by Keith Aksel
What are college football teams to do when they leave a conference full of age-old rivals? Over the past few seasons, major college football has experienced realignment and conference expansion on the largest order since the 1990s. The result has been interesting, if for no other reason but that the new alignment pushed old rivalries to the far-back burner. The movements have also put some teams in a weird limbo position in which they don’t really have a true rival at all in their new leagues.
The process that follows is one that observers usually never talk about: the slow-burn emergence of new rivalries. The rivalry remains an important part of being a sports fan. Your team’s rivals become your rivals, leading you to a lifetime of eye rolls when you find that a new acquaintance attended your school’s arch-nemesis from across the state. The process of a team becoming a rival often completes before we were born, which is why the potential for new rivalries in this day and age is one worth paying your full attention; it doesn’t happen every day.
The very foundations of intercollegiate football were built on rivalries with teams in close proximity to one another. When the first college football leagues emerged in the late 1800s, they combined teams that existed near other football-playing schools, making scheduling easier and more predictable year-to-year. Around the turn of the twentieth century, competition between teams within leagues became an annual tradition, and naturally, certain rivalries got hotter as a result. In the East, Yale-Harvard became an intense rivalry, as much for their conference relationships as for their longer-standing academic rivalry. In the Midwest, Michigan-Chicago became a big rivalry as a result of their membership in the Western Conference (later the Big Ten). In the South, Alabama-Auburn and Georgia Tech-Georgia grew intense rivalries as members of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. All of these schools were located within a few hours of one another, and all shared conference affiliation. Thanks to long-standing conference alignment, we have had over a century of consistent rivalries that our college football calendar was ordered around, and most of them started a hundred years ago or more.
Between 2010 and 2014, however, conference alignment in college football changed tremendously. New television deals led some teams to seek greener pastures, while conferences sought to draw in new eyeballs by luring teams from new states and increasing their league footprint. Consequently, rivalries were interrupted; Colorado left the Big 12 to join the Pac-12, ending its heated rivalry with the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who themselves moved into the Big Ten. Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC, severing its old annual rivalries with the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners. Maryland abandoned the ACC for the Big Ten, ending its rivalry with the Virginia Cavaliers.
Now a handful of years after realignment, most of these teams find themselves in a rivalry no-man’s-land in their new conferences. It seems that one of the major hurdles for teams to invent new rivalries is that they lack history, the kind that undergirds the Harvard-Yale and Alabama-Auburn matchups. New conferences present some opportunities for enmity to build between league members that aren’t based on the past. Here are some examples:
Nebraska and Iowa: Nebraska left the Big 12 to join the Big Ten in 2011, and the Cornhuskers are attempting to draw on a shared agricultural identification to drum up a rivalry with Iowa. This one makes sense- both states are proud of their farming heritage, and share a huge border. Thus far, the invention of the rivalry seems to be working slowly but surely, especially because the Big Ten West seems like anyone’s ballgame each season, and both teams have reached the conference title game in the last few years. Since the two started meeting as members of the league in 2011, their series is tied 3-3.
Texas A&M and Anyone (?): Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, but has really only patched together weak strands of rivalry with SEC West teams. The Aggies have a long history with LSU, but haven’t beaten them since joining the league. They beat Alabama in 2012, but that marks the last really important game between the two. Arkansas looked like a promising prospect thanks to the Aggies’ history with the Razorbacks in the old Southwest Conference, but the series has so far been lopsided in A&M’s favor. A&M is definitely in a rivalry no-man’s land.
Maryland and Penn State: For the Terps, the invention of new rivalries has gone a bit better. In 2014, Maryland players decided to not shake hands with Penn State captains at the pregame coin toss, starting a pilot light for a rivalry that geographically makes sense long term. Both schools compete for the same eastern recruits, and their states share a border. Before the Nittany Lions jumped to the Big Ten in the 1990s, they regularly scheduled (and steamrolled) the Terps. In some ways, this series would be a restart more than a totally new invention. This one feels like it could gain steam.
Colorado and Utah: Colorado and Utah both jumped to the Pac 12 in 2011, and their attempt to invent a rivalry may prove successful if given time. The two schools represent their respective states’ flagship universities, and their geographic proximity makes a long-term “Battle of the Rockies” thing make sense. The two teams used to play each other often, but that was two generations ago as members of the old Mountain States Conference. The memory of those matchups is as good as gone for today’s fans, unless someone cares to bring the series back to light. For now, we’ll keep an eye on this one, but both remain in a rivalry no-man’s land.
Although some of the aforementioned teams have rivalries that could potentially grow in significance, we are in an interesting era of rivalry formation due to conference realignment. Most of these schools will create new rivalries somehow, but they won’t be able to draw on some long uninterrupted stream of competitions like most rivalries in today’s game. This might not be a bad thing. Relying on a rivalry mainly because of its history sometimes makes a rivalry stale; coaches, players, and fans need to find new reasons to dislike other teams other than feeling like they are naturally inclined to do so. There are plenty of ways to do this. A team could steal a coach from an opponent. Or fan bases could play up political differences between neighboring states (how awesome would a Cal-Arizona or Arizona State rivalry be on that basis!) What about publicly disparaging an opponent ahead of a matchup? All these things could potentially serve as the lighter fluid for new rivalries, but the key as fans is to relish being able to see this kind of thing unfold.
As an Ohio State fan, we stopped adding rivals back when Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, so I know that these defining moments don’t come around often. But if you follow any of the aforementioned teams, the path your team takes regarding building its major rivalries is the stuff that will direct your own fandom and vitriol. Will A&M fans be circling the calendar for the LSU game five years from now, or will Ole Miss or Mississippi State get in the mix somehow? Will Colorado’s 2025 campaign be focused on trashing Utah, or will that rivalry fizzle on the launchpad? When a team is in rivalry no-man’s-land, one season can change everything.