The Seeds of Rivalry: How College Football’s Most Bitter Rivalries Are Formed

May 26, 2021

Some of college football’s most historic rivalries seem to have existed since Ancient Rome, but every rivalry has its roots. While every rivalry is unique, many share the same themes that bind the two schools together

Harvey Updike sat in front of the mic, fresh off of probation, ready to clear his conscience about the crime he had committed just five years before. 

“I wanted Auburn people to hate me as much as I hate them,” Updike exclaimed. “There are several things in this world that I really and truly don’t like, and Auburn is one of them.”

Harvey Updike, following the University of Alabama’s 2010 loss to Auburn University, was determined to set the score straight with Auburn and make their fans feel the same heartbreak that he had felt watching his favorite team lose to their arch-rival.

Updike traveled to Auburn University’s campus in the stealth of night and made his way to Auburn’s iconic Toomer’s Corner, which housed the campus’s famous Oak Trees, and was a common gathering place for Auburn students following a big win.

Updike, with revenge driving his mind, walked up to the Oak Trees and placed a special herbicide he had brought with him directly on the trunks of the Oak Trees. 

This herbicide, though, was no culinary specialty of his. This herbicide, known as Spike 80DF, was poisonous to the trees he was placing it on.  

Updike brought 500x the amount needed to kill the trees.

For those who do not follow the sport of college football, it is hard to understand the type of passion college football fans have for their prospective schools, and even more perplexing, the bitterness shared towards their rival schools.

Every college football rivalry is unique in its own way, but unique in a mad-lib sense. While each writer of a mad-lib will have a story unique from the rest, the logistics of how that story was formed was prescribed before the writer ever opened the page. 

Almost every rivalry falls into one of a few categories that make the seeds of rivalry tick. The feeling attributed to a rival school is largely dependent on what category the rivalry falls into. While not all rivalries fall squarely into one category, all rivalries have a main theme. 

Land Disputes

The most common category of rivalry, probably because it requires the least amount of reasoning, is the classic border battle. 

The classic moniker “big brother, little brother” stems from this category, and is the main fuel behind winning this rivalry. While there can only be one national champion, there can be fifty state champions. 

While this category is the easiest to fall into, creating a unique rivalry that stands out among the nation’s best requires a distinct cultural difference or strikingly similarity between the two schools. 

 

The Iron Bowl

No land dispute is more heated than the blood feud between Alabama-Auburn. In a football-crazed state too small to host a professional team, college football is next to religion in the state of Alabama. 

The feud commonly boils over into violence, as former Alabama coach Bill Curry witnessed. 

“When Bill Curry was coaching at Alabama, he went to a Birmingham elementary school one day to speak with children about football and life. Upon entering the classroom, he saw a boy standing in the corner, sobbing. Curry wondered what was going on, and a student told him, “Jason is an Auburn fan, and we took care of him”(Athlon).

 

Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate

This common trope of violence is shared by another rivalry across the eastern border of Alabama in the state of Georgia, between Georgia Tech and Georgia. 

While this rivalry has gradually faded off the national radar ever since Georgia Tech left the Southeastern Conference in 1951, the name still fits the rivalry’s bitter existence between the only two power five schools in the state.

This rivalry has too much petty nonsense to detail in such a short amount of space, but the acidity of the rivalry was apparent in the 2019 meeting between the two schools.

Georgia’s star wide receiver George Pickens was ejected from the game after getting into a fistfight with Georgia Tech corner Tre Swilling.

 

The Egg Bowl

During the last half-decade, the Egg Bowl has epitomized the definition of pettiness. 

The in-state feud between aristocratic Ole Miss and blue-collar Mississippi State has fueled a contentious rivalry between the two schools that has reached new heights over the last few years due to off-the-field issues. 

The feud has not been hidden on the field either, which was made clear in the 2019 edition of the Egg Bowl, in which star Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after “relieving” himself after a touchdown late in the game, dubbed the “Ole Piss”.

In the 2018 edition, every single player on each team was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a brawl broke out mid-game. 

Unlike most of the rivalries on this list, hostilities in this game have risen to new heights in modern history, instead of just having relatively ancient beef. 

