Make or Break

Backyard Brawls? Civil Wars? As last week proved, annual games between college enemies are sports' greatest events--each able to define a season and cause 364 days of agony or ecstasy
December 04, 2006

When a member ofthe USC football staff noticed an unfamiliar face among the dozens of sidelinespectators at a Trojans practice last week, he jogged over to make sure thestranger wasn't a Notre Dame operative jotting down secrets. Turned out thatthe interloper was merely an out-of-town reporter, but it's hard to blameUSC--or any other team preparing to play a traditional rival--for having a mildcase 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'sabout the annual renewal of the decades-old grudge matches that give collegefootball 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 thename 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 tothe Crimson and the Bulldogs, the Notre Dame--USC rivalry produced The Game onSaturday, at least with respect to the national championship race. The Trojans'44--24 victory--in which junior wideout Dwayne Jarrett, with his seven catchesfor 132 yards and three touchdowns, earned himself a permanent place in theseries' lore--propelled them past Michigan into second place in the BCSstandings. That virtually assures USC a spot in the BCS title game against OhioState on Jan. 8 if the Trojans beat yet another rival, UCLA, this week.

The USC victorywasn't the only rivalry result over the Thanksgiving weekend that helped clearup 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 fromclinching the Big 12 South championship and instead opened the door forOklahoma, which won the division by defeating Oklahoma State 27--21. That setup a conference title game between two storied rivals, Oklahoma and Nebraska,this weekend at Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium.

Having becomeThanksgiving-weekend rivals only in 1996, LSU and Arkansas don't bear anyparticular animosity toward each other, but the Tigers' 31--26 victory onFriday may engender some. LSU's win dashed the Razorbacks' hopes for a spot inthe national championship game, and afterward Tigers coach Les Miles slightedArkansas 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 oftenborn.

In a true rivalry,bowl implications are unnecessary. A rivalry game is a self-containedseason--winning is its own reward, and losing is a devastating disappointmentregardless of how successful the loser's season may otherwise have been. NotreDame 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 lineand years when neither team does," West Virginia coach Rich Rodriguez saysof the Mountaineers' rivalry with Pittsburgh. "The circumstances are goingto change from year to year. But the satisfaction that comes with winning thegame and the empty feeling that comes with losing it, those neverchange."

Every sport has itsrivalries, but none can equal the urgency of a college football matchup becausethe combatants meet so rarely. It feels as though the Red Sox and the Yankeesplay each other every other weekend. Duke and North Carolina face each other atleast twice a year in college basketball, sometimes more. Even the best NFLblood feuds--Bears-Packers, Cowboys-Redskins--take place twice a season. Butmost college football rivals get only one chance per year to take out theiraggressions on each other. That leaves the rest of the year for the loser tostew over the defeat, the winner to bask in the victory and the fans to dissectthe last game and speculate about the next one, all of which ratchets up theintensity. "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 replayit in your head."

Given the age andintensity of most rivalries, it's not surprising that the animosityoccasionally gets out of hand. In 2004 Clemson and South Carolina participatedin a brawl so ugly that both schools withdrew from bowl games as a form ofself-punishment. Arizona and Arizona State have a particularly bitter historythat includes a 1996 melee that began when Wildcats running back Kelvin Eafoncharged off the bench and rammed Sun Devils guard Glen Gable in retaliation forwhat Eafon felt was a cheap shot against one of his teammates. Five playerswere ejected. Last Saturday, Arizona coach Mike Stoops nearly charged onto thefield himself when Wildcats quarterback Willie Tuitama was knocked out of thegame after a blow to the head from an Arizona State lineman.

But more oftenrivalries rear their heads in a less ugly, if no less intense, fashion. Lorehas it that Ohio State coach Woody Hayes once ran out of gas near theMichigan-Ohio line on his way home from a recruiting trip. Rather than spend anickel in Wolverines territory, he pushed the vehicle past a Michigan gasstation and across the border into Ohio before seeking out a Buckeyes-friendlyservice station.

