College Football's 25 All-Time Best Rivalry Games
There are somethings in this world that just need to happen. Jim and Pam needed to get together on The Office; The Joker needed Batman.
Alabama needs Auburn, and vice versa.
College football has undergone several changes over the past few years, and one of the tragic consequences is that conference realignment has killed off some of the sport's best rivalry games. There may not be much history or pageantry left—at least not in the same way it used to be—but some of these teams should still play each other.
(Looking at you, Texas and Texas A&M.)
In honor of that game, plus many more, here are the 25 best rivalry games in college football—active, defunct or otherwise—with consideration given to history and specific moments and/or games.
Just Missed the Cut
There are a lot of great rivalries in college football. We'd make a list of 50 if we could. (OK, we could, but that would take too much time.)
Here are a few that just missed the cut:
- Colorado-Colorado State: This neutral-site rivalry is an intense early-season game.
- Louisville-Kentucky: Don't think this is just a basketball thing. These two teams got into it before the game last year.
- Arizona-Arizona State: The Territorial Cup has new life thanks to head coaches Rich Rodriguez and Todd Graham.
- Florida-Tennessee: The early-season SEC game used to have major national implications in the 1990s and early 2000s.
- Alabama-Tennessee: "The Third Saturday in October" has become more one-sided lately.
The "Holy War" between BYU and Utah is currently on hiatus thanks to conference realignment. However, one of the more underrated rivalries outside the Power Five conferences had a bizarre ending in 2012. It was in that game that Utes fans stormed the field not once, not twice, but three times.
A seemingly game-ending incomplete pass by BYU prompted fans to storm the field the first time. However, officials put one second back on the clock, allowing the Cougars to attempt a game-tying field goal.
That attempt was blocked, prompting Utah fans to storm the field a second time—for which they were flagged for rushing out prematurely. That set up a second field-goal attempt which bounced off one of the uprights, giving Utah the 24-21 win.
The two teams will resume playing in 2016.
24. The Backyard Brawl
While much of Pitt's attention was on Penn State for years—more on that later—its Backyard Brawl with West Virginia was a heated game as well.
When Pitt and West Virginia joined the Big East, it morphed into each school's top rivalry (though the Mountaineers also had a big game with Virginia Tech).
Of all the huge moments in this rivalry, one of the top ones was Pitt's stunning 13-9 victory over the Mountaineers—in Morgantown— in 2007 that kept WVU from playing in the BCS National Championship Game.
The two haven't played since 2011; however, new Pitt athletic director Scott Barnes said it took "about 30 seconds" after he took the job for someone to ask him about renewing the series.
23. The Bedlam Game
Oklahoma's focus has been on Texas throughout the years. Back in the Big Eight days, Nebraska was a huge game as well. (More on both of those games later.)
However, the in-state rivalry between the Sooners and Oklahoma State has some intensity to it as well. For the Cowboys, it's easily their biggest game of the year.
Oklahoma has flat-out dominated the rivalry over the years. For as great a coach as Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy is, he hasn't quite been able to even out the series. However, the Pokes did pull off a surprising win in overtime against Oklahoma last season.
22. The Civil War
The rise of Oregon in the national college football scene has elevated the importance of the Civil War game against Oregon State every year.
That said, it's been a fairly one-sided series over the years. There was actually a time when Oregon State dominated this rivalry. However, Oregon has won the last seven matchups and has been in control since the 1980s.
Washington has never been too popular around Oregon, either, but Oregon State has been the regular-season finale.
21. Egg Bowl
Ole Miss and Mississippi State have always been heated rivals, but the national relevance of the game got a boost in 2014 when the Bulldogs were ranked No. 4 in the country. With a possible playoff spot on the line, Mississippi State fell to the Rebels 31-17.
Certainly, Ole Miss and LSU have an intense rivalry in the SEC West, but there's nothing quite like state bragging rights.
Besides, the intensity between Ole Miss and Mississippi State transcends all sports. Where else do you get subliminal messages about the other side written on a baseball jersey?
Baylor-TCU is actually an old rivalry that's gained a lot of new momentum over the past few years. The two sides have met 110 times in all, dating back to 1899.
However, in recent years the rivalry has really picked up. The series got a real jolt in 2011 when Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III officially made his Heisman run by throwing for 359 yards and five touchdowns in a 50-48 win.
Last season, the Bears erased a 21-point deficit to come from behind and beat TCU 61-58. With both teams eyeing a playoff spot again this season, Baylor-TCU has become the Big 12's best rivalry at the moment. It doesn't hurt that TCU head coach Gary Patterson has sounded off about Baylor coach Art Briles, either.
19. The Rivalry
The annual game between FCS teams Lafayette and Lehigh is known simply as "The Rivalry." It's an appropriate name, as it's the longest uninterrupted rivalry in college football.
According to Jim Deegan of The Express-Times, last year's meeting between the two marked the 118th consecutive year the schools have played, dating from 1897 to present. In all, the game has been played 150 times.
