June 12, 2024

The best rivalries in college football

In every sport, there are rivalries which can define a season for teams, and serve as a staple in the calendar during every season. Here are the best in college football.


As discussed last week, these rivalries can often dictate an entire season, both for a team and for a fanbase, looking for an edge over a rival fan at the water cooler or the local tap. In many leagues, some of the best rivalries often dictate who wins a league or lands a spot in the college football playoff. Today we take a look at some of the best rivalries in each conference.


Clemson taking on Florida State Sports Illustrated

In the ACC, the best rivalries are based upon which sport is under discussion. If its football, its Florida State vs Clemson; basketball… its time to head down tobacco road. For the last several years, Florida State vs Clemson has been the game to watch in the ACC, as the winner has eventually reached the ACC Championship as a result.

For Tailgate Society’s Shaun Curran, FSU/Clemson just means more:

One of my favorite rivalries we have is with the Clemson Tigers. Over the past 2 decades it has really become a marquee match in the ACC. I was a freshman in Tallahassee when Clemson hired Tommy Bowden and the Bowden bowl started. That’s when the rivalry really started to mean something – and making it a family affair always added another layer of intensity. But the rivalry has really taken on another life altogether since Dabo Sweeney and Jimbo Fisher stepped in to the head coaching role – and for the last decade the game has had a hand in deciding who is involved in the ACC Championship.

I have so any great memories of this game – but probably the two that stick out are being at the “Great Clemsoning” in 2014 down in Tallahassee with my wife and best friends, and the embarrassment in Death Valley back in 2009. The other great memory of our rivalry deals more directly with the actual game, not the circumstances surrounding. In 2014 my wife, best friend Phil and his wife (one of my other best friends) Allison all traveled down to Tallahassee to watch the Seminoles continue their quest to the National Championship and face Clemson. FSU had won the National Championship earlier that January against Auburn in an epic comeback – and since that game we were still riding on a historic undefeated streak which was full of extremely close games.

I cannot WAIT for the game this year – my wife and I will be there to watch the noles exact revenge on Dabo and his boys for the last few years of beatings we’ve endured. CANNOT WAIT! Go Noles!!

A few underrated rivalries exist in the ACC, as in-state foes North Carolina and North Carolina State often share deep-seeded hatred for each other. Georgia Tech vs Virginia Tech is also a very underappreciated rival matchup which has seen many great games in previous years. Florida State and Miami have tangled in many matchups during the last century, but have struggled to reach the same level or intensity as their matchups prior to Miami’s last title appearance in 2002.

Big Ten

New York Times

The Big Ten’s best rivalry is “The Game” between Ohio State and Michigan, and there really is no debating this argument. However, beneath this game, many great series exist within the conference which often go unnoticed on a national scale. Unfortunately, no game really jumps ahead as a clear #2 to The Game either.

Michigan State vs Michigan

Michigan State’s resurgence in football, coupled with some choice words by Mike Hart in a state already two small for the two schools to hold, has raised this rivalry to new heights in recent years. The Two schools have seen tremendous success throughout their history (Michigan with 11 national titles; Michigan State with 6) which has bred generations of hatred throughout the Great Lakes State. These two videos from 2007 mark what may be known as the most contentious decade within the series’ rivalry. These two videos perhaps show the best that can come from an in-state rivalry series.



Iowa vs Wisconsin

The Battle for the Heartland Trophy has been one of the most even series in all of football. Wisconsin currently holds a 45-43-2 lead over the Iowa Hawkeyes, a series which has seen both teams take leads over the last decade. Coupled with the close series record and almost identical playing styles, Iowa vs Wisconsin has reached a fever pitch in America’s breadbasket as an underrated rivalry worth noting.




Big 12

Texas and Oklahoma take part in the annual Red River Rivalry game in Dallas Horns Illustrated

The slate of rivalries is somewhat on life support in the Big 12, as four teams have defected the league as a result of conference realignment. Below are the rivalries which have lasted despite shifts in the college football landscape.

Texas vs Oklahoma

The Red River Rivalry takes the cake in the Big 12 as the number one rivalry within the conference. Coupled with the Texas State Fair and large alumni bases in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, this game proves to be one of the only neutral site games which truly gathers national attention and is loved by fans of both schools.

