In July, Sports on Earth published a series ranking the 100 best college football games ever. Naturally, the list of candidates included lots of classic rivalry games, many of which were stacked up in short periods of time. That got me thinking about one way to measure rivalries against each other: their peaks.
"Best college football rivalry" is a common debate topic, one that can't help but be influenced by one's background, especially how old they are and where they're from. It's also something that shifts over time. Army-Navy and Ohio State-Michigan are always great rivalries, but they're not always the best in terms of quality of games and importance in the moment.
So, with Miami-Florida State -- a rivalry that had an unbelievable peak -- coming up on Saturday, now's a good time to delve into this debate. Some criteria:
- The list will include only teams that are current FBS programs. Apologies to Harvard-Yale and the early 1900s Michigan-Chicago rivalry.
- A handful of rivalries have multiple great eras that could be included in this list, but only one "peak" era was selected for each rivalry. No rivalry appears on this list more than once.
- All peak eras ranked feature at least five years, a minimum of a half-decade of annual games. The cutoffs are somewhat arbitrarily selected based on when games became close and/or both teams became good.
- The peaks are judged based on a combination of 1) quality of games, 2) memorable moments/games, 3) national relevance, 4) quality of the teams involved and 5) balance in which both teams have success. No prolonged runs of one-sided dominance are included, and there had to be more than just one high-profile game.
- The above criteria ruled out rivalries like Michigan-Michigan State, Washington-Washington State and many other in-state rivalries in which the teams have struggled to both be good at the same time. Great rivalries with great moments? Yes. Great sustained peaks with national relevance? No. It also ruled out series like Miami-Notre Dame (1988) and Michigan State-Notre Dame (1966) that had enormous individual games but were often lopsided and didn't have sustained rivalry golden ages.
20. BYU vs. Utah, 2005-12
OK, the first one is a slight curveball. The Holy War is a fantastic rivalry, but it's mostly been lopsided and hasn't necessarily had huge national importance. Even now, Utah is on a seven-game winning streak, taking control of the series since joining the Pac-12 to create even further animosity. But we'll highlight the recent golden age that did take place from Bronco Mendenhall's arrival as head coach of BYU in 2005 through a truly wild 2012 meeting. In those eight games, Utah led the series 5-3, with six of eight games decided by a touchdown or less. Incredibly, 17 of the past 20 meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less, something that is deserving of recognition. Let's focus on 2005-12, when the series evened out, relatively speaking, and the teams combined for eight double-digit-win seasons.
Four games stand out as the most memorable. In 2005, BYU erased a 21-point deficit only to lose in overtime. In 2006, BYU won 33-31 after a fourth-down conversion with John Beck's miraculous 11-yard touchdown pass to Jonny Harline on the last play of the game. In a 2009 game between ranked teams, BYU blew a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, then won in overtime. And, finally, in 2012, a bizarre ending featured Utah winning 24-21 with fans storming the field a third time after mistakenly doing it twice.
19. Clemson vs. Florida State, 2011-16
It's become almost a version of Tennessee-Florida in the 1990s: A new rivalry created by the conference splitting into divisions. They actually played an all-time classic -- No. 88 in our countdown -- in 1988, before Florida State joined the ACC, but once the Seminoles arrived in the conference, they owned it for a decade. It's only become a rivalry with Dabo Swinney and Jimbo Fisher as head coaches. They've played a pair of top-10 matchups, each won a national title and combined for six straight ACC championships out of the Atlantic Division, three by each. Five of six games have been decided by 12 points or less, the exception being FSU's 51-14 thrashing in 2013 that led to a national title and Jameis Winston's Heisman. It's been a slightly bigger version of another recent rivalry created by divisions: Stanford-Oregon.
18. Alabama vs. Tennessee, 1930-38
Throughout most of its history, the Third Saturday in October rivalry has been lopsided, with one team or the other holding a decisive edge for years at a time. Right now, Alabama has won 10 in a row. Tennessee won 10 of 12 before that. And so on. The rivalry was at its best and most balanced in its early days, at a time when Robert Neyland coached the Vols and Bear Bryant played for the Crimson Tide. In the nine seasons from 1930-38, the two teams played five games decided by a touchdown or less. Alabama won five, Tennessee won three and they tied one. Alabama finished with one or no losses in seven of those nine years under Wallace Wade and Frank Thomas. Tennessee did so three times. They began play in the SEC in 1933, and in 1935, Bryant famously played in Bama's 25-0 win over the Vols with a broken bone in his leg.