Coaches, whousually measure their words more carefully than a White House press secretary,sometimes turn into trash-talkers when they discuss a rival, delivering zingerslike the one then Washington coach Don James directed toward Washington Statein 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 theplace for mercy, either. When coaches have a rival down, they often have a hardtime resisting the temptation to grind it into the dirt. In the 1968 gameagainst Michigan, Hayes had his team go for a two-point conversion in thefourth quarter of what would be a 50--14 Buckeyes victory. When asked why hewent for two, Hayes replied, "Because I couldn't go for three."

In his team's69--21 rout of Kansas in 1969, the 78th edition of the oldest rivalry west ofthe Mississippi, Missouri coach Dan Devine chose to keep attacking long afterthe 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 andequally sarcastic ones saying, 'Why the heck didn't you get that 70thpoint?'"

The element ofhumor is essential to a great college rivalry. No rivalry would be completewithout its share of mascot abductions, statue defacings and other merrypranks. On the eve of the 1975 Army-Navy game, one Naval Academy alum snuckinto the West Point chapel and serenaded the cadets with a rendition of AnchorsAweigh and two other nautical tunes before he was hauled off by militarypolice. This was no ordinary prankster, mind you, but a billionaire who wouldgo on to make a name for himself on a much bigger stage. His name was H. RossPerot.

Infiltratingrivals' territory disguised as one of them is a time-honored gambit. One of themore memorable maneuvers from the Clemson--South Carolina series occurred in1961, when some South Carolina fraternity brothers took the field dressed infaux Clemson uniforms before the real Tigers came on the field for warmups. Theimpostors fumbled and stumbled around before security people realized what washappening and chased them away.

One of the mostingenious stunts took place in 2004, when a group of Yale students put theirintellect to work to dupe Harvard fans. Several of the Yalies, disguised as theHarvard Pep Squad, handed crimson-and-white placards to a wide swath of Harvardfans seated along one side of Harvard Stadium. The supposed pep squad told theCrimson fans that by lifting the placards they would spell out GO HARVARD. Butwhen the fans held up the placards during the game, the actual message theyspelled out was WE SUCK. Even worse (or better, depending on your allegiance),the Harvard fans couldn't see the message they had created, and when the Yalefans on the other side of the stadium roared with laughter, they interpreted itas anger and held up the placards yet again.

Suchcloak-and-dagger pranks are entertaining, but the ultimate feeling ofaccomplishment in a rivalry can come only from winning on the field. TheTrojans' Jarrett walked over to the stands in the Los Angeles Coliseum afterthe Notre Dame game and faced the cheering USC fans with his arms outstretched,basking in the glow of victory. Across the country during this rivalry seasonsimilar scenes have taken place--in Salt Lake City, where BYU beat Utah on thegame's final play to cap a perfect 8--0 year in Mountain West Conferencecompetition; in Corvallis, Ore., where Oregon State cemented a bowl bid bydefeating Oregon; in Durham, N.C., where North Carolina edged Duke to give theTar Heels' fired coach, John Bunting, a triumph in his final game. Each of thewinners earned something different with the victory over its rival, and yeteach earned exactly the same thing.

• Video of JennSterger's Florida State road trip at

For a photo gallery of the best and biggest rivalries in college football, goto collegefootball

South Carolina--Clemson was the usual old-fashionedBRAWL--minus the ejections.

Texas A&M ended a long losing streak--and gave theHorns the BCS HOOK.

Arkansas is the SEC West champ, but LSU thinks it wonSOMETHING BIGGER.

It was BEDLAM for the Sooners, who landed in the Big 12title game.

PHOTOPhotograph by Kevin Terrell/ YOU'REHISTORY
Jarrett earned a permanent spot in USC-- Notre Dame lore with histhree-touchdown night.
Mike Davis and the Gamecocks hit paydirt with their 31--28 upset of theTigers.
Stephen McGee and the Aggies won in Austin for the first time since1994.
LSU dashed Arkansas's national-title hopes and walked off with the goldenconsolation prize.
Demarrio Pleasant and Oklahoma pounced on the opening created by the Texasloss.