There’s nothing quite like a college football rivalry game. The intensity, the pageantry, the divided households with black sheep uncles screaming at children over the exploits of a 20-year-old quarterback—seriously, what’s better than that?
Everyone has an opinion as to which games are the best. Some may say that it’s Auburn-Georgia, while others prefer Cal-Stanford. Some prefer the Holy War, while others opt for the Civil War.
Well, guess what. They’re all wrong.
These rivalry series, ranked 10-through-1, are the best the sport has the offer.
10. Palmetto Bowl
So, here’s the thing about Clemson-South Carolina: This grudge match wasn't born of innocence and pep bands.
This rivalry is over a century old and the roots of it can be traced to both cultural and political differences, with an emphasis on farming and agriculture.
On the field, the game has been played every year since 1909, with Clemson holding a 69-42-4 advantage, including a current four-game win streak that doesn’t figure to get any easier for South Carolina to snap at any point in the near future.
The San Francisco 49ers aren’t the only team with a version of “The Catch.”
In 1977, with just 49 seconds remaining, Clemson wide receiver Jerry Butler made a diving, backwards, 20-yard touchdown reception on a pass from Steve Fuller to give the Tigers the 31–27 victory in Columbia.
9. Egg Bowl
An (active) Thanksgiving college football tradition unlike any other—thanks a lot Texas—the annual matchup between Mississippi State and Ole Miss has everything you want in a rivalry game.
Since 1990, the Golden Egg has changed hands what seems like every year, with the Rebels holding a narrow 15-13 advantage in the teams’ previous 28 meetings—including victories in three of the past four.
The series was at its peak in 2014 when Bo Wallace led 19th-ranked Ole Miss past Dak Prescott and No. 4 Mississippi State—and earned a Peach Bowl berth in the process.
In 1983, Ole Miss’ most valuable player was the wind.
Down by a point with 24 seconds left in the game, Mississippi State kicked what would have been a 27-yard game-winning field goal, but a 40 MPH gust of wind had other plans.
8. Backyard Brawl
Looking for some good ol’ fashioned hatred? Look no further than Pittsburgh-West Virginia.
This rivalry goes way on back to 1895 and it seems as though these opposing fan bases loathe each other a little more each year. In 2011, when Pitt left the Big East for the ACC, the series was paused—which was a major bummer for all of college football, quite frankly.
But, here’s the good news: The schools have agreed to resume the Backyard Brawl in 2022, and that gets them back on this list. Get your sofas ready, Morgantown.
In 1994, after Pitt erased a 31-6 deficit, it looked, for all the world, like West Virginia was going to fall victim to an unthinkable collapse.
Not so fast.
With just 15 seconds left, Chad Johnston threw in a plot twist of his own, finding Zach Abraham streaking down the sideline for a 60-yard game-winning touchdown pass.
7. The Sunshine Showdown
Florida-Florida State would likely be higher on the list were it not for the simple fact that things really didn’t get cooking between these two programs until Bobby Bowden arrived at Florida State in 1976.
But, once the oven was fired up, whoa boy did it get hot.
An argument could be made that no rivalry series was better than this one while Bowden and Steve Spurrier roamed opposing sidelines. That era was followed by a pair of runs—six straight wins for the Gators, followed by seven of eight for the Seminoles.
After Florida cut Florida State's lead to 27-21—with the fans inside of The Swamp bearing down on the 'Noles—eventual 1993 Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward found Warrick Dunn with a soft toss down the left sideline.
Seventy-nine yards later, Florida State had a 33-21 lead it would never relinquish on its way to a national championship.
6. Notre Dame-USC
Notre Dame is seemingly everyone’s “rival” and Southern Cal has its whole cross-town rivalry with UCLA going on. But, for a rivalry game to make this list, both parties should have an equivalent profile and level of success—which brings us to Notre Dame-USC.
One of the most storied rivalries in college football history features a pair of programs who are, without question, national brands, and who’ve combined for 22 national titles and 14 Heisman Trophy winners.
Supposedly the whole thing started thanks to the wives of Notre Dame head coach Knute Rockne and USC athletic director Gwynn Wilson. So, it’s just like the old saying goes: “Behind every great college football rivalry, there’s a great woman.”