17. Florida vs. Georgia, 2002-08
Steve Spurrier owned Georgia and had fun doing it. When he left Florida after the 2002 season, the window was seemingly open for new Georgia coach Mark Richt to take control of the rivalry against Spurrier's replacement, Ron Zook. It didn't happen. In 2002, a Florida team that finished 8-5 beat Georgia 20-13, the Bulldogs' only loss all season. The next year, No. 23 Florida upset No. 4 Georgia 16-13. Georgia won in Zook's final season, but then Urban Meyer arrived. In 2005, No. 16 Florida dealt No. 4 Georgia its first loss, 14-10. The heartache was so severe that when Georgia returned the favor in 2007, beating No. 9 Florida when ranked No. 20, the entire team ran onto the field to celebrate the Bulldogs' first touchdown. In 2008, Meyer got vengeance: No. 5 Florida beat No. 8 Georgia 49-10 and won the national title. In this span of seven years, the better ranked team lost four times, and the first five games from 2002-06 were all decided by a touchdown or less.
16. Alabama vs. LSU, 2007-14
The series has become a punch line the past few years, with Alabama's crushing victories playing a large role in Les Miles' ouster. But for several years, this stood out as a main event on the college football calendar, typically played in prime time. Nick Saban brought a national championship to LSU in 2003, then left for the NFL. Miles replaced him and led the Tigers to a national title in 2007, the year Saban returned to college football at Alabama.
LSU won that first meeting 41-34. From 2007-14, the teams played nine times, with seven games decided by single digits. Both teams were ranked in the top 17 at the time of all of these games, and the series became known for its low scoring, absurd collections of NFL talent, great defense and high tension and suspense. That feeling peaked in a year that some would view as a nadir: 2011. In November, LSU beat Alabama 9-6, a game that featured five field goals, zero touchdowns, overtime and two of the most talented rosters ever. Thanks to Oklahoma State's loss to Iowa State, they met in the BCS title game in a rematch, an ugly 21-0 Alabama win in which LSU had 92 total yards. It was the first of six straight Bama wins in the series, although both 2012 and '14 featured memorable Bama wins with touchdowns in the last minute and overtime.
15. LSU vs. Ole Miss, 1957-62
Bear Bryant returned to Alabama as head coach in 1958. Within a few years, he had the Crimson Tide competing for national titles again, and they would dominate the SEC for most of two decades. Before then, LSU-Ole Miss moved into the national spotlight. LSU won the SEC in 1958 and shared the title in '61. Ole Miss won in 1960, '62 and '63. The rivalry game, now known as the Magnolia Bowl, became a showcase game once Paul Dietzel rejuvenated LSU. From 1957-62, five games were decided by eight points or less, the teams split the series 3-3-1 and five times they played as top-six teams in the AP poll.
In 1958, LSU beat Ole Miss 14-0 and went on to an undefeated national championship season. The next year, No. 1 LSU beat No. 3 Ole Miss -- which didn't lose another game -- 7-3 on Billy Cannon's famous 89-yard Halloween punt return touchdown. Ole Miss got revenge that year in the Sugar Bowl. In 1960, the teams tied 6-6, but Ole Miss shared the national title with Minnesota.
14. Florida vs. Tennessee, 1995-2001
The Gators and Vols have been in the SEC together since 1932, but this didn't really become a rivalry until the 1990s when Steve Spurrier took over at Florida and the SEC split into East and West divisions. Before 1990, the two teams actually played only 19 games against each other. They've played every year since Spurrier took over his alma mater, and the rivalry had its golden age in Spurrier's battles with Phillip Fulmer. From 1995-2001, each matchup was a battle between top-11 teams. One of these two teams won the East every year, and although Florida had a 5-2 edge in these seven years, five of those games were decided by six points or less.
The final four, which the two teams split, were decided by a total of 11 points. Florida won a national title in 1996 after beating Peyton Manning's Volunteers 35-29. Tennessee won a national title in 1998 after beating the Gators 20-17 in overtime. In 2001, the game was moved to the end of the regular season because of Sept. 11, and No. 5 Tennessee beat No. 2 Florida 34-32 to deny the Gators a BCS title shot in Spurrier's final season.
