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The 10 Best Current Rivalries
USC QB Matt Leinart
USC QB Matt Leinart
Posted Nov 21, 2009

While the BCS currently defines college football compared to the rest of the sports world, the rivalries are a close second. So which ones are the ten biggest of all-time and which are the best ones going right now? Here are our choices for the ten best along with the signature games in each series.

College Football's Top Rivalries

The Top Three

The rest of the world might have Yankees-Red Sox, Bears-Packers, Coke-Pepsi and Bill O'Reilly-Keith Olbermann, but the real rivalries are in college football. With no playoff system, rivalries define seasons with the biggest of the big showdowns that often decide conference and national championships, job statuses, and sometimes, eras. Other rivalries simply give one team’s fan base bragging rights for a year spawning the tired old cliché; a 1-11 season is a success if that one win is over the hated rival.

Here are the ten best rivalries in college football (FBS only) based on how much they’ve mattered, the bitterness of the feud, and what they mean to the college football landscape. Remember one fact while reading this: just because your favorite team’s rivalry is the be-all-end-all of your existence, that doesn’t mean that it’s important to anyone else. Think globally, get jacked up locally.

College Football's Top Rivalries
- No. 4 to 6 | No. 7 to 10 

1. Oklahoma vs. Texas (Texas leads the series 60-40-5)

Because of the decline of several other major rivalries, and because of the consistent importance of what has amounted to the Big 12 Championship game, the Red River rivalry is currently the biggest and baddest showdown going in college football. It's as fierce and angry as Auburn-Alabama, and while it's not at the top of the charts on the meanness scale it's very, very close. During the second weekend of October, both teams travel to Dallas, a site equidistant from both schools and with each getting an equal number of tickets, for the last day of the State Fair of Texas. Only the Army-Navy games has a better atmosphere as one side of the stadium is completely clad in burnt orange while the other is in crimson and white.

How old is this series? It started in 1900 before Oklahoma was even a state. There were, possibly, lost political elections because of this game as former OU head coach Bud Wilkinson lost a Senate race after his number one Sooners lost to the number two Longhorns 28-7 in 1963. There have been incidents of spying by the Oklahoma coaches causing former Texas head coach Darrell Royal to call them “sorry bastards” before the 1976 showdown. And there have been tarnished legacies on both sides for failing to win this game. As the two programs have reentered a place reserved for only the elite of the elite in college football, this has become bigger than ever. While there might not be the onfield hatred that past teams had, Colt McCoy and Sam Bradford are friends, this is as intense as any game in sports.

Signature Game: Texas 26 … Oklahoma 20 October 12, 1968
Down 20-19 with only 2:37 to play, Texas quarterback James Street connected on four passes to get down to the Sooner 21 with 55 seconds to play. Going back to the running game, UT won when fullback Steve Worster ran seven yards for the deciding score. Texas would follow this by winning 28 straight games, giving validity to its strange new offense that would dominate college football for the better part of the next two decades: the wishbone. When this offense was run to perfection, at the time, it was one of the most dominating forces in all of sports. Teams with superior ground attacks were able to put up numbers equal to any high-octane passing attack nowadays. It all started here.  

2. Michigan vs. Ohio State (Michigan leads all-time 58-42-6)

It still matters, even if the luster has come off over the last few seasons with Michigan struggling so badly. Alabama-Auburn is meaner and Florida State-Miami has meant more in over the last two decades, but no rivalry has a better combination of history, animosity and championship implications.

How dominant have these two teams been in Big Ten play? Since 1913, the two teams have combined for all or part of 76 Big Ten titles and the have finished 1-2 in the standings 18 times since 1968. Everyone else, including the University of Chicago, has combined for 82 Big Ten titles. In other words, the showdown between these two has meant everything to the Big Ten race for almost a century.

How important is beating the other team? John Cooper won 71% of his games as the OSU head coach with a string of four ten-win seasons in the late 1990s, but he went 2-10-1 against Michigan. Five of those losses cost Ohio State the Big Ten title and one cost a likely national championship. Cooper was gone in 2001.

As the legend/myth goes, Woody Hayes was on his way back to Columbus from a recruiting trip in Michigan when his car ran out of gas. He ignored a gas station and ended up pushing his car over the border rather than spend money in Michigan.

The Signature Game … Michigan 24 … Ohio State 12 November 22, 1969
Ohio State was the defending national champion and had its most dominant Buckeye team yet under Woody Hayes having outscored its opponents 371 to 69. The closest anyone had come to touching the No. 1 Buckeyes was Northwestern in a 35-6 loss. Michigan was on a roll of its own with a 7-2 record and a No. 12 ranking with wins over its last four opponents by a combined score of 178-22. Even after the Buckeyes got on the board early, it was Michigan's game as its defense was never intimidated and stopped the juggernaut. The loss cost Ohio State the national title, and Hayes had said it was the most disappointing moment in his career. For Michigan, this was one of the great wins in school history. It pave the way to the Rose Bowl and a 10-3 loss to USC to finish 8-3 and ranked ninth. Ohio State didn’t go to a bowl and finished fourth.

