The calendar is about to turn to November, which means we are nearing the home stretch of the 2021 college football regular season. Why that is never a welcomed sight for fans of all 130 programs, the good news is that there are still plenty of games, particularly rivalry games, to look forward to.
Rivalries are a huge part of college football and matter for bragging rights among the teams and on the recruiting trail. Rivalries are often built on geography, tradition and history. However, rivalries can morph based upon the coaches involved, current success of teams or realignment in leagues.
Athlon Sports ranks the best 25 rivalries in college football. Some of these have already played this year and fortunately, quite a few returned in 2021 after being canceled last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
College Football's Top 25 Rivalries
1. Army-Navy (Navy, 61-53-7)
Go ahead and try to attend this game without experiencing a surge of patriotism. If the Super Hornets’ flyover doesn’t get you, the Army paratroopers will. If you miss the parades of Cadets and Midshipmen, then the non-stop spirit videos on the big board will stir your senses. By game's end, no matter what the score, America wins. That may seem hokey to some, but they haven’t been there. Trust us, Army-Navy is college football in its purest state. Today, that’s something worth celebrating. Fans of the teams thirst for victory, and so do the players, who are truly playing for their fellow students. Afterward, they rejoin their classmates in preparation for military service, not an NFL career. For 364 days of the year, Army and Navy are on the same team. For three hours on a chilled December afternoon, they represent every soldier or sailor who has ever donned a uniform, walked a post or sailed into the dark of night. The football has been pretty good over the years, too. Five Heisman winners have participated in the rivalry, and dozens of Hall of Famers have taken the field representing the academies. After dominating the series for more than a decade, Army has won the past three meetings. Regardless of the records, this game remains a huge draw and still thrills fans across the country. Most importantly, it pits future military and government leaders against each other as they fight for their Academies and provide the country with an afternoon of prideful competition.
2. Alabama-Auburn (Alabama, 47-37-1)
When Bill Curry was coaching at Alabama, he went to a Birmingham elementary school one day to speak with children about football and life. Upon entering the classroom, he saw a boy standing in the corner, sobbing. Curry wondered what was going on, and a student told him, "Jason is an Auburn fan, and we took care of him." Curry brought Jason out of the corner and told him it was all right to root for the Tigers, no doubt angering the young Crimson Tide supporters in the room. Truth be told, it isn't all right to be an Auburn fan — if you follow the Tide. Tiger fans feel the same way about Bama. If you live in the state of Alabama, you have to choose; you either yell "Roll Tide" or "War Eagle." You're either a fan of the big-brother Crimson Tide, or Auburn, which has its roots in agricultural education and resents the perceived arrogance of its rival. In a state with no major professional sports team, Auburn-Alabama football is a religion. Curry's minister once told him it was more important. It has been that way from the game's earliest days, which proved to be so contentious that the schools stopped playing each other for 41 years. Once they resumed hostilities, they did so at a geographically neutral site, in Birmingham, but Auburn fans groused for decades because Legion Field was the Tide's home away from home. That changed when the game moved to campus, but the vitriol has not abated. Fans of both teams crave victory, and a loss means a full year of misery from friends, co-workers and even family members. It’s enough to make someone want to stand in a corner and cry. And for the first time in Iron Bowl history, an SEC West and trip to the BCS national championship hung in the balance in 2013 when the Tigers won with the most improbable play in college football history.