It doesn't have the same recognition as Harvard-Yale, but as far as small-school games go, this one is every bit as big.
18. Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe
The Big Ten has somewhere around 1,000 trophy games. The most awesome is easily the Floyd of Rosedale—basically a trophy of a pig—between Iowa and Minnesota. Another great Big Ten trophy is Paul Bunyan's Axe, given annually to the winner of the Minnesota-Wisconsin game.
It's not just about running across the field and taking the axe from the opposing team, however. The Gophers and Badgers have played in the longest-running rivalry in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision.
Wisconsin is currently on an 11-game win streak in the series.
You're going to be blown away by this, but there was a time when college football conferences were small in number and regional in nature.
Big Eight Conference, stand up!
Nebraska and Oklahoma had some outstanding games throughout their history as Big Eight members, but they'll be most remembered for "The Game of the Century" in 1971—a 35-31 Nebraska win.
Though the two played less frequently in the Big 12 era because they resided in separate divisions, there are plans to resurrect the game for a home-and-home in 2021 and '22.
16. Michigan-Michigan State
Michigan-Michigan State may not be on the same level as Michigan-Ohio State, but here's what it does have: A really ticked off coach. And vendettas are always great rivalry fuel.
In 2007, Wolverines running back Mike Hart made the horrible mistake of calling the Spartans "little brother" following a 28-24 win. Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio caught wind of those comments and hasn't forgotten since. Michigan State has won six of the past seven meetings.
Good grief, Hart, do you realize what you did? Do you?
15. The Big Game
There's only one thing you really need to know about "The Big Game" between Cal and Stanford. That's "The Play" from 1982.
In truly one of the most miraculous finishes ever in a college football game, Cal lateraled the ball five times on a Stanford squib kick and returned it for a touchdown to win 25-20. (Stanford fans probably still say Dwight Garner's knee was down.)
While "The Play" was the highlight of the Bay Area rivalry, the series has been close over the years. Stanford has a 60-46-11 edge in the all-time results.
Say this for UCLA and USC: It's easily the most colorful rivalry in college football. From an aesthetics standpoint, there's nothing quite like the mix of the powder blue, cardinal and gold.
It's also one of the most decorated rivalries across all of college sports when tallying the number of national championships each institution has won.
For football purposes, however, the rivalry's intensity comes from it being an intracity game. Back when Rick Neuheisel coached the Bruins from 2008-11, UCLA declared that the "football monopoly in Los Angeles was officially over."
Neuheisel went 0-4 against the Trojans.
13. Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate
When you have "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate" as your title, your rivalry gets some serious props.
There's a lot of history between Georgia and Georgia Tech, two universities located within an hour or so of one another. The series was initially close thanks to head coach Bobby Dodd's tenure with the Yellow Jackets. However, with the arrival of Vince Dooley at Georgia, the Bulldogs have taken a more commanding lead.
However, Georgia Tech won last year's edition of the game in thrilling overtime fashion. Later, the team's Orange Bowl rings read "State Champs," clearly offering a shot in the Eastern direction toward their SEC rival.
12. Florida-Florida State
As far as nonconference rivalries go, Florida-Florida State is among the best. The game had a lot of momentum in the 1990s when Florida State's Bobby Bowden and Florida's Steve Spurrier roamed the sidelines. The "Choke at Doak" in 1994 and the 1996 battle between Top-Two teams were among the rivalry's most memorable games.
The Gators won five straight from 2004-09, but the promotion of Jimbo Fisher to head coach has resulted in four wins out of the last five years for Florida State. Before losing to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, the Seminoles had won 29 straight games. The last team to beat them? The Gators...in 2012.
11. The Lone Star Showdown
Texas and Texas A&M don't play anymore because, well, egos are a nasty thing. Texas wanted to have the Longhorn Network, and A&M wanted to show it sure as hell didn't need the Longhorns to thrive. The Aggies left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012 and the two haven't played since, nor does it appear there are any plans to play in the future.
It's a crying shame. These two should play every year. For goodness sakes, even the respective media on both sides don't like each other.
There was a time, of course, when even the hatred on both sides was put aside. An A&M bonfire collapse in 1999 paved way to a tribute by the Longhorn band during the Lone Star Showdown, showing that, yes, we are all human beings and we're all in this together.
Twelve years later, Longhorns kicker Justin Tucker hit a game-winning 40-yard field goal in College Station to spoil A&M's Big 12 going-away party.
10. Penn State-Pitt
Pennsylvania used to be a college football hub, which meant Penn State and Pitt had one of college football's fiercest rivalries. For decades, the series was even and intense. The number of future pros on each side became a laundry list—Dan Marino, Mike Ditka, LaVar Arrington...it goes on forever.