 

Texas-Texas A&M

What’s a good sign that a rivalry is fierce? 

The two schools dislike each other too much to cooperate and schedule each other.

As is the case in the nameless rivalry between the state of Texas’ two most prestigious football programs.

The two schools have not played each other since 2011 when Texas A&M decided to leave the Big Twelve Conference and join the Southeastern Conference instead. 

Texas A&M athletic director, Ross Bjork, has attempted to reach out to Texas to renew the rivalry, but Texas has rebuked any offer at this point, most likely due to the rift still felt after Texas A&M left the conference.

 

The Holy War

These two schools fight not only for land rights to the state of Utah but as the name suggests, BYU and Utah play for a greater purpose in a state known for a large Mormon population.

The University of Utah serves as the headquarters for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, while BYU serves as the flagship university for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Such similarity between the two schools instantly sparks a need for one to be better than the other, instantly creating a rivalry that lasts 365 days a year.

The rivalry does not garner substantial national attention due to both BYU being independent, and Utah just recently elevated to a power five conference, but the beef between these two schools is as prevalent as any rivalry across the nation.

 

We’ve Played Too Many Games Like Each Other

These are the rivals that Grandpa talked about. The ones that, on paper, do not seem naturally inclined to be formed, but play against a team enough times, and something is bound to occur that agitates one side or the other. 

These rivalries are less common than the land dispute, but there is still a significant number of these rivalries to entail.

 

Paul Bunyan’s Axe

What’s not to be admired about a rivalry that is played for a cartoonishly large wooden ax? The battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe is the most played rivalry game in FBS college football history, spanning back to the first meeting in 1890, and has been played every single year since, except for 1906.

The series is almost dead even in terms of wins, with Wisconsin leading the all-time series 62-60-8, totaling up to 130 meetings between the two schools.

From 1933-1982, this game served as the regular-season finale between the two schools, which regularly decided who would represent the Big Ten at the Rose Bowl.

 

The Third Saturday of October

As the name would suggest, this game is traditionally played on the third Saturday of October every year, with the exception of 2020, which was played on the fourth Saturday of October.

These two schools have met a total of 103 times, spanning back to the first meeting in 1901. 

The rivalry came to national prominence under the tenures of Tennessee coach Robert Neyland and Alabama coach Bear Bryant. Under these coaches’ tenures, this game often decided the winner of the Southeastern Conference, and sometimes the winner of the National Championship.

The rivalry has lost national relevance as of recent, with Alabama winning the last fourteen meetings between the two schools, all under the tenure of current Alabama coach Nick Saban.

 

The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party

Despite the name suggesting a jovial festival of Cocktails and fun, the rivalry between Georgia and Florida is far from festive. 

The game takes place annually in Jacksonville, Florida at a neutral site, which allows for fans of both sides to arrive at the game by boat, creating a unique atmosphere around a nationally prominent game.

These two teams regularly compete for the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title, which grants the winning team a chance to play in the Conference Championship game.

The two schools have played a total of 98 times, with every game except two being played in Jacksonville since 1933. 

Calls for the game to be moved away from Jacksonville trickle back into prominence every so often, but the tradition looks to stay in Jacksonville for the short future.

Primetime Prestige

These are the games that commonly find themselves played on primetime. The yearly battle between these schools sparks hatred between fanbases, but winning is rarely a fruitless victory, and almost always impacts the landscape of the sport for that entire season.

Only a select few rivalries can annually impact the entirety of college football, but these games generally live up to the title.

 

The Battle for the Jewelled Shillelagh

The prototype of a prestigious rivalry. Notre Dame and Southern California are two of college football’s most storied programs, both boasting multiple national championships over their century of existence. 

While these two schools are almost polar opposites in every way, winning is seemingly the only thing that unites these programs. 

While USC sits within the cinema capital of the world in Los Angeles, Notre Dame resides in the small Midwestern town of South Bend, Indiana.

The series was first played in 1926 and has been played annually ever since, except for the duration of World War Two.

From 1966 to 1979, one of USC or Notre Dame finished as national champion or runner-up 10 out of the 14 seasons. 

This remarkable run of dominance between the two rivals encapsulates the tension present every year between the two schools. 

