High stakes. Auburn had to win to get its shot at the national title.
Star players. Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Julio Jones.
Epic hate. Nothing beats Auburn-Alabama when it comes to anger and spite. This is the game that led to Harvey Updyke poisoning the oaks at Toomer’s Corner.
Subplots. 1. Alabama fans were (and still are) convinced that Newton got paid to play for Auburn. (An Alabama staffer got fired for playing “Take the Money and Run” when Newton came out to warm up.) 2. Bama had beaten Auburn in a hundred different ways, but never to knock the Tigers of the national title race.
Game that lives up to the hype. Alabama was up 24-0 at home midway through the second quarter before Auburn clawed its way back.
Every time I boil that down into one sentence – Auburn beat Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, down 24-0 in the second quarter, and went on to win the national championship – it doesn’t seem real.
I can’t think of any other rivalry game that was so satisfying and important to the winner, and such a gut punch to the loser. (Although I will accept votes for the last four games of Red Sox-Yankees 2004 as a boxed set.)
By my count, this weekend there are seven rivalry games involving teams at or near the top of the college football rankings. Let’s take a look at each one in order of how much impact it’s likely to have on this crazy season – and how hot each rivalry burns.
1. Notre Dame at USC
HEAT LEVEL: Fresh jalapeno
The first college football game I remember watching was the USC-Notre Dame game in 1972, when Trojan tailback Anthony Davis scored six touchdowns and spawned the great Los Angeles Times headline DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! DAVIS! At the beginning of the year, many fans thought this year’s game would have USC trying to preserve its perfect season. Instead, Notre Dame is 11-0 and USC is a baffling 7-4. Not only that, USC quarterback Matt Barkley is out with a shoulder injury. Still, USC has the talent to salvage its season – and utterly crush Notre Dame fans, who haven’t seen the Irish top the polls in almost 20 years. In other words, it’s a perfect rivalry game.
2. Florida at Florida State
HEAT LEVEL: Vinyl car seat, Daytona Beach, July
Both teams have a shot at slipping into the national title game with a win. These two actually played for the national title after the ’96 season (Florida won 52-20), and in ’97 Florida beat No. 1 FSU in Gainesville to knock the ‘Noles out of the championship game. Florida has Georgia to deal with, and for a long time Florida State-Miami was a bigger game, but these two teams still hate each other. They fought on the field after FSU won the ’93 game and decided to stomp on the “F” at the 50-yard line in Gainesville. And when FSU players got busted for taking sneakers from a Foot Locker on an agent’s dime, then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier called FSU “Free Shoes University.” (Every rivalry is better when Steve Spurrier is involved.)
3. Oregon at Oregon State
HEAT LEVEL: Steaming pot of artisanal coffee
You thought Oregonians were mellow? In 1937, 2,000 Oregon State students drove to Eugene the day after beating Oregon to taunt the Ducks; they got pelted with tomatoes and water balloons. In 1960, an Oregon student briefly kidnapped the Oregon State homecoming queen. In 1972, Oregon students tore down one of the goalposts in Corvallis after ending an eight-game Oregon State winning streak; when Oregon State students defended the other goalpost, a huge brawl broke out on the field. No wonder they call it the Civil War. And not only that, the winner gets the Platypus Trophy. How have I not been to this game yet? This year, both teams are really good, and Oregon still has a back-door shot at the national title. I’d lay odds on this as the best game of the weekend.
4. Georgia Tech at Georgia
HEAT LEVEL: Double shot of Jim Beam, one swallow
Georgia has won 10 of the last 11, and to be honest, Tech is Georgia’s third-biggest rival now (behind Florida and Auburn). But it has that extra edge of culture clash that marks all the best rivalries. Georgia people think Tech people are a “Big Bang Theory” episode, minus the hot blonde. Tech people think Georgia people are the “Honey Boo Boo” family, but less sophisticated. What does a Georgia grad say to a Tech grad? Hello, boss. And that joke will be all the sweeter if the Jackets knock Georgia out of the national-title race.
5. Auburn at Alabama
HEAT LEVEL: Global Thermonuclear War
IMPORTANCE: Big (though unlikely)
This year’s Iron Bowl gets downgraded because Auburn (3-8) has only the thinnest of chances to beat Alabama, which is still looking for cats to kick after losing to Texas A&M two weeks ago. Plus, Alabama is one of three teams (along with Notre Dame and Georgia) that can win its way to the national title without help. So Alabama fans won’t mind rubbing Auburn’s face in the sand a little longer than usual. They’ve gone classy early, with the KEEP GENE CHIZIK T-shirt. Auburn fans will just have to take their whipping this year. But they won’t forget. And they won’t let Bama forget 2010.
6. South Carolina at Clemson
HEAT LEVEL: Pot of boiling grits
IMPORTANCE: Moderate to heavy
You might think you have a rivalry, but you’ve never had a rivalry game like Clemson-South Carolina in 1946. Two mobsters printed up thousands of counterfeit tickets, and when everybody showed up, they broke down the gates and overflowed the stadium. Then, at halftime, a Clemson student wrung a live chicken’s neck at midfield. I probably don’t need to tell you there was a riot shortly thereafter. This year, both teams have had fine seasons and can slide into the top 10 of the BCS with a win. Steve Spurrier (who, remember, makes every rivalry better) talked trash about Clemson during a rally for injured Gamecocks RB Marcus Lattimore. Inappropriate, poorly-timed remarks: a staple of great rivalries everywhere.
7. Michigan at Ohio State
HEAT LEVEL: Space Shuttle takeoff
IMPORTANCE: None (BCS-wise), massive (symbolically)
This game is off the books as far as the BCS goes because Ohio State is on probation. But the Buckeyes are 11-0, and to cap a perfect season by beating the team they despise … it doesn’t get much better. Then again, Michigan – which has never quite recovered from getting mashed by Alabama in Week 1 – would call this year a win if it could consider it a successful year to take out Ohio State right at the door to glory. Urban Meyer’s at Ohio State now. Brady Hoke’s at Michigan and calls the Buckeyes “Ohio,” leaving the “State” off in a way that infuriates fans of THE Ohio State University. If they stick around as long as Woody and Bo, we might have something here.
Questions? Comments? Challenges? Taunts? You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @tommytomlinson. I started to put Oklahoma-Oklahoma State in this story, but 1) it’s too lopsided in Oklahoma’s favor and 2) You lose points when your rivalry has a corporate sponsor.