Most rivalries in professional sports don’t have the intensity or tradition of historical college matchups, many of which date to the late 19th century. Nearly every college has a rivalry game, but these seven football games stand above the rest.
1. Michigan vs. Ohio State
Played since: 1897 | Nickname: “The Game”
What makes it special: Intensity, high stakes and a “win-or-else” mentality.
Head coach John Cooper had a 111-43-4 record at Ohio State from 1988-2000. But although his Buckeyes were routinely in national championship contention, he had a 2-10-1 record against Michigan. That poor record ultimately cost Cooper, who was fired after the 2000 season, following a 38-26 loss Ohio State’s chief rival.
The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry is also defined by some mutual respect. After longtime Michigan coach Bo Schembechler’s death in 2006, a Columbus, Ohio band called “The Dead Schembechlers” wore the Wolverines’ maize and blue and played the Michigan fight song to a standing ovation from Ohio State fans.
“You see normal people in their 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday work, and then on that Saturday of that game they become lunatics in scarlet and gray or maize and blue,” says Jeff Hathhorn, a former reporter for a Columbus radio station.
Notable games: The rivalry was perhaps at its fiercest when Ohio State’s Woody Hayes and Schembechler were head coaches. Their series of games from 1969-1978 was known as the “Ten-Year War,” as each school fielded some of its strongest teams during that stretch. Schembechler, an assistant on Hayes’ Ohio State staff before he became Michigan coach, held a 5-4-1 advantage.
2. Notre Dame vs. Southern Cal
Played since: 1926
What makes it special: What this rivalry lacks in proximity—the campuses are more than 2,000 miles apart—it makes up with star power. Combined, the schools have won 22 national championships and produced 14 Heisman Trophy winners.
“When we play them in South Bend (Indiana), it’s the greatest environment in college football in my eyes,” says former Southern Cal offensive lineman Zach Banner. “I loved playing there. They hate us, you hate them.”
Notable game: Believing the 2005 game was over, Notre Dame fans stormed their home field. But because of a clock error, time remained, and top-ranked USC won, 34-31, on a last-second quarterback sneak by Matt Leinart, with an assist from running back Reggie Bush. His shove became known as the “Bush Push.”
Following that defeat, it seemed first-year head coach Charlie Weis had Notre Dame on the right track. But he was in no mood for moral victories, telling the South Bend Tribune: “If you’re waiting for me to say this is a great loss, you’ll be waiting a long time.”
3. Army vs. Navy
Played since: 1890
What makes it special: Besides the game featuring the country’s two premier military institutions, the style of football is often a throwback to a simpler time in the sport’s history. Both teams typically use run-heavy attacks. Even the chants from each side are simple (“Go Army, beat Navy!” or “Go Navy, beat Army!”). There are also many good-natured traditions, including a “prisoner exchange” involving cadets and midshipmen studying at each other’s academies for a semester.
Notable game: In the first half of the 20th century, both schools were powerhouses and national championship contenders. Navy entered the 1926 meeting at Chicago’s Soldier Field—the first time the game had been played in the Midwest—unbeaten. Army had just one loss, to Notre Dame.
“In as throbbing and sensational a struggle as any gridiron has ever seen, the stalwart elevens of the Army and Navy battled into the darkness today to a 21-21 tie before a throng of 110,000 spectators, the greatest outpouring in American football history,” the Associated Press wrote of the game.
4. Alabama vs. Auburn
Played since: 1893 | Nickname: “Iron Bowl”
What makes it special: This rivalry, perhaps the greatest in the Deep South, features two of college football’s most storied programs. It has divided family members across Alabama for generations and spawned some of the sport’s most memorable moments. Some fans, however, have crossed the line from fandom to criminal behavior.
In 2012, Alabama fan Harvey Updyke confessed to poisoning the famous oak trees at Toomer’s Corner at Auburn after an Alabama loss in the 2010 game. Updyke was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay more than $800,000 in restitution.
Notable game: In 2013, the rivalry produced perhaps the most memorable final play in recent college football history. With the score tied at 28 and one second left, top-ranked Alabama attempted a 57-yard field goal. But Adam Griffith’s kick fell short, and Auburn’s Chris Davis returned the miss 109 yards for the winning touchdown as fans at Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium stormed the field.
“I wouldn’t say I dreamed of it, but it’s a great moment and this will go down in history,” a stunned Davis told The Anniston (Alabama) Star afterward. “This will be something I look back and tell my son about.”
5. Cal vs. Stanford
Played since: 1892 | Nickname: “The Big Game”
What makes it special: The rivalry between these academic powerhouses from northern California is reminiscent of Notre Dame-USC. Both are elite institutions that are selective in their admissions. But what makes the oldest football rivalry in the West truly special is the proximity of the schools, only a 45-minute drive apart.
Notable game: In 1982, the game produced one of the most memorable plays in sports history. Led by quarterback John Elway, Stanford took a 20-19 lead on a field goal with seconds left. But California returned the ensuing squib kick for a touchdown, thanks to five laterals and inadvertent interference from the Stanford band, which had prematurely come onto the field.
“This was a game for the ages, perhaps of all time, a game which ended in a manner so preposterous it had to be the work of witchcraft,” wrote Art Spander of the San Francisco Examiner. “This was the only Big Game they’ll recall, whether in triumph, or in the case of Stanford, anger and helplessness.”
6. Oklahoma vs. Texas
Played since: 1900 | Nickname: “The Red River Showdown”
What makes it special: In all but a handful of years, the game has been played during the Texas State Fair at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas’ Fair Park, roughly the midpoint between the campuses in Norman, Oklahoma and Austin, Texas. The fans are roughly split 50-50 at the Cotton Bowl, which seats 92,000. The intensity of the rivalry stems primarily from each state’s football obsession as well as each program’s typical status as a major player in the sport.
Notable game: The 1984 game had particularly high stakes—Texas was ranked No, 1, Oklahoma No. 3. The Sooners held a 15-12 lead late and appeared to have intercepted Texas in the end zone to seal the upset win, but officials ruled the pass incomplete. Texas kicked a field goal, and the game ended in a 15-15 tie.
Afterward, Sooners coach Barry Switzer couldn’t hide his anger at the officials, telling reporters: “Our football team dominated the game and should have won it, but they took it away from us. They’re just a bunch of … homers.”
7. Harvard vs. Yale
Played since: 1875
What makes it special: There is a long-running history of pranks that accompany this game between Ivy League schools. In 1961, The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper, printed a fake edition of the Yale Daily News to fool spectators into believing that President John F. Kennedy, a 1940 Harvard graduate, would attend the game.
Notable game: For the first time since 1909, both teams were unbeaten heading into the 1968 game, which ended in a 29-29 tie. Harvard needed a miracle comeback, scoring 16 points in the final 42 seconds. The following day, the headline in the Harvard student newspaper read: “Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29.” It “perfectly captured the emotional sense of the game,” the editor who approved it said years later.
About the stunning finish, the Boston Globe reported: “Nobody Saturday was really prepared for the nightmare which John Yovvy’s Harvard team—its first unbeaten eleven since 1920—was to visit upon Yale in the setting sun.”
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