College football is the best sport on the planet. This is not debatable. One of the many, many reasons for this is the rivalries that lie within.
College football rivalries are a unique beast. There are a myriad of ways two programs can come to loathe each other and wish nothing but misery and pestilence upon one another. Be it proximity, conference affiliation, a ridiculous (but awesome) trophy, or a simple matter of ego, it really doesn’t matter why two teams hate each other, as long as that hate runs true.
Ask anyone who watches the sport, and they’ll have an opinion on what rivalry is “the best” – often times this coincides with their rooting interest, because their blinding hatred for their team’s rival renders them incapable of comprehending how anyone can hate a team as much as they hate those bastards from [insert your rival here].
As expected, I have an opinion on the matter. There is no science to this, only a deep tingly feeling when watching two teams play that can best be described by the gif of Jack Nicholson nodding furiously. You know a great rivalry not because the TV people tell you that’s what you’re watching, but because you can feel the hatred oozing from your screen.
There are some parameters, I guess. History isn’t necessarily one of them. I don’t really care how many times you’ve played, Lehigh and Lafayette, your game means nothing to me. You also won’t see any mention of Army/Navy here, even though it’s appointment viewing for me, because there’s too much respect. A true rivalry leaves no room for such nobility. No, the best rivalries are those where the two teams can’t stand the mere mention of the other, and sometimes the need to curb your rival’s success outweighs your own lofty aspirations. Hate outside of sports is a vile thing, but within the realm of sports, hate is poetry in its finest form. These games exemplify the beauty of hate, and to the outside observer that hate is a fine wine only to be broken out on special occasions. What follows are my favorite college football rivalries (not all of them are played on this weekend, but that’s ok).
The Egg Bowl – Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State
I love watching this damn game. It doesn’t matter that the teams are usually crap, maybe mediocre at best. These two programs, and more importantly the fan bases, hate each other. My wife is from the Magnolia State, and while I do appreciate that she is a Bama fan and grad, a part of me is deeply disappointed her family doesn’t have roots in this rivalry. Because, man, would I absolutely love to be a non-partisan bystander every Thanksgiving for The Egg Bowl.
State fans think Ole Miss fans are all snobs who look down their noses at the school in Starkville (they are), and Ole Miss fans think Bulldog fans are all cow-humping country bumpkins (they are). It’s fantastic. When the Rebels got in a heap of trouble with the NCAA recently, it was a snitch from State that gave the NCAA the dirt they needed. If this game isn’t on your Thanksgiving agenda, make it happen.
Kentucky vs. Louisville
You’re probably saying “what in the hell is this doing here?” And I get it, you think of this as a basketball rivalry, and for the most part it is, but man do these fan bases hate each other. I lived in Louisville for about a year, and it is absolutely a 365-day-a-year rivalry. No matter the sport, they can’t stand one another. Each claims the other is responsible for the ills of the state. Both refuse to wear the colors of the other. There’s even a big brother/little brother aspect – Louisville is absolutely the little brother, despite being the better overall program, and lord do they love to talk about UK all of the damn time. There was even a 70 year hiatus because Kentucky basically refused to acknowledge that Louisville football even existed. This one got moved to the final weekend of the season recently, and that only makes it better. Whenever a team can ruin their rival’s season on the last weekend, add points.
The Red River Shootout – Texas vs. Oklahoma
Sure, hate is what drives this one. But what makes it fun as an objective observer is the truly unpredictable nature of this game. It doesn’t matter who the better team is, where the star player plays, what Vegas thinks – the game will inevitably subvert your expectations and present you with a wild, unhinged affair. Unpredictability is a cornerstone of college football, and when it’s the foundation of your rivalry, that makes the opposition tears all the sweeter. Plus, they play the game in the middle of state fair where they will fry absolutely anything. Ridiculousness is the lifeblood of college football, and this rivalry has it in spades.
Florida State vs. Miami
Sure, this one is better when both teams are in the hunt for a national title, but never underestimate the effect of desperation on a rivalry (remember Chris Rix?!?). These two programs are dying to become relevant again (I’ll bet you forgot FSU won the natty in 2013, didn’t you?) and these days a win in this game is about all the joy the winning fan base gets. Plus, this one gave us three Wide Rights and a Wide Left. Legendary. Eventually, these two programs will get good again and the games will become national spectacle… and then Florida State will find a hilariously miserable way to lose. It’s going to be phenomenal.
Ohio State vs. Michigan
A border war that usually has conference, and sometimes national, implications, this has always been one to watch and has provided some of college football’s most memorable moments. The Ten Year War between Woody and Bo, Desmond Howard’s Heisman pose, Charles Woodson throwing hands with David Boston. And while you might think Ohio State’s recent dominance in the series sets it back a few notches – did you realize Michigan has only won twice this century? – it actually adds to the appeal for outsiders. We get to see Jim Harbaugh throw tantrums year after year, and eventually when he (or whoever replaces him) upsets the Buckeyes and ruins their title chances, Ohio State fans will be apoplectic.
Holy War – BYU vs. Utah / Civil War – Oregon vs. Oregon State / Border War – Kansas vs. Missouri
Anytime “war” is part of the nickname for your rivalry game, chances are there’s some real tension between the two programs. BYU and Utah has religious tension, Oregon and Oregon State’s campuses are only separated by 36 miles, and the animosities between Missouri and Kansas extend back to real, actual bloodshed during the American Civil War. The Jayhawks and Tigers haven’t played since Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, and it’s a damn shame. Much like the Egg Bowl, the quality on the field is second to the actual, palpable hatred between the two fan bases.
Too often in college football we dismiss the teams and games that don’t have direct playoff implications, and that just flies in the face of everything that makes college football so great. Much like European soccer, you need to have an understanding of the different tiers that encompass the sport. Not every program can be like Alabama or Ohio State or Clemson and have national title expectations on a yearly basis. But if you look deeper, you can find gold in the lower ranks, and these three games perfectly encapsulate that.
The Third Saturday in October – Alabama vs. Tennessee
Thought I was going with the Iron Bowl, didn’t you? Well, it’s a great game and all, and it usually means something in regards to the SEC West race. But the barn is Alabama’s second biggest rival in truth. Yeah, we don’t like them on the field, but they’re also our brothers and sisters, neighbors and friends and coworkers. For a Bama fan, it’s less about hate and more about being the game you hate to lose. But Tennessee? Goddamn do I hate me some Vols. Those ugly ass uniforms, their smelly ass city, dumb small-seated stadium with their ridiculous Vol navy. I hate it all. Maybe it’s my North Alabama roots. Maybe it’s the 7-game losing streak in my adolescence, or Peyton Manning directing the band playing that fucking “Rocky Top” bullshit ass song on our home field. Maybe it’s Phil Fulmer’s snitching ass. Maybe it’s everything about the university. Even the damn ultimate Frisbee team cheats. Point is, I fucking hate the Tennessee Volunteers.
Since Nick Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, the Tide hasn’t lost in the series. They’ve now won 13 in a row, the longest winning streak for either side in the series (besting Bama’s previous mark of 11 during the Bear Bryant years). And while you might think that tempers some of the hatred, you’d be wrong. I hope Saban never loses to UT. I hope we win 30 in a row. I was in the stadium for 4th and 19 – a point during the 2003 edition of the game, when all the Tide needed was to stop the Vols on a long 4th down to seal the game. The Vols converted, and eventually won in 5 overtimes, 51-43. That memory will haunt me until the day I die. And it’s that kind of hate that makes a game special. Fuck you, Rocky Top, go to hell Tennessee.