Ranking the SEC's Best out-of-Conference Rivalries in College Football
With the SEC planning on a conference-only schedule for the 2020 college football season, a handful of key nonconference rivalries will be left on the cutting-room floor.
Emphasis on "handful," though, as there aren't many SEC teams that schedule the same nonconference opponent year after year. Just to get this list up to seven games, we had to include one matchup that hasn't been played since 2011 and another that can only be considered a rivalry because of recent College Football Playoff showdowns.
However, the 2020 season will feel incomplete without the top four pairings on this list.
Clemson and South Carolina have played every year since William Taft was in office. Georgia and Georgia Tech haven't missed a meeting since Calvin Coolidge was president. And while Kentucky-Louisville and Florida-Florida State are both more recent rivalries, they have been great end-of-season battles for quite a few years.
Here's hoping we get to see these matchups again in 2021—or, even better, during bowl season this year.
7. Texas A&M vs. Texas
Series History: 118 meetings dating back to 1894; Texas leads 76-37-5
Last Meeting: Texas 27, Texas A&M 25 in 2011
Getting rid of the annual Texas vs. Texas A&M showdown was the biggest casualty of the Big 12 losing Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC after the 2011 season. The "Border War" (Kansas vs. Missouri) was also a noteworthy loss, though it's hard to mourn that one too much when the Jayhawks haven't been even remotely relevant in more than a decade.
Before 2012, the Aggies and Longhorns had squared off in every season since the year after World War I began (1915). Similar to Michigan vs. Ohio State or Alabama vs. Auburn, it was one of the longest-running annual battles, and it was typically played on the final Saturday of the regular season, which made it feel only that much more important.
For 22 of those contests, either Texas or Texas A&M was ranked in the AP Top Five at the time of this game, including the 1975 classic when No. 2 A&M defeated No. 5 Texas to improve to 10-0.
Neither team was ranked for the last meeting, but it was still a gem, with Texas erasing a 13-0 deficit and winning by two on a last-second field goal by Justin Tucker.
Sadly, Texas had no interest in keeping the rivalry alive when A&M relocated to the SEC. But it still feels like an active rivalry, because there's plenty of mutual hatred between these Lone Star State schools. If they ever decided to reignite this thing, it would immediately become one of the best nonconference rivalries in the country.
6. Ole Miss vs. Memphis
Series History: 61 meetings dating back to 1921; Ole Miss leads 47-12-2
Last Meeting: Memphis 15, Ole Miss 10 in 2019
For a long time, this wasn't so much a rivalry as it was a sacrificial offering from Memphis to Ole Miss.
The Rebels won the first meeting in 1921 by a score of 82-0, and that wasn't even the most lopsided result. There was also a 92-0 shellacking in 1935. In the first 15 meetings between these programs (from 1921 to 1959), Ole Miss outscored Memphis 691-40 and did not once allow more than seven points.
Eventually, things got much more interesting. From 1972 to 1994, Ole Miss still led the series with a 14-7-1 record, but eight of those wins were by seven points or fewer.
Since then, they have squared off a little less frequently, but still often enough (12 meetings since 2002) to be considered an active rivalry. And it's still relatively well-balanced, as evidenced by Memphis' victory in Week 1 of last season and the Tigers' upset of the No. 13 Rebels in October 2015.
They weren't scheduled to play in 2020, but it would have been an intriguing battle between new head coaches Lane Kiffin and Ryan Silverfield, particularly given the returning talent on the Memphis roster.
5. Alabama vs. Clemson
Series History: 19 meetings dating back to 1900; Alabama leads 14-5
Last Meeting: Clemson 44, Alabama 16 in 2019
Up until five years ago, this was the furthest thing from a rivalry.
Alabama and Clemson played 10 times from 1900 to 1966. Nine of those matchups were shutouts, and the other was a 74-7 Crimson Tide victory. Not exactly great games. And when these teams met in the 2015 national championship, Alabama was on a 12-game winning streak that spanned over a century.
But in the College Football Playoff era, this has blossomed into perhaps the best almost-annual matchup in the sport. However, because of the brevity of said rivalry, we've got to put it behind the other four ACC-SEC pairings with a deeper history.
Alabama defeated Clemson in the 2015 national championship, but Clemson returned the favor after the 2016 season courtesy of Hunter Renfrow's last-second pick play/rub route. The following year, Alabama took care of business when Tide and Tigers met in the national semifinals. But after the 2018 season, it was time for another national championship battle, which Clemson won convincingly, 44-16.
Clemson did its part to ensure they would meet for a fifth consecutive year, but Alabama fell short of the CFP for the first time last season. Perhaps they'll be able to settle the pseudo best-of-five series in a few months.
4. Kentucky vs. Louisville
Series History: 32 meetings dating back to 1912; Kentucky leads 17-15
Last Meeting: Kentucky 45, Louisville 13 in 2019
It's weird that it took until 1994 for these teams to look 80 miles down Rte. 64 at each other and decide an annual head-to-head battle might be a good idea—especially considering they already had a great rivalry in basketball.
But, hey, better late than never, right?
Kentucky and Louisville did face each other six times from 1912 to 1924, but the Wildcats won those games by a combined score of 220-0. Given that information, it's probably a safe assumption that it was the Cardinals who put the rivalry on pause for seven decades.
Since it came back, though, Louisville has had a slight leg up on Kentucky. Despite moving from being an independent to Conference USA to the Big East to the AAC to the ACC in the past 26 years, the Cardinals have gone 15-11 against a Wildcats team that has been in the SEC since the league's 1933 inception.
However, the last two years have belonged to Kentucky. In addition to winning by 32 in 2019, the Wildcats smoked the Cardinals by 46 points in 2018. They also narrowly won on a late field goal in 2016, despite 452 yards and four touchdowns from Louisville's Heisman Trophy winner, Lamar Jackson.