13. UCLA vs. USC, 1965-69
It's only a five-year rivalry peak, but it featured four matchups of top-seven teams, two Heisman Trophy winners, five Rose Bowl participants, a 3-2 split (three USC wins) and a total margin of victory of just 26 points over five games. UCLA came to life with the arrival of coach Tommy Prothro and QB Gary Beban in 1965. That year, the Bruins beat USC 20-16 en route to a Rose Bowl upset of Michigan State. In 1967, No. 4 USC beat No. 1 UCLA 21-20 in our No. 14 game ever, a clash between Beban and O.J. Simpson that led to the Trojans winning the national title. Beban won the Heisman that year, but Simpson had the memorable 64-yard touchdown and won the Heisman the next season. UCLA slipped in 1968, but No. 5 USC beat No. 6 UCLA in 1969.
12. Michigan vs. Notre Dame, 1986-94
From 1944-77, the Wolverines and Fighting Irish did not play each other. The storied rivalry is surprisingly young. It did, however, have a fabulous run once Lou Holtz turned Notre Dame around in the late '80s. In Holtz's first season in 1986, Notre Dame finished just 5-6, but it opened the season with a 24-23 loss to No. 3 Michigan. The rivalry really gained steam two years later, when No. 13 Notre Dame beat No. 9 Michigan 19-17 to launch itself to a national championship, on Reggie Ho's late field goal.
Over the next six years, each game was an early-season battle between top-11 teams, including a 1 vs. 2 matchup in 1989 in which Rocket Ismail returned two kicks for touchdowns. From 1988-94, all seven games were decided by 10 points or less, with Notre Dame winning that span 4-2-1.
11. Penn State vs. Pitt, 1975-83
The rivalry has often been lopsided. Penn State dominated early. Pitt dominated in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Penn State mostly dominated the rest of the time until the rivalry went dormant in the 2000s, except for one period: the late '70s and early '80s, when both schools won national championships. Penn State won 10 in a row from 1966-75, but the rivalry inched toward new territory in that final PSU win of that streak, a 7-6 victory. Pitt won the next year to launch itself to a national championship. Johnny Majors left for Tennessee, but Jackie Sherrill continued the heated rivalry with Joe Paterno. In this period of eight years, Penn State won 4-3-1. Five of eight games were decided by a touchdown or less, and both teams were ranked in the top 20 in the first seven matchups. The rivalry reached its apex from 1980-82, with Dan Marino and Todd Blackledge dueling at quarterback.
In 1980, No. 4 Pitt beat No. 5 Penn State 14-9. The next year, Pitt was ranked No. 1, hoping to win a national title. It stormed out to a 14-0 lead, only to allow 48 unanswered points and lose by 34. That set the stage for Penn State's 1982 national title run, which featured a 19-10 win over No. 5 Pitt in the final game of the regular season.
10. Oklahoma vs. Texas, 2000-09
It's always been a big rivalry, although it's mostly featured one team or the other going on runs of wins. The Red River Rivalry entered new territory in the 2000s, though, as conference rivals in the same division once the Big 12 was formed. After both went through downswings in the 1990s -- neither team had a top-10 finish in the decade -- they were rejuvenated as national powers in the 2000s under coaches Bob Stoops and Mack Brown. The games themselves weren't necessarily great: Oklahoma won five in a row from 2000-04, all by double digits, including wins by 49 and 52. Texas won easily in 2005 and 2006. Not until the latter part of the decade did the games get close. But in that 10-year period, both teams won a national title, and one or the other played in six of 10 BCS title games. One or the other also won the Big 12 South every season, and at the time of the game, both teams were ranked in the top 11 of the AP poll in six of 10 years.
9. Arkansas vs. Texas, 1959-70
The Southwest Conference in the 1960s belonged to Frank Broyles' Arkansas Razorbacks and Darrell Royal's Texas Longhorns. From 1959-70, they played 12 times, with 10 games decided by 10 points or less, eight decided by seven points or less and four decided by a single point. Texas was ranked No. 1 in six of the matchups, and six of them were top-10 battles, with a brief lull in 1966-67 in which both teams fell. During this time, Texas won three national titles and Arkansas won one.