3. Michigan-Ohio State (Michigan, 58-51-6)
Some think the story is a tall tale, but others swear it's true. After his Ohio State team scored its final touchdown late in a 50-14 rout of Michigan at the end of the 1968 season, Buckeyes coach Woody Hayes elected to go for two points, instead of kicking the PAT. When asked afterward why he did that, Hayes reportedly said, "Because they wouldn't let me go for three." Hayes' hatred for "that team up north," as he referred to Michigan, was legendary. Rest assured that Wolverine fans harbor no affection for the Buckeyes, either. The schools have met every year but five (1913-17) since 1900 — the teams' first game was in 1897 — and their contests have become appointment viewing for much of the country, late in November, usually under gun-metal gray skies with a hint of winter in the air. More important, Big Ten supremacy is usually at stake, especially since Bo Schembechler took over in Ann Arbor in 1969 to turn the U-M fortunes around and provide an irascible counterbalance to the cantankerous Hayes. Since that point, Michigan-Ohio State has been the nation's most consistently competitive and heated rivalry. Because the games have so much significance and occur at season's end, a loss can be doubly haunting. Not only does the vanquished team lose to a hated foe, but its season can be destroyed also. There may be games that match these schools' animosity for each other, and there may be contests that are as consistently important. But none combines the two into such a volatile package. This rivalry has some extra punch since 2015 with the arrival of Jim Harbaugh as Michigan's coach, although he's still looking for his first win in the series as Ohio State has won the past eight meetings (this game was not played in 2020).
4. Oklahoma-Texas (Texas, 62-50-5)
One of the most unique characteristics about the Cotton Bowl in Dallas is both locker rooms empty into a common corridor, so that players take the field through the same tunnel. On more than one occasion, as Texas and Oklahoma have prepared to charge onto the hallowed stadium’s turf, they have encountered each other in a highly charged, emotional moment that could have ignited an inferno. Instead, they decided to enjoin the fight on the gridiron, in front of 95,000-plus fans divided evenly into crimson and burnt orange enclaves. Rarely has the flame from the ensuing collision failed to heat the passions of all in attendance. While the Texas State Fair rollicks on around them, and vendors offer to fry anything that doesn't move — and some things that do — the Longhorns and Sooners offer a mid-season football feast that dates back to 1900, when Oklahoma wasn’t even a state and Texas was just beginning to tap into the huge oil reserves deep below its surface. The neighbors harbor a significant dislike for each other, and tempers have boiled over many times on nights before the game. It doesn’t help that many OU grads now live in Texas, lured south by jobs in the petroleum industry. And plenty of Lone Star football talent has headed north to Norman, especially when Barry Switzer was pillaging the state's top programs for all-stars. The action on the field rarely disappoints, as each of the past eight regular-season meetings (Oklahoma beat Texas 39-27 in the 2018 Big 12 Championship Game) have been decided by eight or fewer points. This includes the 2020 meeting that saw Texas come back from a 14-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to see Oklahoma survive in a four-overtime thriller. And this year, the Sooners rallied from a 28-7 deficit in the first quarter to win 55-48 in the highest-scoring game in series history. Though the Red River Showdown is played in October, several championship runs have been spawned by a victory in Dallas, and several high hopes have been dashed.
5. USC-Notre Dame (Notre Dame, 48-36-5)
The nation's top intersectional rivalry owes a debt of gratitude to some unfriendly residents of Lincoln, Nebraska, and Bonnie Rockne's love of warm California weather. At a time when traditional gridiron matchups are being torn asunder by the whirling conference kaleidoscope, Notre Dame and USC continue their annual hostilities, treating the nation to a classic matchup of iconic programs. The schools almost didn't get together. But in 1925, after Notre Dame dropped a 17-0 decision at Nebraska, before an inhospitable crowd of Cornhusker fans, coach Knute Rockne and his wife were joined on the train back to Chicago by USC athletic director Gwynn Wilson and his wife, Marion. While Wilson tried to convince Rockne to ditch the burgeoning rivalry with Nebraska for an annual trip west, Marion Wilson and Bonnie Rockne became fast friends in another train compartment. Rockne resisted Wilson's entreaties, but his wife was enthralled with the idea of Los Angeles in the late fall. She later convinced her husband to play the Trojans. The resulting rivalry has lasted more than 90 years and has filled the college football history books with dozens of classic tales. More Heisman winners have played in the Notre Dame-USC game than in any other rivalry, and many a national championship hope has been validated with a victory in the game. Though the teams alternate between their home sites, playing in late November in Los Angeles and mid-October in South Bend, the game retains a glamour that defines it and is a product of two of college football's most storied programs.
