College football has turned the final corner of the regular season. Conference races have narrowed to two or three contenders, and the march to bowl season is full steam ahead. Iconic and pivotal match-ups are beginning to take place, just as they have for over 100 years. Two of the best weeks on the sports calendar are about to unfold before our very eyes.
In one of the best in-state rivalry games known in the sport, the Texas Longhorns are about to take on the Texas A&M Aggies in a pivotal showdown for supremacy of the Lone Star State. Oh, wait.
After finishing our Black Friday shopping, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are going to take on the Okla… wait, Colorado…. wait, who?
At least we get to see West Virginia burn couches after playing Pittsburgh, right? Sigh.
I guess I’ll just have to wait for Kansas vs Missouri basketball in a few months. Oh wait, that’s now an October charity scrimmage.
The final two weeks of the regular season used to be filled with fantastic rivalry games of great significance to programs, fans, and the broader college football landscape. In recent years, many of our favorite, most iconic rivalries (in America’s heartland in particular) have been removed from the schedules in the name of conference realignment, television dollars, and politicians fighting among other men in suits over issues far from the gridiron.
The Lone Star showdown once pitted Texas’ two most popular schools against each other in a Thanksgiving-day staple from coast to coast. The Longhorns and Aggies fought yearly following the Dallas Cowboys’ afternoon matchup in what was a must-watch day of football deep in the Heart of Texas. From emotional games like the 1999 Bonfire game comeback, to Texas notching their last regular-season win en route to a National Championship, an alternative to this rivalry game is simply not possible.
The Nebraska Cornhuskers have been perhaps the most notable program to play on Black Friday, following the Thanksgiving holiday. The former Big Eight stalwart would regularly take on the Oklahoma Sooners for the Big Eight crown, and often for a spot atop college football. When divisions were created in the newly formed Big 12 conference, Nebraska and Oklahoma took a Black Friday backseat, forcing a new rivalry for the Huskers in Colorado. Now, as the Huskers have departed the Big 12, they play for a corporate-forced grocery store-sponsored rivalry trophy.
For schools like Missouri and West Virginia, conference realignment has led to more changes and geographical mismatches than just on Black Friday, making road-game travel challenging and somewhat impossible for the average fan to partake. Great rivalry games like Missouri vs Kansas or West Virginia vs nearby schools including Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech or Cincinnati have been replaced with games on the schedule with teams in different time zones, let alone border states. No matter how hard a team or conference can push, creating a truly passionate rivalry out of these matchups is simply not in the cards.
Even within conferences, divisional changes have created rifts and scheduling deficiencies between teams who formerly matched up annually. Alabama and Georgia, two border-states and long-time rivals, rarely play during the regular season. Schools like Wisconsin or Iowa now face eastern foes Ohio State or Michigan much less frequently, and can often go years between matchups. If conferences expand even further (to 16 or more) these scheduling droughts may only lengthen.
Many fans, in particular on the coasts, may not understand what we have lost. Rivalry games like Alabama vs Auburn, USC vs UCLA and Oregon vs Washington still take place annually. Many great rivalries between the SEC and ACC still exist today, including in Florida vs Florida State, Clemson vs South Carolina and Kentucky vs Louisville.
Although some of these leagues do have the scheduling deficiencies noted above, the amount of quality matchups can still remain quite enjoyable, making these issues seem minor. Unfortunately, here in the Midwest and central states, something is missing as we come down the final stretch of the college football season.
Looking into the future
As college athletics move further into the 21st century, and more notably into a technological era of cord cutting, a-la-carte subscriptions and dwindling viewership across the board, returning to our roots may be the one last hope of reversing the negative trends seen across college athletics. Although millionaires in suits will always make the rules, eventually a cease fire and come-to-terms moment will need to occur in college athletics before this missing feeling leads to apathy. Eventually, cooler heads must prevail and games of such significance must be played once again.
No matter how much we want to make the Hy-Vee Heroes Game a true nationally significant rivalry, it simply will never scratch the surface of the Nebraska/Oklahoma “Game of the Century.” No matter how much Texas A&M and LSU want to create a new border rivalry across the Sabine River, nothing will duplicate the in-state, in-house, brotherly matchup we’ve known between Texas and Texas A&M. These rivalries formed naturally over time, and will continue to fester until they can be returned to their original glory.
The Tailgate Society Rivalry Series
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