Rivalry Week: Iron Bowl, Other Rivalries Define The Sport


Rivalry football games have long fascinated me. Some of my earliest memories are of watching the Duel in the Desert, the annual clash between Arizona and Arizona State. Notre Dame-Michigan also occupy prominent positions in my early football memory. Something about how much more intense, how much more competitive rivalry games were drew me to them. In third grade, I checked out a book on the best college football rivalries from my local library and while light on information — it was in the children’s section, after all — I can still way-too-vividly remember it. I still get a chuckle from the inclusion of Wisconsin-Minnesota.

A rivalry game win isn’t weighted any more in the final standings than any other, but it sure feels that way. On AZDesertSwarm.com I wrote that a rivalry game victory can salvage an otherwise non-salvageable season and indeed, this past weekend Arizona bested Arizona State, 31-27. The Wildcats can finish no better than 4-8, their worst season since 2005. ASU is bowl eligible, and with a very real shot at the Pac-12 Championship game, likely to play two more games than UA. Yet because of securing the Territorial Cup, UA fans cap the season with excitement and hope — ASU is speculating about the future of its head coach.

Rivalry is weighted more heavily in every facet but on the final standings. Hall of Fame inductee Lloyd Carr won over 75 percent of his games as Michigan’s head coach, but Ohio State fans can lord their team’s 7-6 record against Carr-coached Wolverines as a badge of honor. Rich Rodriguez failed to defeat the Buckeyes in any of his meetings with them. Don’t believe that had anything to do with his quick ouster from Ann Arbor? Then you’re greatly underestimating the hatred UM has for OSU, and vice versa.

Michigan is among those programs with more than one rival. Notre Dame has long been a foil to the Wolverines, and recently Michigan State has become an increasing nuisance for UM fans. But there’s no doubt true Wolverine vitriol is reserved for Ohio State. A win over the Buckeyes this weekend would do more than give Michigan its first double digit-win season than 2006, and potentially a BCS at-large berth: it would propel Brady Hoke into the upper echelon of Wolverine coaches as the man to end UM’s recent Buckeye struggles.

Meanwhile, though Michigan is its September rival, UND fosters the most resentment for USC…and USC’s bitterness toward UCLA goes back a century. The Trojans and Bruins’ Crosstown Showdown got so heated between the fan bases that in the 1940s, each university’s Board of Trustees threatened to end the game. See, members of each student body were trespassing to steal and vandalize the Victory Bell, which is now the trophy the schools agreed to make a traveling memento of the rivalry.

Yet while theft has been removed from the equation, don’t think the Crosstown Showdown is all good will. Just two years, Pete Carroll and Rick Neuheisel engaged in a bout of oneupsmanship of the aggressive variety, wich led to a fracas on the field.

When it comes to animosity though, the Iron Bowl sets the bar in recent years. That the rivalry has had BCS championship implications for what will be the sixth time in the last seven years come Saturday only adds to the hostility these fan bases harbor for one another. ESPN Films even dedicated an hour to the rivalry this month with War Eagle/Roll Tide. The Worldwide Leader acknowledging a rivalry that isn’t Red Sox-Yankees is in itself remarkable.

Without delving into any specifics of that one particular AL East rivalry, since heaven knows we’ve all heard enough, I can say that in the same fashion its impact on baseball is praised as “good for the game,” so are the rivalries of college football. And with just one meeting per season, the stakes are raised.

The various honors awarded in rivalry games add a tangible piece to the game, which only intensifies the competitiveness. The Territorial Cup. The Victory Bell. The Iron Bowl Trophy. Paul Bunyan’s Ax. But more so than the trophies, rivalries come down to pride.

As mentioned above, a rivalry game feels so much more significant than others because it means bragging rights for a whole year. No rematches, no shot at retribution for the loser for 364 days. There is legitimate resentment between each side, fostered over decades. A trophy doesn’t make a rivalry — just ask Nebraska and Iowa. Years of hostility do.

A rivalry win is the ultimate in schadenfreude.