There may be no better illustration of the pageantry of college football than heated rivalries. Major conference realignment over the years — with the most recent changes radically shifting the modern-day landscape — has strained several notable rivalries and will continue to do so as the sport shifts to appease a national television audience. But no matter which teams play in what conference, there are several rivalries that stand in history as the sport’s most renowned.
Ohio State vs Michigan
These two midwestern stalwarts have played in (the rather unoriginally nicknamed) “The Game” every year since 1900, except for a brief gap from 1913-1917.
Throughout the year, Ohio State faithful will only refer to “that team up north,” and during game week they up the ante by omitting the use of the letter “m” from their discourse entirely. Try going to the *all, or listening to some *usic. All this because of a deeply rooted hatred for the football program at *ichigan.
The Game usually has massive importance on both the Big Ten and national levels, especially in the last decade of the College Football Playoff’s existence. Ohio State rattled off eight straight victories between 2012 and 2019, but Jim Harbaugh has rallied his Wolverines to consecutive victories in the last two contests.
This rivalry is projected to have major national implications this season as well, with both schools ranked in the top four of most preseason polls.
Auburn vs Alabama
Recent bias would suggest that 2013’s Iron Bowl was perhaps the most exciting ending to any college football game ever. The “Kick Six,” when Chris Davis took a missed 59-yard field goal to the house from deep in his own end zone as time expired to break the 28-28 tie, has a real case, particularly because it propelled Auburn to an appearance in the National Championship game.
No fan of either Auburn or Alabama will ever forget that play. Bama fans don’t stress too much about it though, since the Tide have dominated this rivalry since then, winning seven of the last nine contests. Still, the Iron Bowl has been an annual affair in the state of Alabama since 1893, and no matter what, it will always be one of the biggest games of the college football season whenever it is played.
One (extreme) example of the ill will between the sides is when Bama fan Harvey Updyke went on record saying “I wanted Auburn people to hate me as much as I hate them” when asked why he poisoned the iconic trees at Toomer’s Corner on Auburn’s campus in 2011.
Texas vs Oklahoma
The “Red River Shootout” dates back to 1900, when the state of Oklahoma was still just a U.S. territory. While the Texas State Fair rollicks on around the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, the Longhorns and Sooners offer a midseason football feast when they compete for “The Golden Hat.” There’s also a governor’s trophy, which gets shipped between the two states’ governors, along with a side of beef, which then gets donated to charity.
Texas leads the series all-time at 63-50-5, and drubbed the Sooners 49-0 in the 2022 clash to post its largest winning margin in series history. The Sooners had won four straight over the Longhorns before the 2022 blowout loss though, and the rivalry will soon take its intensity to another level when both schools leave the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025.
Florida vs Georgia
If you want a spectacle of college football tradition, look no further than the Florida-Georgia game. Played annually in Jacksonville since 1933, it’s unofficially known as “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” a name originally coined in the 1950s by Bill Kastelz of The Florida Times Union.
The animosity between the two schools runs deeper than just 1933, though. According to Georgia, the first meeting on the gridiron was in 1904 when Georgia trounced the Florida Agricultural College 52-0. The very next year, Florida Agricultural College merged with three other schools to become the University of Florida we know today, and claims that the 1904 meeting doesn’t count. So, this rivalry has been played either 100 or 101 times, depending on which side you’re on.
This game has long been relevant in the SEC standings, and since the conference split into divisions in 1992, Florida and Georgia have combined for 26 SEC East titles. The Bulldogs are obviously the nation’s powerhouse at the moment, coming off of back-to-back national championships, but that’s not to overshadow the legendary nature of the matchup with names like Vince Dooley, Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Tim Tebow, Herschel Walker, and more headlining a rivalry series that even has its own Hall of Fame.
Army vs Navy
A rivalry so prolific that it gets a whole week dedicated to it after conference championships are in the books. The first matchup was played in 1890, and the two military academies have met every year since 1930. College Gameday is always present, and this game is frequently attended by the sitting U.S. president. The two teams even found a way to battle it out on the football field from 1942 to 1945, when most schools went without football programs due to the demands of WWII.
The game often decides the annual winner for the Commander-in-Chief Trophy, which goes to the winner of the three-way rivalry between these two academies and the Air Force Academy. The Midshipmen own the all-time lead with a 62-54-7 record and had a 14-game win streak from 2002-2015. The Black Knights have won five of the last seven contests, though.
