What makes college football so exciting isn’t just that the players and fans alike have deep ties to their respective schools. No, it’s more than that. It’s a pride that ebbs from the people who came before you and the people who will come after you.
Cliché or not, that’s what really separates NCAA football from professional football for the most dedicated collegiate football fan — a belief that, beyond debating whether the players-should-be-paid or the ethics of schools making millions from athletes who get nothing, at its core college football is a pure game.
Part of this purity also stems from the heated rivalries that help fuel the intensity. The players know it and the fans live for it. Sure, some fan bases are a little more vicious than others (take Michigan-Ohio State, where wearing maize and blue in Columbus almost guarantees some sort of altercation), but it’s all part of the fun.
College football has been played for well over a century, and that’s why the rivalries—many of them having some sort of trophy that’s passed back and forth to the victors—will never die. The best match-ups are always must-watch TV. Here are the six best rivalries in college football.
1. Michigan vs. Ohio State
As already referenced, this is one of the best rivalries in all of college football—yes, even despite Michigan’s lack of recent relevance. Going back to the days of Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, the rivalry was always one of the most fun and competitive in the country.
Every season it seemed like the “that team up north” and “Ohio” were going head-to-head for the Big Ten title, and in doing so, some historic games occurred. The rivalry clearly got a boost when Ohio State hired Urban Meyer in 2011. Even more so a year ago when the Buckeyes brought home a national title; one that the Big Ten desperately needed to remain on the national scene.
When you add Ohio State’s relevance and string of success with the hiring of Jim Harbaugh in Ann Arbor, it would appear—at least the fans are hoping—a revival has occurred.
2. Alabama vs. Auburn
Known as the Iron Bowl, this bout between SEC powerhouses is one of the most competitive games every season. This is compounded by the fact that the schools aren’t just inter-conference rivals, but also intra-state rivals.
Traditionally, at least since the BCS system’s implementation and now the College Football Playoff, the Iron Bowl has various National Title implications. When the game comes along, usually Alabama, Auburn or both are contending for the nation’s top spot. Despite the all-time match-ups that have occurred over the years between the two SEC perennial powerhouses, 2013 saw one of the most exciting games in a long time.
Alabama entered the game undefeated and well on its way to a National Championship berth. And with one second remaining and the score tied, the Crimson Tide attempted a game-winning field goal. It ended up being game-winning, just not for Alabama, as Auburn caught the kick and returned it for a touchdown. They wound up taking a National Championship that year, too.
3. Notre Dame vs. USC
One of the only rivalries on this list that doesn’t include teams from the same conference, this rivalry dates back to 1900. Whether in South Bend or Los Angeles, the game has seen various Hall-of-Fame coaches and Heisman hopefuls, and with that has come a modicum of success. Despite the Fighting Irish canceling their rivalry game with the University of Michigan two years ago, it seems likely that the Notre Dame-Trojan rivalry will continue for many years to come.
4. Oklahoma vs. Texas
One of the long-standing rivalries in the Big 12—despite the conference just avoiding a massive, potentially crumbling realignment—the Sooners and the Longhorns have an intricate past. Texas currently leads the series 61-44-5, but even more impressively, the game occurs in the famous Cotton Bowl right in the middle of the Texas State Fair.
While the two states share a physical border, the game itself has its own border war in that the 50-yard line splits the raucous fan bases right down the middle. Though the Big 12 has had a recent resurgence—looking at the Baylor’s and TCU’s of the conference and their rise to the top—Texas and Oklahoma are always in the thick of things, thus making this game exciting each and every year.
5. California vs. Stanford
The oldest rivalry on the West Coast, these two teams fight it out every year in the Bay Area. Not only has the Cardinal dominated the series of late, but it also holds a 60-46-11 record. However, the rivalry is most famous for what has been titled “the play.”
As Cal attempted to lateral its way down the field in the game’s final seconds, the Stanford band rushed the field. Now famous for the classic “the band is on the field” announcer quote, that moment as Cal players stumbled upon Stanford’s band will always be one the classic moments of college football. Either way, the two prestigious schools have made a classic rivalry on the field, too.
6. Army vs. Navy
Going back to 1890, this rivalry matches the nation’s military academies against each other. Every year in the final week of the regular season, the two schools battle each other—quite the battle it is—for the ultimate bragging rights. The winner receives the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy, and as a whole, the Midshipmen have the edge holding a 59-49-7 record against the Black Knights.
Despite the close overall record, the contest hasn’t been as even recently: Navy has won 13 straight. It’s more than just a football game, though. The prestige of the two academies coupled with the long-standing rivalry between the schools makes this one of the most watched games every year.