The Beavers and the Ducks.
Every major conflict has two sides who are diametrically opposed to each other, but only one exists in college football. In Oregon you're a backer of one of two quirky animals, either the beaver or the duck. There's no middle ground.
There's an urban-rural theme to the game as well, with Corvallis being a smaller town and Eugene being the second-largest city in the state behind Portland.
Oregon is by far the more well-known of the schools from a national perspective because of its high ranking and seemingly endless uniform combinations. And while the Ducks have won the last six meetings, OSU has played spoiler on several occasions.
The Beavers' next chance to ruin things comes Saturday, as Oregon is ranked No. 2 and cannot afford a loss if it wants to remain in playoff contention.
Matchup: Oklahoma-Oklahoma State
Played since: 1904
Series record: Oklahoma leads 84-17-7
It's fitting that the name given to the rivalry between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State derives from an old Middle English word used to describe a facility for the insane, because when the Sooners and Cowboys meet each year, it's often pure bedlam.
Despite Oklahoma having a decided edge in the all-time series—it has won 10 of the last 11, and Oklahoma State has never won more than two straight—that hasn't lessened the significance of the series. That's often because one or both teams are in contention for a conference or division title, and five of the last six featured both teams nationally ranked.
Last year's game, in Stillwater, was a perfect example of the craziness of the series. Oklahoma State was a win away from the Big 12 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl, while Oklahoma seemed out of the major bowl picture. Yet it was the visiting Sooners who rallied late to win, knocking the Cowboys from atop the standings and propelling themselves into the Sugar Bowl.
Neither Oklahoma nor Oklahoma State is going to a major bowl this season; in fact, OK State needs to win in Norman on Dec. 6 just to be bowl-eligible. Regardless of where the both teams rank, though, there's an expectation of bedlam that will likely be met.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.