6. Georgia-Florida (Georgia, 54-44-2*)
The festivities begin at "The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" around Tuesday, when the big boats start cruising up the St. John’s River in Jacksonville. By game time, everybody is in a festive mood — except the players. The Bulldogs and Gators have engaged in some classics over the years, from Georgia's thrilling comeback in 1980 to Florida's soggy '93 triumph. Cheers! What's more special about this rivalry? These two programs can't even agree on how many times they've actually played. Florida claims the two have met 99 times while the Bulldogs have 100* outcomes in the record books. The Gators claim the 52-0 loss in 1904 doesn't count because they had not yet technically started playing football yet.
7. Miami-Florida State (Miami, 35-30)
For a while there during the 1990s, there was more talent on the field when the 'Canes and 'Noles met up than in some NFL stadiums. And everybody wanted to put on a show. This matchup lacks the long-term tradition and history of other rivalries, but the hostility is just as high. And there have been some classics. FSU fans still wince when they hear the words "Wide Right," while Miami backers still cringe at the 34-3 beating their heroes absorbed in '84.
8. Harvard-Yale (Yale, 68-60-8)
The Crimson and Bulldogs may not have played the first-ever college football game, but both schools had hands in how the game developed into what we have today. The late-November meeting between the schools is a history lesson wrapped in a high-class tailgate party. Harvard and Yale no longer compete at college football’s highest level, but they remain forever linked to the sport's earliest days. In their most recent meeting in 2019 (Ivy League did not play in 2020 due to COVID-19), these two teams engaged in a 50-43 double-overtime thriller this year, which Yale won on its own home field. This year's edition is scheduled for Nov. 20 and will return to the Yale Bowl.
9. Florida-Florida State (Florida, 36-26-2)
For years, this was a big brother/little brother battle, with the establishment Gators looking down on the upstart Seminoles. Then, FSU started to win games — a lot of games — and things changed. This may lack the in-state hate of Auburn-Alabama, but don't worry; the two sides harbor plenty of dislike for each other. During the past three decades, as both have competed for national laurels, their games have become more than just neighborhood brawls.
10. California-Stanford (Stanford, 65-47-11)
To some, the Big Game is the province of the wine-and-cheese crowd, and the schools' NoCal addresses reinforce that. But there can be no denying that these schools thirst to defeat each other. It’s a classic battle of private (Stanford) against public (Cal), and bragging rights go well beyond which side brings the best pinot to the pre-game party. Plus, what other rivalry can boast a game with a crazy ending as the 1982 contest: "The band is on the field!" Cal finally broke its nine-year losing streak by winning at Stanford in 2019, but the Cardinal returned the favor the following year at Berkeley thanks to a blocked PAT that would have tied the game for the home Bears.
11. Pittsburgh-West Virginia (Pittsburgh, 61-40-3)
Only 75 miles separate the two combatants in the Backyard Brawl. Unfortunately, conference realignment (Pittsburgh to the ACC, West Virginia to the Big 12) meant that in the 2011 season this game didn't take place for the first time since 1942. These two teams are scheduled to renew their rivalry in 2022.
12. Texas-Texas A&M (Texas, 76-37-5)
This Thanksgiving weekend tradition was suspended when Texas A&M moved to the SEC in 2012 but it could be coming back in the near future with Texas following in the Aggies' footsteps. The Longhorns and Oklahoma accepted invitations to join the SEC this July, so it's only a matter of time that A&M and UT will face off again. It's just a question of when and will it take place every year.
13. Oregon-Oregon State (Oregon, 66-48-10)
No longer officially called the "Civil War" (the administrations at both schools agreed in 2020 to drop the moniker), this in-state rivalry has come a long way since the Ducks and Beavers played to a 0-0 tie in 1983.
14. BYU-Utah (Utah, 62-35-4*)
The Holy War might be the best name for any rivalry in the nation. (*BYU does not recognize the first six games that took place from 1896 to '98, when the school was known as Brigham Young Academy, and has the Utes' series lead at 59-32-4.)
