Column: Rating college football’s current biggest rivalries

Arkansas players and fans celebrate with "The Boot" trophy after the Razorbacks' 17-0 victory over LSU on Saturday.
(David Quinn / Associated Press)

The key to a college football rivalry is not pageantry, or the vitriol, or the goofy bucket, bell, ax or milk can at stake.

The important part is that both teams have to know they’re in it.

Can Baylor think it is in a rivalry with Oklahoma even if the citizens of Norman are completely unaware?

Baylor has won two in a row in the series but still trails, 3-21, overall. That’s not a rivalry, that’s a calendar date — March 21.


The general public too must understand the larger significance.

I was stunned Saturday night, after watching Arkansas defeat Louisiana State in Fayetteville, to see Razorbacks players rushing across the field like wild boars toward a mud hole.

Had the winning team won free bacon at the local Piggly Wiggly?

No, players had rushed a trophy called “The Boot,” annually awarded to the winner of Arkansas and LSU. It’s a tradition that dates way back to the Clinton administration — 1996.

“If I could pick one game to win all season and lose all the others, it would be this one,” Arkansas lineman Brey Cook said.

Cook’s wish might be fulfilled. The victory improved Arkansas’ Southeastern Conference record to 1-5 with two games remaining.

Rivalries are breathing organisms, and it is a shame that conference realignment has pirated hate relationships between Missouri-Kansas, Texas-Texas A&M and Nebraska-Oklahoma.

Lost in the flood was the “Holy War” between Brigham Young and Utah. That rivalry produced, after Utah’s 2004 victory in Salt Lake City, the sharpest-tongued condemnation poster in history: “Where’s Your God Now?”

Don’t be fooled, either, by contrived realignment-forced marriages such as the Big Ten’s Nebraska vs. Wisconsin, which play for the fake-and-fangled “Freedom Trophy.”

The purpose of this column, as we celebrate the holiday rivalry season, is to measure the heat index of the best rivalries as they exist now. Army-Navy, Harvard-Yale, California-Stanford and USC-Notre Dame will always hold their timeless places, but here are the 10 hottest rivalries of the moment:

1. Auburn vs. Alabama (Nov. 29, Tuscaloosa, Ala.)

There isn’t even a close second. The Iron Bowl is a full-spectrum, complete-package rivalry that covers the gamut of despicable behavior, humongous SEC stakes, incredible drama and top-level competition.

Only Auburn vs. Alabama could create a Harvey Updyke, the Alabama “fan” who stooped so low as to poison the trees at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner before the Iron Bowl game of 2010.

Updyke served a six-month prison sentence for his crime and confessed to radio host Paul Finebaum in 2011: “All my adult life my wives kinda said I’m a [troublemaker]. I like to stir [trouble]. I was just trying to upset the Auburn nation.”

It worked.

On the field, the rivalry gave us instant classic games in 2010 and last year, when Auburn wrecked Alabama’s bid for a third consecutive national title by returning a missed field goal 109 yards for the winning score as time expired.

2. Mississippi-Mississippi State (Nov. 29, Oxford, Miss.)

The Egg Bowl was the game you used to watch with the sound down while eating Thanksgiving dinner leftovers. Not this year. Though the game’s magnitude has diminished from the frenzied possibility of these teams meeting as Nos.1 and 2, there is still a chance the winner could claim a playoff spot. And that’s no yolk.

3. USC-UCLA (Saturday, Pasadena)

The sign outside the Rose Bowl this week should say “Welcome Back.” This relationship of intimate proximity and unsurpassed uniform contrasts has suffered from a serious case of one-sidedness. UCLA dominated the 1990s and USC dominated the Pete Carroll years. The coupling of Jim Mora’s hiring at UCLA with USC’s release from NCAA prison might be the last piece in Los Angeles’ urban renewal project.

4. Alabama-LSU (Nov. 8, Baton Rouge, La.)

It has been tremendous theater of late, given there is really no hood-ornament trophy attached. Maybe the teams should play for the “Bubba Shrimp Basket.” The game has represented raw, physical power in the SEC West, with Alabama needing overtime this year to outslug LSU, 20-13.

In 2011, Alabama vs. LSU was so overpowering it was determined the schools should meet a second time for the national title.

5. Arizona-Arizona State (Nov. 28, Tucson)

The Territorial Cup, maybe for this year only, has been elevated from a regional, tumbleweed, train-stop connection to a game that could decide the Pac-12 Conference South Division.

For Arizona Coach Rich Rodriguez, it could also be an audition for the Florida job.

6. Georgia Tech-Georgia (Nov. 29, Athens, Ga.)

This rivalry wasn’t even on the invitation list three weeks ago, after Georgia suffered an ignoble defeat to Florida. But look at it now. Georgia has climbed back to No. 10 and No. 18 Georgia Tech (9-2) could flirt with a playoff spot if it can close the season with victories against Georgia and Florida State.

7. Clemson-South Carolina (Nov. 29, Clemson, S.C.)

This is the third rivalry Steve Spurrier has personally elevated to unprecedented heights. The other two were Florida-Florida State and Florida-Georgia. Spurrier set Florida State on fire with his “Free Shoes University” remarks and annually made a joke board out of Georgia — while his teams dominated the series.

He has now turned his screws on Clemson, with South Carolina winning five in a row in the series while Spurrier tries to keep a straight face.

After Georgia Tech defeated Clemson last weekend, Spurrier derogatorily commented, “I guess the Upstate team got beat today.”

8. Ohio State-Michigan (Nov. 29, Columbus, Ohio)

It was once a companion piece to Duke-North Carolina basketball in the pantheon of transcendent sports rivalries. The series took a precipitous dive, though, after the magnificent 2006 game when the schools met as Nos. 1 and 2 in Columbus. Ohio State sank into a dark period of Romanesque hubris led by a lying emperor, Jim Tressel; Michigan still has not recovered from a 2007 loss to Appalachian State.

The rivalry hangs on this list by the thread of a chance Michigan can still T-bone Ohio State’s chance to win the Big Ten Conference.

9. Oregon-Oregon State (Nov. 29, Corvallis)

This year’s Civil War got interesting again after Oregon State shocked then-No. 6 Arizona State last Saturday. Yes, these schools played the ugliest game in the history of rivalries — the scoreless tie of 1983 — but Oregon State can win Spoiler Team of the Year if it can take down Oregon and prevent Marcus Mariota from becoming the second Pacific Northwest player to win the Heisman Trophy.

The only other winner was a Beaver: Terry Baker, in 1962.

10. Texas Christian-Texas (Nov. 27, Austin)

This matchup isn’t really known as a rivalry despite 80 meetings since 1904.

That might be because Texas won 24 straight in one stretch that included the 81-16 beat-down of 1974.

TCU has a window-crack chance to supplant Texas A&M as the Longhorns’ main in-state rival. It starts with the Horned Frogs replacing the Aggies as Texas’ opponent in the annual Thanksgiving game.

Imagine what might ignite if Texas, in a rare underdog role, could eliminate TCU from playoff contention.