Examining the Best 'Rivalries' in College Football Since 2010
Any discussion of the best rivalries in college football immediately turns to Alabama vs. Auburn, Ohio State vs. Michigan, Army vs. Navy and some of the other long-standing showdowns with deep-seated history.
That's not what we'll talk about here.
The focus will be on "rivalries" and not rivalries. Did you read that with air quotes? Good.
Ahead you'll find everything from debates over the playoff system to the nation's top coaches to long-standing team struggles to D-ll powerhouses and everything in between.
You're encouraged to share any fun rivalry ideas you think belonged on the list in the comments.
Dabo Swinney vs. Nick Saban
The constant turnover of college talent makes it hard for any player vs. player rivalries to gain steam before graduation or pro aspirations throw water on the fire.
Head coaches comprise the one constant, provided they are successful enough to hold on to their jobs, and few have been more successful over the past decade than Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney.
From battling for recruits to clashing in the College Football Playoff to sharing offseason residence in Boca Grande, Florida, the two coaches have in many ways become the enduring faces of college football.
The two have faced off four times in seven years since the inception of the CFP system, and each has won twice:
- 2016 CFP championship: Alabama 45, Clemson 40
- 2017 CFP championship: Clemson 35, Alabama 31
- 2018 CFP semifinals: Alabama 24, Clemson 6
- 2019 CFP championship: Clemson 44, Alabama 16
Ohio State bumped Clemson this year, so we won't get another installment of the grudge match yet, but another one seems inevitable given how the last several years have unfolded.
Kansas vs. Big 12 Road Wins
This is low-hanging fruit, but I couldn't resist.
On Oct. 4, 2008, the Kansas Jayhawks squeaked out a 35-33 victory over Iowa State in Ames in the midst of a disappointing 8-5 finish. They had gone 12-1 the previous year and entered the season with high expectations.
The fall from there was precipitous.
In the 12 seasons since, they won 26 games, and none of them have been on the road in conference play.
The 2020 season ended with a loss to Texas Tech in Lubbock, running their conference road winless streak to an almost unfathomable 54 straight games.
To look at it another way, they are on their fifth different head coach since the last time they won a Big 12 road game.
And after an 0-9 season, there's no end in sight.
North Dakota St. vs. James Madison
This fits the bill of a more traditional on-field rivalry, but it's one no one talks about at a national level.
That obviously has to do with the fact that these are two FCS teams, but they are the powerhouses of that level, and this rivalry is essentially Alabama vs. Clemson Lite.
North Dakota State has won eight of the last nine FCS titles.
The exception was the 2016 season when James Madison eliminated North Dakota State in the semifinals and then went on to beat Youngstown State in the title game.
All told, the teams have met four times in the playoffs since 2010:
- 2011 FCS Playoff Second Round: North Dakota State 26, James Madison 14
- 2016 FCS Playoff Semifinals: James Madison 27, North Dakota State 17
- 2017 FCS Championship: North Dakota State 17, James Madison 13
- 2019 FCS Championship: North Dakota State 28, James Madison 20
It won't pop up on your standard list of best college football rivalries, but it fits nicely here into our rundown of some alternatives across the college football landscape.
Everyone vs. SEC Bias
Most would agree that the SEC is the deepest conference in college football, especially at a time when the ACC and Pac-12 are both so top-heavy, the Big 12 is still searching for a playoff win, and the Big Ten has seen little postseason success beyond Ohio State.
However, there's also a fair point to be made about SEC bias.
When a conference like the Pac-12 cannibalizes itself and the top teams suffer conference losses, the whole league takes a hit.
When there is parity in the SEC, that just means more SEC teams near the top of the AP poll.
Should one-loss Texas A&M really have been the next squad up for a spot in the playoff?
Did a three-loss Florida really deserve to be No. 7 in the most recent rankings before the Gators picked up their fourth loss in the Cotton Bowl?
Was a two-loss Georgia, which struggled to find its identity for much of the year, worthy of a spot in the Top 10 in those same rankings?
Maybe the answer to all of those questions is a resounding yes.
Still, it's easy to see why fans of teams from other conferences are quick to claim SEC bias.
CFP Committee vs. Undefeated Group of 5 Teams
Since the College Football Playoff system was installed for the 2014 campaign, four Group of Five teams have finished the regular season undefeated:
- 2016 Western Michigan
- 2017 UCF
- 2018 UCF
- 2020 Cincinnati
None made the playoff. It doesn't help their case that three of those teams went on to lose the bowl games they were sent to, with the exception being the 2017 UCF team that beat Auburn by seven points in the Peach Bowl.
Despite that unfortunate detail, the committee has to recognize at some point that it would be far more compelling to give a Group of Five team a chance than it is to watch Alabama dismantle Notre Dame.
This year's Cincinnati squad had perhaps the best case of any undefeated Group of Five team in the playoff era, and the Bearcats likely weren't even next in line, with Texas A&M the more likely No. 4 seed if Clemson had picked up a second loss in the ACC title game.
It's fair to wonder if it will ever happen under this system, which leads us to...
A 4-Team Playoff vs. Playoff Expansion
The simple solution to the Group of Five inclusion debate would be to simply expand the playoff format.
Whether it's an additional round of games and four more teams, two more teams with a play-in round and the top two teams receiving a bye, or something else, there's a case to be made that more is better.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a pair of articles examining both sides of the argument, and it's at least worth revisiting the bullet points:
- Every Power Five conference is represented
- Potential for Cinderella stories
- Fewer future NFL talents opting out of bowl games
- No more New Year's six conference tie-ins
- One loss won't sink a team's playoff hopes
- If the field is expanded to eight teams, people will want 16. Where does it end?
- Final spot will always be controversial
- It opens the door for more debate on who is deserving
- Expansion still favors traditional powers
- A less meaningful regular season
The debate rages on.
All stats courtesy of Sports Reference.