15. UCLA-USC (USC, 49-32-7*)
The Southern California showdown was dominated by USC from 1999-2011, while the Bruins claimed three out of four before losing three in a row to the Trojans. UCLA won 34-27 in 2018, but USC reclaimed bragging rights in Los Angeles with a victory in '19. (*On the field, USC leads 51-32-7 but had to vacate their 2004 and '05 victories.)
16. Alabama-Tennessee (Alabama, 58-37-7*)
The Third Saturday in October means only one thing to people in the South: Alabama vs. Tennessee. The Crimson Tide have dominated this series for more than a decade, making it 15 in a row over the Volunteers with a 52-24 win on Oct. 23. (*On the field, it's 59-37-8 as Alabama vacated its win from 2005 and a tie in 1993.)
17. Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (Oklahoma, 90-18-7)
The late T. Boone Pickens' interest in the Oklahoma State program was piqued after the Pokes, 3-7 at the time, knocked OU out of the 2001 national title game with a 16-13 win. The Sooners have won the past six editions of Bedlam.
18. Clemson-South Carolina (Clemson, 71-42-4)
These two schools were bitter rivals well before they started playing football in the 1890s. Clemson has won six in a row and most of those victories have been in dominating fashion. Due to both the ACC and SEC scrapping all non-conference games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the first year since 1908 that these two teams didn't play each other for Palmetto State bragging rights.
19. Mississippi State-Ole Miss (Ole Miss, 63-46-6)
20. Auburn-Georgia (Georgia, 62-56-8)
It’s the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry and it dates back to 1892. Georgia holds a slim margin thanks to their current five-game winning streak in the series. The "Prayer at Jordan-Hare" (or "Miracle at Jordan-Hare" or "Prayer on the Plains" if you prefer) that helped Auburn win the 2013 meeting (and eventually resulted in the Tigers winning the SEC title and playing in the BCS National Championship Game) only added to this historic battle's legacy.
21. Michigan-Michigan State (Michigan, 71-38-5)
It pains MSU fans that Michigan's biggest rival is Ohio State, but the "Little Brothers" from East Lansing have held their own in this series over the past decade. The 2015 matchup resulted in one of the most incredible endings in college football history when the Spartans won on the last play of the game. This year's edition saw Michigan State rally from a 16-point deficit more than midway through the third quarter to win 37-33 at home.
22. Minnesota-Wisconsin (Wisconsin, 62-60-8)
The winner of the Gophers vs. Badgers showdown takes home the prized Paul Bunyan Axe. Its status as the most played rivalry in FBS football (dating back to 1890), remains intact after last season's game was rescheduled from Nov. 28 to Dec. 20 because of COVID-19 concerns. Wisconsin won 20-17 in Madison. The 2019 meeting was more significant than usual as it determined the winner of the Big Ten West Division. the Badgers won that one as well, beating Minnesota 38-17 in Minneapolis.
23. Michigan-Notre Dame (Michigan, 25-17-1*)
These two traditional powers have only played regularly for the past three decades, but they produced a ton of memorable moments. Strike a pose, Desmond! (*On the field, it's 25-18-1 as Notre Dame vacated its win in 2012.)
24. Georgia-Georgia Tech (Georgia, 68-41-5)
You know it's a good rivalry when the book about the series is titled Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate.
25. Lafayette-Lehigh (Lafayette, 80-71-5)
The Rivalry, as it's called, pits two small private schools located 17 miles apart in Eastern Pennsylvania. Lafayette and Lehigh have met 155 times, including every year since 1897. It holds the distinction of the most-played rivalry in the nation and was the longest uninterrupted annual series (130 games), until COVID-19 caused the Patriot League to cancel fall sports in 2020. But the two teams took part in the FCS' spring season this year with the Leopards defeating the Mountain Hawks 20-13 at home on April 10. They are scheduled to play each other again on Nov. 20 at Lehigh's Goodman Stadium.