 

Alabama-LSU

The stakes have never been higher during the last decade of this century-long division rivalry. 

Alabama-LSU has almost annually decided the winner of the SEC West Division, and, at times, has been the biggest threshold to cross to win the national championship. 

The two teams met twice in the 2011-2012 season, once in the regular season that resulted in a 9-6 victory for LSU, then again in the national championship game that crowned Alabama after a 21-0 victory. 

Despite Alabama winning 9 of the last 10 matchups between the two schools, 15 of the last 17 games have been decided by two possessions or less, with the sole two exceptions being 2018 and 2020.

The two schools currently share a common figure integral to both schools’ successes in football: Nick Saban. 

While Saban is generally associated with the unprecedented dynasty he has created at Alabama, Saban achieved his first national championship victory at LSU, before he left for the Miami Dolphins of the NFL two years later. 

This game is commonly selected for CBS’s single primetime broadcast of the season, and more times than not lives up to the hype.

 

Notre Dame-Michigan

A true story of the successor surpassing the predecessor. As the small Catholic school located in South Bend, Indiana looked to jumpstart their fledgling football program, they turned north to the powerhouse football program of the University of Michigan, looking for advice on how to become a better football team. 

Michigan gladly offered this advice, assuming the small school in South Bend would never pose a threat to their dominant team. This presumption was held true for the two schools’ first meetings, as Michigan won each of the first eight games. 

The tides turned in 1909, as Notre Dame defeated Michigan 11-3 to achieve their first victory against the Wolverines. 

The stunning loss, coupled with the resentment of losing to the school that they had taught to play football, caused Michigan to start a hiatus in the series, which lasted for 33 years.

The two schools have played the series on and off for the better half of the 21st century, but the two fanbases still hold the resentment towards the other that was present when the series was halted all the way back in 1909.

Actual Warfare

Football is just a sport, right? Surely it would not be the result of tensions shared because of armed warfare. Right?

It would? Well, okay. Let’s see how that happened.

 

The Game

Everyone growing up in the Midwest region of the United States that follows the sport has heard the stories surrounding this game.

Take, for example, legendary Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes. Hayes would commonly make a stop just south of the border between Michigan and Ohio, usually within the Toledo region, to make the necessary gas stop needed to reach Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

When Hayes was asked why he always made the stop just south of the border, and never across it, Hayes shared his thought process behind the decision. 

We do not pull in and fill up. And I’ll tell you why we don’t. It’s because I don’t buy one drop of gas in the state of Michigan. We’ll coast and push this car to the Ohio line before I give this state a nickel of my money.

Where did this hostility come from? 

It stems  back to 1836 before American football had even been invented. The state of Ohio and the state of Michigan were locked in a contentious dispute over the economically significant Toledo Strip.

After neither side conceded the strip, the two states turned guns toward each other. The scuffle is now known as the Great Toledo War, and although only one person was wounded in the official battle, the bitterness remained between the bordering states. 

Fast-forward to 1897, when the powerhouse University of Michigan took on the flagship Ohio State University. While Michigan went 13-0-2 in the first 15 matchups between the two schools, Ohio State went on to win three straight from 1919-1921. 

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the two schools did not meet during the 2020 season, which broke the 102-year streak of the annual series being played.

 

Army-Navy

America’s game. 

The annual tradition of Army-Navy is so strong, a full Saturday is reserved on the college football calendar for the matchup. 

One of the few sporting events around the world where the pre-game and post-game emotions are as powerful as they are during the game.

The game is played annually in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, except the 2020 season, in which the game was played at Army.

With too many traditions to account for, it can be simply said that even non-football fans should tune in at least once to view the pride and passion present on an Army-Navy game day.

I’d rather have loyalty than love

’Cause love really don’t mean jack

See love is just a feeling

You can love somebody and still stab them in the back

It don’t take much to love

You can love somebody just by being attached

See loyalty is a action

You can love or hate me and still have my back

 

Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, a famous British poet, unintentionally described the experience of being a college football fan.

Sometimes a fan loves their team, sometimes a fan hates their team. Through love and hate, though, college football fans will always show loyalty to their team, which is what makes college football special.

 

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