Oklahoma State vs Oklahoma (Bedlam)

Bedlam has reached a fever pitch across the plains of Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys have been the game of the year in the Big 12 Conference many times in the last decade as Mike Gundy has brought the Oklahoma State Cowboys to national relevance, amidst Bob Stoops’ legendary tenure in Norman.


Pac 12

USA Today


Prior to the 2016 entrance of the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams to the LA sports market, the USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins took center stage in the college football landscape of America’s second largest metropolitan area. These two cross-city rivals both claim to be the home team when they play, regardless of venue, and often are playing with conference title aspirations on the line when they take the field in late November.


Stanford vs California

This rivalry is just plain weird… in an awesome way. These schools flat out hate their rival from the other side of the Bay, and it goes much further than football. The two schools, known for their marching bands, take every level of this rivalry to heart. A few memorable games in this series include a game where the band was already on the field for the last play, and the bands have also taken stage in many other famous moments, including a stare-off, and every other bit of obnoxious behavior the Stanford band can come up with.


Oregon vs Washington


The Columbia River is up for grabs, and for these two teams tucked away in America’s Pacific Northwest, the hatred spews freely between the Ducks and Huskies during a week-long buildup known as “Hate Week.” Prior to 2016, the Oregon Ducks have absolutely owned this series, but a faltering Ducks squad coupled with a resurgent Washington Huskies team have re-invigorated the hatred between these two Pacific foes.

For Oregon Alum and fan Erik Brody, the rivalry between Oregon and Washington runs thick despite not growing up in the heat of competition:

I wasn’t born into the rivalry, I moved up to Eugene from San Diego in 2007 to play junior hockey, then transferred into U of O. I knew little of the blind hatred Oregonians had for Washingtonians and vice versa. Luckily, I had a fraternity brother who lived in both Spokane and in Eugene, his family had season tickets since the 80’s and I was bred into it.

When you dissect the region, you understand how deep it runs; Timbers v. Sounders, Blazers v. Sonics, Winterhawks v. Thunderbirds, and you look way back to the economical rivalry they have. Honestly, the biggest reason why they hate our athletic program is because Uncle Phil funded the growth and prosperity of both the university and the sports program. They mock us because we haven’t capped it all off with a ‘natty’. The paradox of culture between the bougie Seattleites and the hippies of Eugene. The difference between a big city and a true college town. The dumb ‘Dawgs’ can live on their disputed national championship season laurels and we’ll continue to innovate and strive to get the one TRUE ‘natty.’

I admit I enjoyed one of the best stretches of Oregon dominance and will always remember the 12 years of Duck dominance, they crushed us at Autzen and I stayed for the entire thing 72-20. I can tell you they hated us for dancing around to “SHOUT” at the end of the 4th quarter… “how could they be happy, we’re kicking the crap out of them?!” Trust me we were celebrating the times we had and to starting a new streak. Year after year the Dawgs would razz us by throwing bread crumbs at us, while Duck fans threw puppy chow at them.

I remember the times we would storm Seattle with thousands of Duck fans and we would get kicked out of Seattle bars for chanting “let’s go Ducks.” But the best memory I have during that stretch was when College GameDay traveled to Seattle for the first time in 2013. Both teams were vying for a spot in the Pac-12 title game, #2 Oregon v. #16 UW, NEEDLESS to say the Ducks won handedly 45-24 to clinch 10 straight years. You could hear the entire Duck contingent on the TV broadcast stomping on the metal bleachers and screaming in the 300-level chanting “10 more years, 10 more years!” The sheer disgust and hatred seen on the Huskies faces was priceless, that we spoiled their chance to topple the Ducks on national television.

