SMQ: Manufacturing college football rivalries in the 21st century

College football is a sport rife with invented traditions, rivalries chief among them. Let’s look at how a rivalry develops in the 21st century.

Looming on the schedule in Week 10 of a strange college football season is a game that almost never came to fruition. When conferences first started addressing plans for how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mountain West opted to call off fall football and look for ways to play in the spring. In the process it jeopardized one of the sport’s more recently-formed but no less heated rivalries.

As conferences shuttered fall plans or went to conference-only schedules, it left BYU in the lurch. Their schedule melted away before them, with six Power Five opponents calling off their games against the Cougars and other powers like Boise State also unavailable to play.

Since 2003, Boise State and BYU have played just 10 times. Their meeting on November 6 will likely feature the first matchup between the two teams where both were ranked in the AP Top 25 at the same time. Though the two teams have only met consistently since 2012, losing the rivalry game this year would have felt hollow with both teams on the field.

Whether or not these two teams should even be fielding football teams in the midst of a pandemic is another question that goes beyond the purview of the specific topic that the restoration of this game to the schedule brings to mind on a Sunday morning. Instead, let’s talk about the concept of invented traditions and how it helps explain so much of what we consider sacred in college football in this week’s return of Sunday Morning Quarterback.

What is an invented tradition?

The biggest meeting yet between two oft-overlooked Western powers with chips on their respective shoulders speaks to the invented traditions that are at the heart of just about everything in college football.

The concept goes back to Eric Hobsbawm, a historian whose work offers a sound theoretical framework for how we might consider a range of subjects related to college football. It is as relevant to understanding the amateur foundations of the sport as it is to breaking down the mythic nature of the national championship or, indeed, to how we can better relate to rivalries of all ages and intensities. Let’s consider several of these aspects as we look for a moment at the basic principles of an invented tradition through the lens of rivalries.

The process of invention is not always a conscious one.

When BYU first scheduled Boise State in 2003, for instance, the Broncos were a rising power looking to build their reputation against an established name like the Cougars. The two schools played a home-and-home series in 2003 and 2004, then thought nothing about playing one another again for nearly a decade.

After BYU left the Mountain West and Boise State stepped into the void left by defections from that league, the Cougars-Broncos tilt became an annual intersectional contest in the west. It was at once a marriage of convenience that quickly ballooned to a treasured spot on the calendar for both fan bases. As a team with a deeper pedigree, BYU provides historical cachet for Boise State’s meteoric rise over the past few decades.

Neither school explicitly set out to form a rivalry that lingers in the consciousness of their respective fans. Yet it has developed out of the need to establish and perpetuate perceived membership within the broader communities attached to institutions of higher learning, a practice that was consciously pursued through football by universities in the sport’s earliest days.

Also important is that connections to the past are mythical

Even for many rivalries that seem set in stone and immutable, their practice has not always been continuous. Consider intersectional rivalries that have been severed due to the pandemic such as Notre Dame’s annual series against USC, Navy, or Stanford. 2020 will hardly be the first time any of these rivalries is set aside for a season.

Even Notre Dame’s vaunted independence was set aside like a backpack at the end of a long school day, with the Irish recognizing that extraordinary times were best navigated within the security of the ACC.

Returning to BYU and Boise State, this rivalry has been played into something with a lot more history backing it than merely 10 previously played contests. BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said after the announcement that the 2020 game was back on, “The annual game between BYU and Boise State has become a much-anticipated regional rivalry between two universities with great football traditions.”

While it might certainly be anticipated, the evocation of football traditions at the end of that statement speaks to the active process of invention that is continually playing out anew with each passing moment in the sport. BYU’s tradition is built on a mythic national championship in 1984 that came at a flashpoint in college football history, while Boise State’s tradition was founded on another flashpoint in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Neither contains the pedigree that would normally accompany the gravitas of Holmoe’s statement.

Yet among interleague rivalries around the country, the one between independent BYU and a Boise State team that long sought entry into the Mountain West alongside the Cougars stands among the hottest in recent years.

Why do some inventions become tradition?

Boise State and BYU have become strong rivals due to a range of cultural factors. Rivalries in general have historically developed along geographic lines. Utah and Idaho share borders and a lot of common values as western states, making the annual series between historically-relevant schools in the two states a no-brainer. Rather than forcing the rivalry, though, the two schools let it formulate as a marriage of convenience that turned into something bigger.

Conversely, other rivalries attempted in the 21st century hardly carry the same level of invective that is at the root of the greatest battles between two programs. Consider, for instance, the poorly-named and ill-fated Civil ConFLiCT trophy game between UCF and UConn when both were in the American Athletic Conference.

Then-Huskies head coach Bob Diaco effectively manufactured the rivalry against the Knights out of whole cloth. Without even consulting his counterparts in Orlando, Diaco created a trophy and announced to the world his intent to take down UCF.

While one school (or, more accurately, one head coach) had grand ambitions for the series, the other involved had no interest in even considering their annual conference opponent a true rival. Once Diaco was relieved of his coaching duties, the Civil ConFLiCT faded into the random recesses of time to be dredged up only for thought experiments like this Sunday diversion.

A rivalry is born not from off-field proclamations sent out to the world through social media but rather through on-field displays of enmity that grow and fester over time until the othering of one’s opponent becomes a visceral inevitability. It is born through results like BYU’s 2014 takedown of the Broncos that turned the series from a lopsided mismatch into a true rivalry.

So what does this all mean for next Friday in Boise?

Ultimately, for those fans comfortable enough to sit back and watch football take place in the midst of a pandemic, they can kick back to watch the Cougars duke it out with the Broncos on the Smurf Turf and enjoy what they see for what it is without need for a lot of theory. They can turn on the game without giving a second thought to the nature of the rivalry between the two teams, the conditions that spawned it, or the flimsy chronological foundations on which it rests.

But that historical foundation remains right under the surface, accessible to anyone willing to dig a little deeper and peel away the veneer of historical legitimacy that is inevitably adhered to invented traditions like rivalries.

That would necessarily matter to the players on the field, or the folks watching from home. But it at least offers a fascinating framework for fans and scholars of the sport and scholars to push a little further in explaining how the games we love most came into existence as the traditions we cherish today.