When a member of
the USC football staff noticed an unfamiliar face among the dozens of sideline
spectators at a Trojans practice last week, he jogged over to make sure the
stranger wasn't a Notre Dame operative jotting down secrets. Turned out that
the interloper was merely an out-of-town reporter, but it's hard to blame
USC--or any other team preparing to play a traditional rival--for having a mild
case of paranoia. In rivalry season there's no such thing as being too careful.
� Late November isn't strictly about BCS standings and bowl invitations. It's
about the annual renewal of the decades-old grudge matches that give college
football its unique flavor. Many come with colorful, if unofficial, nicknames,
like the Lone Star Showdown ( Texas-- Texas A&M), the Backyard Brawl
( Pittsburgh-- West Virginia) or the Civil War ( Oregon-- Oregon State), or the
name that could apply to all of them--Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate
( Georgia-- Georgia Tech). Others are simpler and to the point, as in Bedlam
( Oklahoma-- Oklahoma State) and The Game (Harvard-Yale).
With apologies to
the Crimson and the Bulldogs, the Notre Dame--USC rivalry produced The Game on
Saturday, at least with respect to the national championship race. The Trojans'
44--24 victory--in which junior wideout Dwayne Jarrett, with his seven catches
for 132 yards and three touchdowns, earned himself a permanent place in the
series' lore--propelled them past Michigan into second place in the BCS
standings. That virtually assures USC a spot in the BCS title game against Ohio
State on Jan. 8 if the Trojans beat yet another rival, UCLA, this week.
The USC victory
wasn't the only rivalry result over the Thanksgiving weekend that helped clear
up the postseason picture. Texas A&M's 12--7 victory over Texas on Friday,
the first time the Aggies had beaten the Longhorns since 1999, kept Texas from
clinching the Big 12 South championship and instead opened the door for
Oklahoma, which won the division by defeating Oklahoma State 27--21. That set
up a conference title game between two storied rivals, Oklahoma and Nebraska,
this weekend at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.
Thanksgiving-weekend rivals only in 1996, LSU and Arkansas don't bear any
particular animosity toward each other, but the Tigers' 31--26 victory on
Friday may engender some. LSU's win dashed the Razorbacks' hopes for a spot in
the national championship game, and afterward Tigers coach Les Miles slighted
Arkansas with a statement that won't soon be forgotten in Razorback Nation.
"We have the distinct impression that we may be the best team in the [ SEC]
West," Miles said. "The West Division champion is the Arkansas team.
I'm not certain who the best is." From such words rivalries are often
In a true rivalry,
bowl implications are unnecessary. A rivalry game is a self-contained
season--winning is its own reward, and losing is a devastating disappointment
regardless of how successful the loser's season may otherwise have been. Notre
Dame quarterback Brady Quinn has had a brilliant 2006 (64.4% completion rate,
35 TDs, only five interceptions) and college career (a school-record 93 TDs,
11,614 yards), but he was 0--4 against USC, a failure that will always sting.
"There are going to be years when both teams have a bowl bid on the line
and years when neither team does," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez says
of the Mountaineers' rivalry with Pittsburgh. "The circumstances are going
to change from year to year. But the satisfaction that comes with winning the
game and the empty feeling that comes with losing it, those never
Every sport has its
rivalries, but none can equal the urgency of a college football matchup because
the combatants meet so rarely. It feels as though the Red Sox and the Yankees
play each other every other weekend. Duke and North Carolina face each other at
least twice a year in college basketball, sometimes more. Even the best NFL
blood feuds--Bears-Packers, Cowboys-Redskins--take place twice a season. But
most college football rivals get only one chance per year to take out their
aggressions on each other. That leaves the rest of the year for the loser to
stew over the defeat, the winner to bask in the victory and the fans to dissect
the last game and speculate about the next one, all of which ratchets up the
intensity. "The only thing worse than the day you lose to Stanford,"
former Cal coach Tom Holmoe said in 2001, "are the 364 days that you replay
it in your head."
Given the age and
intensity of most rivalries, it's not surprising that the animosity
occasionally gets out of hand. In 2004 Clemson and South Carolina participated
in a brawl so ugly that both schools withdrew from bowl games as a form of
self-punishment. Arizona and Arizona State have a particularly bitter history
that includes a 1996 melee that began when Wildcats running back Kelvin Eafon
charged off the bench and rammed Sun Devils guard Glen Gable in retaliation for
what Eafon felt was a cheap shot against one of his teammates. Five players
were ejected. Last Saturday, Arizona coach Mike Stoops nearly charged onto the
field himself when Wildcats quarterback Willie Tuitama was knocked out of the
game after a blow to the head from an Arizona State lineman.
But more often
rivalries rear their heads in a less ugly, if no less intense, fashion. Lore
has it that Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once ran out of gas near the
Michigan-Ohio line on his way home from a recruiting trip. Rather than spend a
nickel in Wolverines territory, he pushed the vehicle past a Michigan gas
station and across the border into Ohio before seeking out a Buckeyes-friendly
usually measure their words more carefully than a White House press secretary,
sometimes turn into trash-talkers when they discuss a rival, delivering zingers
like the one then Washington coach Don James directed toward Washington State
in 1983. "I've always felt being a Cougar prepares you well for life,"
James said. "You learn not to expect too much." Rivalries are not the
place for mercy, either. When coaches have a rival down, they often have a hard
time resisting the temptation to grind it into the dirt. In the 1968 game
against Michigan, Hayes had his team go for a two-point conversion in the
fourth quarter of what would be a 50--14 Buckeyes victory. When asked why he
went for two, Hayes replied, "Because I couldn't go for three."
In his team's
69--21 rout of Kansas in 1969, the 78th edition of the oldest rivalry west of
the Mississippi, Missouri coach Dan Devine chose to keep attacking long after
the outcome was no longer in doubt. "I gave Dan the peace sign,"
Jayhawks coach Pepper Rodgers said, "and he gave half of it back."
Devine denied giving the middle-finger salute. "But I was thinking it,"
he would later say. "I got sarcastic letters for running up 69 points and
equally sarcastic ones saying, 'Why the heck didn't you get that 70th