Even the coaches—Joe Paterno, Johnny Majors and Pop Warner—were larger than life. Once Penn State and Pitt went to separate conferences (the Big Ten and Big East, respectively), the days of the rivalry were limited.
The rivalry has been defunct since 2000, but it is set to resume in 2016 and will be played in a home-and-home fashion through 2019.
9. The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party
OK, so you're not actually supposed to call the Florida-Georgia game the "The World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" anymore, but shhh, we won't tell if you don't.
The series has been fairly even over the years, but it gets added points because there's a disagreement between the schools as to when it actually began. Oh, and the "Gator Stomp" in 2007 was special because you thought Georgia head coach Mark Richt was a sweet guy. (Nope, he was Keyser Soze all along.)
The incredible moments didn't end there. With Georgia aiming for a SEC East title in 2014, Florida inexplicably racked up 418 rushing yards in a stunning 38-20 win over the Bulldogs.
8. The Palmetto Bowl
Nationally, The Palmetto Bowl between Clemson and South Carolina is criminally underrated. (No, really, it was called the nation's most underappreciated rivalry by Bill Bender of Sporting News.) For fans in the state of South Carolina who do know, this is as intense a rivalry as there is in college football.
Like all real, great rivalries, Clemson-South Carolina's origins begin in state politics. If you're going to hate someone based on their school colors, go big or go home. That's politics, baby.
Only helping the intensity of it all are South Carolina and Clemson head coaches Steve Spurrier and Dabo Swinney, who can never seem to go a year (A month? A week?) without taking jabs at one another.
7. Notre Dame-USC
Notre Dame and USC, two of the most storied programs in college football, have staged one of the best nonconference rivalries for decades.
The more recent editions of the series haven't been as nationally relevant; the last time the two met as Top-10 teams was in 2006. The year before that, however, USC won in South Bend 34-31 thanks to what would be known as the controversial "Bush Push."
Notre Dame has won three of the last five games against the Trojans and holds the all-time series lead with 45 wins.
6. Florida State-Miami (FL)
#CollegeKickers be warned. The following recap of the Florida State-Miami (FL) rivalry is bound to induce nightmares.
Fall classics in the Orange Bowl made this one of the most intense rivalries in the sport. The height of the series came between the 1980s and 2000s when the Seminoles and Hurricanes were competing for national championships.
However, four of the most memorable games came down to missed field goals—all by Florida State:
5. The Game (Harvard-Yale)
To witness Harvard-Yale is to go back to another time—before multibillion dollar media rights deals and flashy uniforms.
Ivy League or not, "The Game" is one of college football's best rivalries for historical significance. Harvard "beats" Yale 29-29 remains one of the best game-day stories in the sport's history.
4. Red River Showdown
The Red River Showdown (née Shootout, Rivalry) between Oklahoma and Texas is atmospherically one of college football's most unique gems.
There are plenty of rivalry games played at neutral-site locations with fans split 50-50 down the middle, but none of them have the Texas State Fair as the backdrop. (For background reading, I stopped by the State Fair two years ago and sampled one of the weirdest things you could possibly toss in a deep fryer.)
The national relevance of the game has dipped over the past few years with Texas' decline, but we're not that far removed from Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford dueling it out in Dallas.
It's still a monster game, but there will be a day when playoff spots are at stake for both teams.
There's nothing else like Army-Navy in college football. It's almost like it exists in its own universe.
The game gets its own weekend in December after the regular season has ended for everyone else. It doesn't decide national championships—Army hasn't been good at all recently—and it's been completely one-sided (Navy has won 13 straight games).
Yet, every year, it's a big deal.
What little tradition and actual pageantry college football has left is on display here. The singing of the alma maters after the game is chilling.
Army-Navy still matters. If we keep watching, maybe we'll finally see Army get a win.
2. The Game (Ohio State-Michigan)
"The Game" between Ohio State and Michigan is full of history. The "Snow Bowl" in 1950; the "10-Year War" between Ohio State head coach Woody Hayes and Michigan head coach Bo Schembechler; the unofficial "Game of the Century" in 2006 when the Buckeyes and Wolverines ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the BCS rankings.
It's all part of what has made Ohio State-Michigan so special.
The Buckeyes have dominated the series as of late, winning nine of the last 10. With Jim Harbaugh's arrival in Ann Arbor, however, perhaps Michigan can begin to even the series again in the near future.
1. Iron Bowl
The Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn is everything a college football rivalry should be: intense—household families across Alabama are notably divided—rooted in deep history and nationally relevant.
For good measure, the Iron Bowl has produced some jaw-dropping moments.
Easily the best edition of the Iron Bowl in years—decades—came in 2013 with the "Kick Six" that sent Auburn to the SEC Championship Game. The moment was almost too miraculous for words, making this game story from master wordsmith Ivan Maisel of ESPN.com even more powerful.
College football without the Iron Bowl might as well not even exist. I mean, you wouldn't serve Steak-umms to someone and call it the real thing, would you?
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.