Top-ranked USC was on the ropes against No. 9 Notre Dame, but on the last play of the game, with the ball on the 1-yard line, Matt Leinart received a helping hand from running back Reggie Bush, who pushed him into the end zone after he was initially stopped on a quarterback sneak.
The Trojans would go on to run the table, setting up one of the greatest national championship games of all-time against Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns months later.
The rivalry formerly known as The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party has lost some of its luster of late, as both teams have entered the game ranked just once in the past nine years.
The venom is still there, though. This is a series that has featured everything from gag orders to massive upsets, with a list of heroes that includes Steve Spurrier, Herschel Walker and Tim Tebow.
Unlike most rivalry games, this one isn’t played for a trophy. Instead, the winner gets a big ass oar.
In 1980, No. 2 Georgia faced an impediment in the form of Florida ahead of what would eventually be its road to a national title. Trailing 21-20 late in the game, with third and long from his own seven-yard line, Bulldogs quarterback Buck Belue found Lindsay Scott—and Scott did the rest.
Legendary Georgia broadcaster Larry Munson described it this way:
“Florida in a stand-up five, they may or may not blitz. Buck back, third down on the eight. In trouble, he got a block behind him. Gotta throw on the run. Complete to the 25. To the 30, Lindsay Scott 35, 40, Lindsay Scott 45, 50, 45, 40 . . . Run Lindsay, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5, Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott! Lindsay Scott!”
4. The Iron Bowl
When it comes to college football, Alabama is another planet.
Elite programs? Check.
Insane fans? Checkity check.
In just the last decade, we’ve seen Cam Newton bring No. 2 Auburn back from a 24-0 deficit on its way to a national title in 2010, the Kick Six in 2013, a combined 99 points in 2014, and a 26-14 Auburn victory last season—its largest margin of victory since 1969—that appeared to knock Alabama out of the national title hunt … until it didn’t.
Speaking of the Kick Six … There’s plenty to choose from in this series, but how could anyone choose anything other than this?
3. The Army-Navy Game
This is a game unlike any other.
The final Saturday of the college football season is reserved for The Army-Navy Game, and rightfully so. For a few hours on a Saturday in December, an entire country of college football fans stops what its doing and leans into an afternoon of pageantry, tradition and a show of love and appreciation.
From 2002-’15, Navy won a record 14 consecutive against Army. But, for the past two years, the Commander and Chief’s Trophy has gone back to West Point, N.Y., with the Black Knights.
The 1963 Army-Navy Game was played two weeks after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy—reportedly, at the behest of Jacqueline Kennedy—and on the same day that Navy quarterback Roger Staubach was awarded the Heisman Trophy.
That, alone, causes this one to stand out. But, the way it ended, with Army sitting at the line of scrimmage as time expired, trailing 21-15, is incredible. The signature play of this series is, quite literally, the play that never was.
2. Michigan-Ohio State
Played annually since 1918, the Michigan-Ohio State game is nothing short of monumental. But, that can be said about a handful of rivalries. What cannot be said is the name “Michigan”—as in, Ohio State players, coaches and faculty won’t say the word.
On Ohio State’s 2014 national championship trophy, “Michigan” is replaced by “TUN,” an acronym for Team Up North.
Plenty of great options to choose from in this one, but there’s only one choice to be made. The punctuation of Desmond Howard’s Heisman campaign in 1991 is as legendary as it gets.
1. Red River Showdown
I’m sure everyone will be totally civil and reasonable about this. I’m sure no one will freak out about their rivalry not being perched atop this list. But, just in case, here’s the deal:
Does your rivalry game pile two bitter fanbases representing two of the proudest, most tradition rich programs in college football, into one 92,100-seat stadium, inside of a flippin’ state fair, split it down the middle, and then have at it? With a golden cowboy hat, of all things, awaiting the winner?
Well, then, stick a Fletcher’s corny dog in it.
Neither of these teams did anything in 2001—unless you count a Cotton Bowl victory for an Oklahoma squad that fully expected to play for its second straight national title.
Still, Roy Williams’ “Superman” play against Texas is among the most famous moments in program history and a standalone moment in this series.