We turned the tides of the rivalry on a sunny fall day in October 1994, when Kenny Wheaton proved there’s only one direction to take the program and that is forward. “Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score… Kenny Wheaton’s gonna score… 20… the 10… touchdown… the most improbable finish!” #HuckTheFuskies

Erik showing his Oregon O atop Seattle’s Space Needle during Hate Week. Erik Brody




Alabama vs Auburn

The Iron Bowl is the best rivalry in college football. These two teams feature two incredibly rabid fanbases, talented football teams and a date on the calendar that is rarely missed by many across the country. The Iron Bowl captures the hearts and minds of every soul in the state of Alabama on the Saturday after Thanksgiving as families split and rupture annually over their divisions in this game. From the Kick Six to Cam Newton, and numerous Saban legendary teams, this game has stood atop college football over the last decade, just as it had many times prior.

Tennessee vs Florida

Tennessee’s 2016 game vs Florida catapulted this rivalry back into the spotlight, following devastating defeat after devastating defeat to the Gators on the Third Saturday in September. Normally rivalries fall on life support if one team develops a long streak of wins, but this streak of wins only made fans and players for Tennessee hungrier. This moment captures their win over Florida in 2016, ending a 11 year streak:

LSU vs Alabama

Every point matters when LSU takes on Alabama. Alabama missed two field goals in a 9-6 loss to LSU in 2011. Youtube

It just means more. This matchup is the only in-division rivalry which has also been played out in a National Championship game in recent memory. These games, often low scoring, may come across as boring for some fans who favor high octane offensive-led games, but fans and observers know that every single snap in an LSU vs Alabama game is life or death, as crucial seconds tick down in a game that will likely be decided by three or four points.


Non-conference rivalries

Some rivalries extend beyond conference lines, especially as television revenue and cable subscriptions take precedence over passionate rivalries and fan loyalty. Below are some of the best non-conference rivalries that haven’t been ruined by conference realignment:

Michigan State vs Notre Dame

In 1955, Michigan State joined the ranks of the Big Ten Conference as a football powerhouse, having won six national championships in the sport of football. Prior to their entrance into the Big Ten Conference, the Spartans’ main rival outside of Michigan was their fellow Independent neighbor, Notre Dame. This game has featured countless close games, jabs, and historical moments which bring excitement or a pit to the stomach of fans of each team. Realignment could have ruined this great series in America’s rust belt, but both teams have played on since the Spartans’ decision to join a conference.

Florida vs Florida State

Marco Rubio’s famous slight at Florida State during the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Saturday Down South

Another in-state rivalry that gets personal… and political! In 2015, Republican Presidential Candidate (and Florida Gator alum) Marco Rubio took a famous slight at his in-state rivals from Tallahassee during an interview with an Iowa radio station while campaigning before the Iowa Caucus. Similar to many in-state rivalries, slights at rival schools can often take a turn towards “smackademics” (which school is more prestigious academically) or who is a bigger or little brother. Florida vs Florida State doesn’t disappoint if you like either of these, and even reached the election cycle.


Iowa State vs Iowa


I’d be selling my state short, if this long-held non-conference (yet in-state) rivalry wasn’t showcased in our piece. As a graduate of Iowa State, I always have an early game when blood boils quickly, and thats against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Many Hawkeye fans claim its Iowa State’s super bowl (because they don’t seem to get many other wins) as the series has been deadlocked in recent memory. This game has also defined seasons as many Iowa Hawkeye fans look to the 2002 loss to Iowa State as the one blemish keeping them from the National Championship game. I’d argue the Hawkeyes need to quit making excuses…


Rivalry series continues…

We continue following this piece with three more in-depth pieces on rivalries, as we ramp up to the start of the college football season. Please keep the discussion going, as this topic is often one of the most fun, emotion-driven, and thought-provoking in the sport.

Up next: How to make a rivalry.

Future pieces:

  • Rivalries we have lost
  • Rivalries that have gone too far

A look back: What makes a rivalry? 


A special thank you to Erik Brody (@ebrodes) for adding his insight to the Oregon/Washington rivalry.

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Travis Halm
Travis Halm 43 Articles
Staff Writer

Travis Halm is an Iowa State Alum living in Omaha, Nebraska. A native of Haverhill, Iowa, Travis has lived throughout the Midwest and in Texas, providing him insight on the Big 12, the SEC, and a wide variety of other sports topics. Travis follows the Cyclones closely, in addition to the Cardinals, Packers, Texas A&M and rarely turns down a ticket to a good sporting event.

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