Although this game hasn’t had any national championship implications for either team since the 1960s, it’s hard to deny the pageantry, the pride, and the patriotism that the rivalry depicts every year. The Super Hornets’ flyover. The Army paratroopers parachuting in. The parades of Midshipmen and Cadets.
For 364 days of the year, Army and Navy are on the same team. For three hours on a chilled December afternoon, they represent every sailor or soldier who has ever donned a uniform, walked a post, or sailed into the dark of the night. It pits future military and government leaders against each other as they fight for their academies, and afterward, they rejoin their classmates in preparation for service to our country, not an NFL career.
If that’s not college football in its purest state, then I don’t know what is.
Yale vs Harvard
“The Game” has been a fixture of college football tradition since 1875. It’s the one day of the school year when academics truly don’t come first at these hallowed Ivy league institutions. Only two collegiate rivalries have been played more often, and one of them is listed below in this article.
When you play for more than 140 years, there have to be some great memories along the way. The 1894 matchup is known as the Springfield Massacre, which was so violent that seven players were carried off the field and the game was suspended for the next two years.
In 1955, a U.S. senator named John F. Kennedy looked on as his brother, Ted Kennedy, scored Harvard’s lone touchdown in Yale’s 21-7 victory.
In 2004, 24 Yale students formed the (non-existent) Harvard pep squad, handing out nearly 2,000 pieces of red and white construction paper to Crimson fans saying that when they held the paper up it would read “Go Harvard.” Instead, it said, “We Suck.”
And how can you not be romantic about things like the 1968 headline in The Harvard Crimson “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29,” which memorialized Harvard’s 16-point comeback in less than a minute to tie a vaunted Yale team.
USC vs Notre Dame
The Second World War and Covid are the only two things that have stopped these two storied programs from playing since 1926. More Heisman winners have played in this rivalry than in any other. The game has often represented a final hurdle for either team hoping to make the BCS national championship, or now the College Football Playoff — there have been 28 times in which the winning team was ranked inside the top five.
The battle for the Jeweled Shillelagh, as the trophy is known, may be a microcosm of American culture clashes too, pitting Notre Dame, the stoic Irish Catholic school in the Midwest against the glamour of USC from sunny Los Angeles. Even with so much realignment across the college football landscape, this rivalry persists and is usually one of the most anticipated games of the year for each school.
Lafayette vs Lehigh
The series between these two colleges, which are just 17 miles away from one another in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley, is the most-played rivalry in college football history with 158 meetings since 1884. The teams even met in 1943 and 1944 during WWII while most schools went without football programs.
With history like that, this matchup is simply known as “The Rivalry.” It predates trophies, and the winning team keeps the game ball. Starting in the 2000s, the regular season game at the end of either teams’ schedules has often become a factor in deciding the winner of the Patriot League.
The 150th meeting of “The Rivalry” in 2014 took place at Yankee Stadium, which was the series’ first neutral-site game in more than a century.
There’s even lore that in Lehigh’s 17-0 victory in the 1918 contest, Lehigh halfback Raymond “Snooks” Dowd ran 115 yards for a touchdown after running the wrong way, circling his own goalposts, and then running the length of the field for the score.
Miami vs Florida State
If you need any validation as to the strength of this rivalry, just look at the NFL players that have come out of either school. Five Heisman Trophy winners. Eight combined national championships.
Both programs not only produce consistent NFL talent, but they also churn out bona fide superstars to play on Sundays, too. Long before either joined the ACC, these rivals from opposite ends of the Sunshine State were both national powerhouses.
This matchup was almost unrivaled when both teams were in their prime, especially from 1984-1994 and then again from 2000-2006. They are both expected to compete for the ACC crown this year and in years to come, so this rivalry still has plenty of juice.
Cal vs Stanford
This matchup may not look too exciting on paper as both programs go through, to put it lightly, rebuilding phases. We won’t even get into the Pac 12 realignment and where that leaves these two schools, but historically speaking, this has been a great rivalry.
I mean come on. If I yell “the band is on the field,” any big college football fan knows that I’m referencing the last-second laterals that lifted the Cal Bears over John Elway’s Stanford Cardinal in 1982 — it’s known as “The Play.”
That finish, at the very least, rivals that of the 2013 Iron Bowl for one of the most improbable finishes ever in college football. Known as “The Big Game” or “the Battle for the Axe,” Cal and Stanford have played each other in football since 1892.
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