College football has always been a sport built on rivalries. Remember, in the early days, there weren’t 130 teams and 14-squad super-conferences. Instead, teams used to schedule most of their opponents based on geographic proximity, leading to a lot of familiarity between programs, which ended up leading to a lot of contempt.
Nowadays, conference expansion and realignment have ruined some natural rivalries, but the greatest rivals always find a way to survive the test of time. With the college football season in peril, you might not see these rivalries in 2020. That’s why we decided to rank the best rivalries in college football history.
10. California-Stanford: "Big Game"
Series record: Stanford leads, 59-44-10
Some of the great rivalries on the West Coast get overshadowed on the national stage, but we had to find a way to sneak the Cal-Stanford clash into the top 10. It’s the oldest rivalry on the West Coast and is played annually with both teams in the Pac-12 North.
The two schools are located a little more than 50 miles from one another in Northern California and both are well known for their academic prowess. Stanford is a private school while Cal is a public school, which is where some of the bitterness between them was born. After more than 120 all-time meetings, both schools perform special rituals that they do when playing the other one, making every game between them the highlight of each team’s season.
More importantly, Stanford and Cal have an ending to a game in 1982 that no other rivalry will ever be able to top.
Series record: Yale leads, 68-60-8
There’s not much reason to pay attention to Ivy League football, sure, but the annual Harvard-Yale game is the exception to that. These two prestigious schools genuinely hate one another, making it one of the most bitter rivalries in college football. Ivy League schools don’t play in bowl games or the FCS Playoffs, but in the final week of every season, Harvard and Yale play each other and act likes it’s the Super Bowl — it’s that important.
The result of the game every year is still a point of pride for both students and alums, even decades after they graduate. The Crimson and Bulldogs first played in 1875 and continue to have an annual rivalry that is never going to grow old or go out of style.
8. Florida-Georgia: "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party"
Series record: Georgia leads, 52-43-2
Fans love the Florida-Georgia rivalry because it’s the “world’s largest outdoor cocktail party.” On top of that, it’s also one of the most intense border rivalries in the nation, as well as one of the few that’s played on a neutral field every season.
The number of star players that both programs have produced over the years is incredible. Plus, both teams are typically the two top programs in the SEC East, so there's almost always conference title implications in the annual battle.
While the series has been played with little interruption since 1926, things have taken off since Florida’s rise to prominence in the 1990s, turning this into one of the greatest rivalries ever.
7. Utah-BYU: "Holy War"
Series record: Utah leads, 62-34-4
Hate is a strong word, but it’s the only way to describe how Utah and BYU feel about each other. The rivalry is dubbed “The Holy War” because the cultures of the two schools are so different. BYU, of course, is a conservative and religious school whereas Utah is, well, cool.
Over the years, the action has transcended the playing field and turned into a war of words between students, fans and even administrators. The relationship between the two schools that are separated by fewer than 50 miles is seriously bitter, and that comes through every time they play.
Despite Utah leaving the Mountain West in 2011, BYU and Utah remain committed to playing each other every year. Frankly, there’s too much hate between the Cougars and Utes for either team to stand in the way of this rivalry continuing.
6. Miami-Florida State
Series record: Miami leads, 34-30
There are some great rivalries among the many Floridian football programs, but the FSU-Miami rivalry takes the cake. Long before both teams became members of the ACC, the Hurricanes and Seminoles engaged in some memorable battles. As fans of both teams know all too well, so many Miami-Florida State games have been decided by a last-minute field goal. It’s a testament to how close and competitive nearly every game is between these two teams.
There have also been plenty of games that have had national championship implications. For that reason, the Miami-Florida State rivalry transcends the Sunshine State. Throughout its history, the yearly game between the Hurricanes and Seminoles has been one of the most-watched games of the college football season, gaining national attention.
5. USC-Notre Dame
Series record: Notre Dame leads, 47-36-5
This was a rivalry born not from geography or conference affiliation but rather by the fact that both are national powerhouses. Together, Notre Dame and USC have combined for over 20 national championships and nearly 200 All-Americans. The Fighting Irish and Trojans first met in 1926 with Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne calling his team’s 13-12 win the best game he ever saw. The rest, as they say, is history.
They’ve met 90-plus times since then and developed one of the greatest rivalries in college football. From “The Comeback” of 1974 to the “Bush Push” in 2005, there’s been no shortage of memorable moments in this rivalry. Plus, the winner receives the Jeweled Shillelagh, one of the most unique trophies in college football.
Series record: Navy leads, 61-52-7
This might not be the greatest rivalry in college football history, but it’s probably the most important. In 2009, there has been a special weekend set aside after the conference championship games and before the bowl season for Army and Navy to play one another with no other games to steal the attention away. The fans of each side, particularly the students, take great pride in the game while the players show the utmost respect for one another.
The yearly Army-Navy game is a special event and represents everything that’s good about college football. With both teams blossoming into borderline top-25 programs in recent years, the best between the Black Knights and Midshipmen may be yet to come.
3. Texas-Oklahoma: "Red River Showdown"
Series record: Texas leads, 62-48-5
There are rivalry games and then there are events. The Texas-Oklahoma game is an event. It’s played on neutral ground every year at the Cotton Bowl during the State Fair of Texas, making the game the focal point of a huge festival, which only adds to the atmosphere.
The battle between the Longhorns and Sooners being called the Red River Showdown tells you everything you need to know. The name is a reference to the border conflict between the two states in 1931 known as the Red River Bridge War. In other words, the animosity between Oklahoma and Texas runs deeper than most border rivals. It doesn’t hurt that Oklahoma and Texas are typically the pre-eminent programs in the Big 12, so there’s more than just bragging rights on the line, ramping up the emotions for every Texas-Oklahoma rivalry game.
2. Alabama-Auburn: "Iron Bowl"
Series record: Alabama leads, 46-37-1
The only thing keeping the Iron Bowl from being the greatest rivalry in college football history is the fact that there was a 41-year hiatus because the two schools couldn’t agree on the terms of the game. Plus, the rivalry didn’t start to come to life until the 1980s. However, the Tigers and Crimson Tide have done their best to make up for lost time since the turn of the century. After all, the two teams combined for four consecutive national titles from 2009 to 2012. The other team didn’t make it easy to get there, always trying to play the role of spoiler during the final week of the regular season. There was the “Kick-Six” in 2013 and a wild 55-44 Alabama win in 2014.
Thanks to a constant stream of classic games, the Alabama-Auburn rivalry has become a national phenomenon, with the entire country learning just how much this game means to people in the state of Alabama.
1. "The Game": Michigan vs Ohio State
Series record: Michigan leads, 58-51-6
Reasonable minds can disagree, but all things considered, it’s hard not to see Michigan-Ohio State as the best rivalry in college football. These are two of the most iconic programs in college football history and they have been butting heads in meaningful games for decades. The coaching rivalry between Bo Schembechler and Woody Hayes in the late 1960s and 70s took things to another level and the rivalry has shown no signs of slowing down.
Since the turn of the century, there have already been five games between Michigan and Ohio State in which both teams were ranked in the top 10, including an epic No. 1 vs NO. 2 battle in 2006 that ended with a three-point Ohio State victory.
Every game they play seems to have Big Ten championship — if not national championship — implications. More importantly, the disdain the players and fans have for the opposing school never seems to fade, making this the biggest rivalry game of the modern era and in college football history.
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