The most famous game is a top-10 game of all time: No. 1 Texas' 15-14 comeback win at No. 2 Arkansas on Dec. 6, 1969, with Richard Nixon in attendance and a national TV audience watching. Ohio State had been upset by Michigan, making this a 1-vs.-2 Game of the Century. Even with the bowls still to come and Penn State undefeated, too, Nixon unofficially crowned Texas the champion after its victory. Texas confirmed that status by edging Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl.
8. Florida vs. Florida State, 1990-2000
In an 11-year period, Florida and Florida State actually met 13 times, including two Sugar Bowls on top of their traditional end-of-November showdown. In every one of those 13 games, both teams were ranked in the top 10. Florida State won this era 7-4-1, but both had ups and downs.
In 1993, Florida State beat Florida 33-21 on its way to its first national title. In 1994, Florida blew a 31-3 fourth-quarter lead on the road in a game that ended in a 31-31 tie and came to be known as the Choke at Doak. The rivalry reached its zenith in 1996-97. In '96, No. 2 Florida State beat Heisman winner Danny Wuerffel and No. 1 Florida 24-21 in the last game of the regular season. The two had a rematch in the Sugar Bowl, and No. 3 Florida pounded No. 1 Florida State 52-20. That, combined with Arizona State's Rose Bowl loss to Ohio State, gave Florida its first national title. The next year, the two played arguably the best game of the rivalry -- ranked No. 37 on our best 100 games ever list -- as No. 10 Florida ended FSU's undefeated season with a 32-29 win in the Swamp.
7. Florida State vs. Miami, 1987-93
Neither team became a national power until the 1980s, but when they did, it soon became a marquee game on an annual basis. Heartbreak often went against FSU, and Miami won five of these seven games. Miami won national titles in 1987, '89 and '91. Florida State won in '93. Both teams were ranked in the top nine of the AP poll in all seven of these meetings, and the last three were top-three matchups. The teams combined for just 18 losses in seven years, seven of which happened in these games.
In 1987, Miami beat FSU 26-25 in our 21st best game ever, a game in which the Canes erased a 19-3 deficit, then won by stopping a two-point attempt. In 1988, Miami beat No. 1 FSU 31-0 to open the season. In 1991, No. 2 Miami beat No. 1 FSU 17-16 in Wide Right I, referring to the Seminoles' missed 34-yard field goal for the win later in the game. The next year, No. 2 Miami beat No. 3 FSU 19-16 in Wide Right II, when the Noles missed a 39-yarder for the tie.
6. Army vs. Notre Dame, 1923-30
The first Army-Notre Dame game was a landmark moment in college football, as Knute Rockne, then a Notre Dame player, joined with Gus Dorais to go on the attack with a pass-heavy game plan in a 35-13 win, one that helped revolutionize college football A decade later, with Rockne as head coach, Notre Dame-Army became a classic rivalry, one that moved from West Point to New York City (and Chicago in 1930). In those eight years before Rockne's death, Notre Dame won six times. Notre Dame's 13-7 win at the Polo Grounds led to Grantland Rice's famed "Four Horseman" story. In 1928, Notre Dame won 12-6 at Yankee Stadium in the best game of the series -- No. 50 in our best games -- an upset win featuring the "Win one for the Gipper" speech that ended with Army just short of the goal line, losing its undefeated season.
5. Notre Dame vs. USC, 1926-31
The 1970s era of the rivalry could make the list, too, but the peak was the beginning, when it became college football's first great intersectional rivalry, started by Knute Rockne and Howard Jones. Notre Dame drew a national fan base under Rockne, and it did so in part by playing a national schedule. On Dec. 4, 1926, it played in Los Angeles for the first time, winning 13-12 to finish 9-1. Notre Dame won three of the first four games, all by one point. In 1931, the first season after Rockne's death, USC won 16-14, scoring all of its points in a fourth-quarter comeback (No. 76 in our countdown of the best games), in South Bend on its way to claiming a national title. Four of six games in this period were decided by one or two points, and both teams were national powers.
4. Alabama vs. Auburn, 2009-14
Alabama mostly dominated the Iron Bowl under Bear Bryant -- "Punt Bama Punt" in 1972 excepted -- and an argument can be made for the inclusion of the post-Bryant 1980s era of the rivalry, in the final years in which it was played exclusively at Legion Field in Birmingham. The mid-'80s featured a particularly memorable run of games. However, they couldn't match the stakes of what we saw from about 2009-14, a run that included four straight national championships (three Bama, one Auburn) and another close call for Auburn, plus two Heisman winners (one each) and six SEC championships (four Bama, two Auburn).