OR ...

Ohio State 42 ... Michigan 39 
November 18, 2006
With the death of Bo Schembechler hanging over the battle of No. 1 vs. No. 2, Ohio State won a classic as Troy Smith threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers highlighted by a 39-yard pass to Ted Ginn off a fake for a 21-7 second half lead and an eight-yard strike to Anthony Gonzalez for a 28-14 halftime advantage. Michigan roared back with a stop on OSU's first second half possession to go 60 yards in five plays finished off by the second of Mike Hart's three touchdown runs. The Wolverines pulled within four on a 39-yard Garrett Rivas field goal, but the Buckeyes got their second big touchdown run of the game, the first coming in the first half on a brilliant, spinning 52-yard dash from Chris Wells, on an Antonio Pittman 56-yard dash. Michigan capitalized off a fumble with a short Hart scoring run, but head coach Lloyd Carr chose to kick the extra point rather than go for two allowing OSU to be up by four. With an 11-play, 82-yard drive that took five minutes and was kept alive on a penalty from a helmet-to-helmet hit on a third down misfire, Smith hit Brian Robiskie on a 13-yard touchdown pass for a 42-31 lead. Michigan marched back with a 16-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Ecker and the two point conversion, but the Buckeyes recovered the onside kick and ran out the clock. Ohio State went on to the national title game and got blasted by Florida, while Michigan lost to USC in the Rose Bowl.

3. Notre Dame vs. USC  (Notre Dame leads the series 42-32-5)

Notre Dame's recent futility has been well-documented, but even under Charlie Weis, the rivalry has yielded a few classics. Almost always a factor in the Heisman race, the battle between two of the nation's true national teams creates one of college football's biggest stages.

It’s the glitz of Los Angeles vs. the hearty Midwest in a rivalry that captures the nation no matter what else is happening the Saturday when the two play. Love them or hate them, Notre Dame is most popular team in the nation and USC has been its most enduring rival. Often a rivalry of runs, the Irish tore off a 12-0-1 record from 1983 to 1995 before the Trojans won four straight. USC was 12-2-2 from 1967 to 1982. 

As legend has it, in 1925, a USC graduate assistant met legendary Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne and bragged about how wonderful the weather was in Los Angeles. He went on to boast that it was a far better place to play a game than other destinations on Notre Dame’s schedule. Mrs. Rockne agreed and a rivalry was born, with the Irish winning the first ever meeting 13-12 in 1926.

Signature Game: Southern Cal 55 … Notre Dame 24 November 30, 1974
This game falls under the all-time monster momentum swing category. Notre Dame rocketed out to a 24-0 lead with only a minute to go in the first half, apparently on the way to an easy win. Trojan quarterback Pat Haden hit Anthony Davis on a scoring pass with six seconds left in the half providing a glimmer of hope for the second half. Davis, who burned the Irish for two touchdowns on kickoff returns two years earlier, took the opening kickoff of the second half 102 yards for a touchdown to give the Trojans the momentum. Some momentum shift. The Trojans would go on to score 28 more points in the quarter as part of a 55 unanswered-point run over less than a 17-minute span. The Irish had only given up eight touchdowns in the previous ten games, but allowed four Davis touchdowns and four Haden touchdown passes. The Trojans would finish 10-1-1 and were named UPI national champions finishing No. 2 in the AP poll. Notre Dame finished 4th in the UPI poll and 6th in the AP poll.


Southern Cal 34 ... Notre Dame 31
... October 15, 2005
Matt Leinart twisted and turned his way in for a one-yard touchdown run with three seconds to play to cap off a tremendous game and a wild finish. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn stretched out his arm for a five-yard touchdown with just over two minutes to play for a 31-28 Notre Dame lead, but there was still time left on the clock. USC's final drive was bogging down, but Leinart called an audible on 4th-and-9 and connected with Dwayne Jarrett for a 61-yard pass. Three plays later, USC got to the two and was able to stop the clock on a Reggie Bush run for a first down, but there weren't any timeouts left. Leinart scrambled and dove to the end zone, and was stopped just short. Fans and players rushed the field as time ran out, but few saw the ball get knocked out of bounds, giving USC second and goal from the one with seven seconds left. With USC head coach Pete Carroll and the coaches signaling to spike the ball, Leinart took the snap and got in for the score, with a little help from a push from Bush. Bush scored three touchdowns on runs of 36, 45 and nine yards, and LenDale White ran for a three-yard touchdown. Notre Dame's biggest highlight cam on a bruising 60-yard punt return for a touchdown from Tom Zbikowski.