Of the last 26 meetings between these Bluegrass State rivals, 11 were decided by one possession. And it's a real shame this game won't happen in 2020, as both Kentucky and Louisville figure to be right on the cusp of cracking the preseason AP Top 25. It might have been the first ever meeting in which both squads were ranked at the time of the game.
3. South Carolina vs. Clemson
Series History: 117 meetings dating back to 1896; Clemson leads 71-42-4
Last Meeting: Clemson 38, South Carolina 3 in 2019
There is a ton of history in the Palmetto Bowl. Last November marked the 111th consecutive season in which the Tigers and Gamecocks waged war for South Carolina supremacy. Best I can tell, it is the longest active nonconference rivalry among FBS programs. And even though Clemson has won more than 60 percent of the games played between these rivals, it hasn't been that much of a one-sided affair.
Historically speaking, that is. It hasn't been much of a contest lately. Clemson has an average margin of victory of 25.3 points in the College Football Playoff era, which isn't exactly a surprise, given how diverse the expectations have been for these squads over the past six seasons.
Nevertheless, there's no love lost between these rivals separated by roughly a two-hour drive. And right before Clemson's current reign of terror, South Carolina was on a five-game winning streak, each of which was by a double-digit margin. That includes one of the most noteworthy games in the history of this rivalry, when AP No. 10 South Carolina knocked off No. 6 Clemson at the end of the 2013 regular season.
Though recognized as an excellent rivalry in both North and South Carolina, Clemson-South Carolina only checks in at No. 3 on this list because South Carolina has never been that nationally relevant. The Gamecocks had a nice run from 2011 to 2013 and a one-year spike in 1984, but they have never been ranked higher than No. 9 at the time of this game and have only been ranked in the Top 25 for 11 of these matchups.
Still, it's a great annual tradition that will be sorely missed this November.
2. Georgia vs. Georgia Tech
Series History: 114 meetings dating back to 1893; Georgia leads 68-41-5
Last Meeting: Georgia 52, Georgia Tech 7 in 2019
Much like Clemson vs. South Carolina, Georgia vs. Georgia Tech has been going on for ages. They have played in 95 consecutive seasons with well over 100 all-time meetings.
But at least in this case, the one with more losses in the rivalry has occasionally been in the hunt for a national championship. Heck, Georgia Tech has claimed more national championships (four) than Georgia has (two).
In 1927, Georgia was well on its way to a title, beating its first nine opponents by a combined score of 248-26. But Georgia Tech secured a massive early victory in this rivalry, shutting out the Bulldogs 12-0 and denying them that championship.
In 1942, Georgia was ranked No. 5 and Georgia Tech was No. 2. But in smoking the undefeated Yellow Jackets 34-0, the Bulldogs vaulted to No. 2, subsequently defeated UCLA in the Rose Bowl and laid claim to their first national championship.
It was a similar story four years later when No. 3 Georgia effortlessly defeated No. 7 Georgia Tech 35-7. The Bulldogs ended up going 11-0, the first of two seasons in program history with no losses and no draws. (There was no vaulting in the poll that year, though. UGA still finished at No. 3 behind both Notre Dame and Army.)
In less ancient history, there have been eight matchups since 1998 in which both teams were ranked.
All eight games were decided by 14 points or fewer, and it has been a fairly even split, with Georgia Tech winning five of those eight games. Granted, 2014 (No. 8 Georgia vs. No. 16 Georgia Tech) was the only time either side was ranked in the AP Top 10 in a ranked vs. ranked matchup, so those end-of-season games haven't been that important. But eight ranked showdowns in the past quarter century is doggone great compared to all of the other options.
Except for one...
1. Florida vs. Florida State
Series History: 64 meetings dating back to 1958; Florida leads 36-26-2
Last Meeting: Florida 40, Florida State 17 in 2019
Though the length of the Sunshine Showdown rivalry is barely half that of the Clemson-South Carolina and Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalries, it occupies our No. 1 spot because it is most frequently a pivotal game from a national perspective.
Clemson and South Carolina have played more than 100 times, but there were only six iterations in which both teams were ranked in the AP poll—and neither team was ranked in the Top Five in any of those contests. Similarly, Georgia and Georgia Tech have only had 11 ranked vs. ranked battles, and it has been more than half a century since either side was ranked No. 7 or better in one of those games.
Meanwhile, 23 of the 64 meetings between Florida and Florida State—otherwise read as 36 percent of them—were of the Top 25 vs. Top 25 variety. For 14 of those, both teams were ranked in the Top 10. Six times, they were both ranked in the Top Five.
Heck, there were two such games just in the 1996 season, when No. 2 Florida State clipped No. 1 Florida 24-21 in November, followed by the No. 3 Gators pummeling the No. 1 Seminoles 52-20 in the Sugar Bowl, which was the de facto national championship game that year. For the 1998, 1999 and 2000 meetings, both teams were ranked in the Top Five, with Florida State winning each time.
It isn't quite as great of a five-year run as the aforementioned four-year CFP streak of Alabama and Clemson, but it's close. And there's more than enough history between these two schools beyond that half-decade that it was an easy call to put this one at No. 1.
Also, it doesn't hurt matters that there has never been a prolonged stretch of dominance by either side.
Even when Florida won nine straight from 1968 to 1976, five of those games were decided by 11 points or fewer. The only time there was even a three-year stretch in which the same team won by more than 11 points was from 2007 to 2009, when Florida had Tim Tebow and Florida State was sputtering to the end of the Bobby Bowden era. Outside that extenuating circumstance, these bitter rivals have been pretty equal for decades.