In 2009, No. 2 Alabama edged Auburn 26-21 en route to Nick Saban's first national title in Tuscaloosa. The next year, Alabama jumped out to a 24-0 lead, only for Heisman winner Cam Newton to lead the Tigers back to win 28-27 and preserve their undefeated season -- a result that led to the infamous Harvey Updyke tree poisoning incident. Bama dominated deteriorating Auburn teams in 2011 and '12 on its way to two more national titles, but Auburn bounced back under Gus Malzahn in 2013 with the Kick Six, one of the greatest moments in college football history, to deny Bama another title shot and instead go on to meet Florida State itself. In 2014, Alabama won a wild game featuring 99 total points.
3. Army vs. Navy, 1941-46
Amid World War II, the Army-Navy Game provided an annual distraction that drew the attention of the nation each December. Red Blaik arrived at Army in 1941, hoping to correct rivalry trends after Navy had shut out the Black Knights in back-to-back years. He lost his first three games: 14-6 to No. 11 Navy, 14-0 to unranked Navy and 13-0 to No. 6 Navy.
The rivalry tide turned in 1944 with the help of Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, the greatest backfield duo in college football history. Both the '44 and '45 games featured No. 1 Army beating No. 2 Navy: 23-7, then 32-13. Finally, they played their best game in 1946, despite the fact that Navy went 1-8 that season. Army had one of the greatest teams in college football history and had played Notre Dame to a 0-0 draw. It was expected to beat Navy in a romp and claim the national title. Instead, the Midshipmen came up just short, losing 21-18 in the 26th best game ever in our summer countdown. Notre Dame jumped over Army and was voted national champion.
The Army-Navy games of the WWII era weren't all close, but the rivalry took on new meaning with some of its most legendary teams and moments.
2.. Nebraska vs. Oklahoma, 1970-88
This is by far the longest peak era we're including here. Between the coaching continuity, the sustained national relevance and the close games, it had to be done. The first three years of this era were coached by Bob Devaney and Chuck Fairbanks, who gave way to their offensive coordinators, Tom Osborne and Barry Switzer, for the rest of this peak before the end of Switzer's run in 1988. The rivalry has been almost lost to history over the past couple decades, but in the 1970s and '80s especially, it reached Michigan-Ohio State territory.
From 1970-88, they played 20 times as the powers of the Big 8 (they had a 1978 rematch in the Orange Bowl). The series tilted toward Oklahoma, as the Sooners went 13-7 and had a few blowout wins. But 14 of the 20 games were decided by 10 points or less, including five by three points. Seventeen featured both teams ranked in the AP top 11. Six were top-five matchups, including 1 vs. 2 contests in 1971 and '87. During this time, the two programs combined to win five national championships and had three Heisman Trophy winners.
The best Nebraska-Oklahoma game ever happened early in the era in 1971, when the Cornhuskers beat the Sooners on Thanksgiving in one of the greatest games ever, a 1 vs. 2 showdown that effectively decided the national championship.
1. Michigan vs. Ohio State, 1969-78
It's the rivalry period that had it all … beyond national champions. Neither Ohio State nor Michigan won a title during the Ten Year War, but it often had national title race implications and otherwise checked all the boxes. Bo Schembechler played for Woody Hayes at Miami (Ohio) and coached for him at Ohio State. In 1969, Bo became head coach at Michigan, and he started his tenure by stunning No. 1 Ohio State 24-12 at the end of the season to deny the Buckeyes a second straight national title. From then until Woody's firing at the end of the 1978 season, Michigan won the series 5-4-1. Only one of these 10 games was decided by more than 12 points. Six were decided by eight points or less. At least one team was ranked in the AP top 10 in all but the 1978 game, and five of 10 were top-five matchups. Either Michigan or Ohio State played in the Rose Bowl every one of these years, with the 1973 game ending in a 10-10 tie that cost both a national title chance and ended with a Big Ten athletic directors' vote sending Ohio State to Pasadena.
Michigan-Ohio State has an argument for greatest rivalry in college football history. It is always important, and it always feels big, a centerpiece of the last week of the regular season. It was never better than the 10 years from 1969-78 in which Woody and Bo battled, when the two programs were on even ground as national powers and every game had high stakes that went beyond rivalry bragging rights.