The 10 Most Intense College Football Rivalries

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

Any list of the ten most intense college football rivalries is bound to cause a stir because each fan has his or her own favorites. This list takes into account the number of years a rivalry has been going and whether the teams involved have consistently been at the top of the national standings. More important, these rivalries aren’t ranked from most to least intense — it would cause entirely too much strife. Instead, this list presents the rivalries in good ol’ alphabetical order.

Alabama versus Auburn

In a football-happy state like Alabama, the annual contest — called the Iron Bowl — between Alabama and Auburn is bound to be contentious. The rivalry between these teams dates to 1893, when the Auburn Tigers defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 32–22. Incredibly, the annual game wasn’t played between the years 1907 and 1948 because the teams couldn’t agree on where to obtain officials. But now that the game is on again, the rivalry is as intense as ever. In fact, it’s been said that while the Iron Bowl is being played, all human activity, except for watching football, ceases in the state of Alabama.

Army versus Navy

The annual Army-Navy game pits the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York (the Cadets) against the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland (the Midshipmen). At the game’s end, the winning and losing teams stand together and sing one another’s alma mater in a show of mutual respect and admiration. Winning players may wear gold stars on their sweaters to commemorate their victory on the football field. The Army-Navy game is traditionally the last of the college regular season and is played in Philadelphia.

California versus Stanford

Called “The Big Game,” the annual contest between the University of California Bears and the Stanford University Cardinal isn’t just the occasion for a football game, although the football game is most certainly the main event. Students engage in all kinds of activities in the week prior to the game, including theatrical productions, choral celebrations, bonfires, and hockey and water polo games between the schools. The winner of The Big Game gets to keep the Stanford Axe, an axe-head mounted on a plaque that lists the scores of past Big Games. The first Big Game was played in 1892 on neutral ground in San Francisco (future president Herbert Hoover managed the Stanford team).

Florida versus Georgia

The annual game between the University of Florida Gators and the University of Georgia Bulldogs is known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” It dates to 1912. As of 2010, Georgia holds a 47–40–2 lead in the series by its reckoning. Florida insists it’s 46–40–2. In any case, the Gators have won 18 of the past 21 meetings. The Gators-Bulldogs rivalry is one of only a handful of games played on a neutral site (in this case Jacksonville, Florida).

Harvard versus Yale

The annual battle between the Harvard Crimson and the Yale Bulldogs is known simply as “The Game.” The rivalry originated in 1875, when Harvard won 4–0 to capture the national championship. The Game is the second-oldest football rivalry — between Lafayette-–Lehigh (1884), the third oldest, and Princeton-Yale (1873), the oldest.

According to legend, Harvard coach Percy Haughton strangled a bulldog (the bulldog is Yale’s mascot) in the locker room before the 1908 game to motivate his players. Prior to 1920, Harvard and Yale were football powerhouses. In the years 1875 to 1919, these teams earned 25 national championships between them, with the Harvard-Yale game often deciding the national champion.

Lafayette versus Lehigh

The Lafayette College and Lehigh University annual meeting is known as “The Rivalry.” It is on this list because, dating to 1884, it’s the most played rivalry in college football. The teams have met a record 146 times (as of 2010), with Lafayette winning 76 contests and Lehigh winning 65 (there were 5 ties). A rivalry this old is bound to be surrounded by folklore. My favorite story has to do with Lehigh halfback “Snooks” Dowd, who in 1918 supposedly ran 115 yards for a touchdown. His run, having begun in the wrong direction, took him around his own team’s goalposts.

Michigan versus Ohio State

The annual matchup between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes is called “The Game” and dates to 1897. The two teams have decided the Big Ten title between themselves over 20 times. Often in this rivalry, one team spoils the other’s chances of winning a national championship.

Each year from 1970 to 1975, Michigan went into its annual regular-season finale versus Ohio State without a loss. The Wolverines went 1–3–2 against the Buckeyes in those years. But Michigan has played the spoiler as well. In 1993, 1995, and 1996, an undefeated Ohio State team played Michigan and lost.

Minnesota versus Wisconsin

Dating to 1890, the rivalry between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Wisconsin Badgers is the most-played in Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) football. The teams have met 120 times as of 2010. The winner each year is awarded Paul Bunyan’s Axe, a large ceremonial axe bearing the scores and winners of games dating back to 1907. Before the Axe became the traditional trophy, the winning team was awarded the Slab of Bacon, a piece of black walnut wood with the letter W or M carved into it (the letter you saw depended on which way you turned the trophy). The Slab was lost in a melee after the 1945 game.

Notre Dame versus USC

The winner of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish–USC Trojans game has gone on to win the national championship 21 times. Between them, the University of Southern California and the University of Notre Dame have had more All-Americans and Heisman Trophy winners than any other combination of two schools — all of which has made for great football viewing over the years (not to mention a great rivalry!).

Notre Dame versus USC is the only rivalry in which geography or conference membership doesn’t play a role. The rivalry began in 1926 when the wife of USC Athletic Director Gwynn Wilson persuaded the wife of Notre Dame Coach Knute Rockne that a trip away from snowy Indiana to sunny California every other year to play USC would be kind of nice for the players, coaches, and coaches’ wives. The wives then convinced their husbands to play the annual game.

Oklahoma versus Texas

The annual battle between the Oklahoma Sooners and the Texas Longhorns is called “The Red River Shootout” because the winner is supposed to be awarded, until the teams’ next meeting, ownership of the Red River (this river forms part of the boundary between Oklahoma and Texas). The Oklahoma-Texas game is played on neutral ground in Dallas, about halfway between the two schools’ stomping grounds: Norman, Oklahoma, and Austin, Texas. This rivalry is so old (it dates to 1900) that it started when Oklahoma was a territory, not a state.