Top 15 college football rivalries

Published 7:15 pm Thursday, August 17, 2023

Top 15 college football rivalries

What makes for a great college football rivalry? Three main ingredients can be found consistently across some of the greatest competitions: First, it helps when the rival is geographically close. When schools are within the same state or a neighboring state, fans of both schools live close enough to feed a long-lasting competition yearlong—plus, they can drive to the game every season. Second, the teams need to be closely matched as competitors; no one wants to watch a game when the outcome is always a foregone conclusion. Third, a rivalry needs plenty of lore and storied history—the longer, the better.

The 15 football rivalries featured here check all of those boxes and more. To celebrate school spirit, Best Universities compiled a list of the most evenly matched, long-running college football rivalries in the U.S., using data from Stathead. Rivalries were ranked based on how closely each team’s total wins compare in a given rivalry. Only rivalries with at least 90 games played were considered. Additionally, due to limitations of the dataset, only games where both teams were counted as a “major school” (equivalent to the current Division I Football Bowl Subdivision) were included, so records may not match all-time totals calculated elsewhere.

Most of these 15 rivalries date back not one but two centuries ago—to the 1890s. Fans buy tickets and mark their calendars months ahead and regard the “big game” between their alma mater and its archrival as one of the highlights of the season every year.

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Running back Kendre Miller of the TCU Horned Frogs carries the ball against Baylor players.

Tom Pennington // Getty Images

#15. Revivalry: Baylor | Texas Christian

– First game at major college level: Oct. 3, 1903
– Games played: 110
– Series record: Texas Christian leads 57-48-5
– Difference: 9 games (8.2%)

Texas is so big that a 90-mile trip is just a hop down the road for fans of Fort Worth’s Texas Christian Horned Frogs and Waco’s Baylor Bears who make the drive every year for their annual showdown. TCU has been the dominant team in recent years, winning seven of the last eight games. The lowest-scoring game was their third one in 1899, a 0-0 tie. The highest-scoring game was a 61-58 thriller that Baylor won at home in 2014.

Patrick Randolph of Rice University goes up between defensive backs Rock Dennis and Derrius Bell.

Bob Levey // Getty Images

#14. Rice | Southern Methodist

– First game at major college level: Nov. 17, 1916
– Games played: 90
– Series record: Southern Methodist leads 48-41-1
– Difference: 7 games (7.8%)

This was always a big game because Rice University and Southern Methodist University are the two leading private universities in Texas, and they’re in the state’s two biggest cities. But Rice (Houston) and SMU (Dallas) haven’t met since 2012 because SMU moved to a different conference. Although SMU won more games, Rice won the last one in 2012 (36-14) as well as the first (an unbelievable 127-3 blowout).

Members of the Iowa Hawkeyes and Minnesota Golden Gophers line up at the line of scrimmage.

David Berding // Getty Images

#12. Iowa | Minnesota (tie)

– First game at major college level: Oct. 26, 1901
– Games played: 115
– Series record: Minnesota leads 61-52-2
– Difference: 9 games (7.8%)

This rivalry heated up in 1935 when the Minnesota and Iowa governors waged a bet on the game with a prize hog on the line. Minnesota won the hog, but beginning in 1936, a bronze hog trophy (called “Floyd of Rosedale”) has gone to the winner every year since. At the height of the rivalry in 1960, both teams were undefeated when they met with the Big 10 Championship and a Rose Bowl berth at stake. Minnesota won that one too and boasts a decisive edge in the series’ long history.

Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Caleb Williams runs for a touchdown.

Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

#12. Red River Showdown: Oklahoma | Texas (tie)

– First game at major college level: Oct. 17, 1903
– Games played: 115
– Series record: Texas leads 56-47-5
– Difference: 9 games (7.8%)

Texans outnumber Oklahomans by a ratio of nearly 8-to-1 and outnumber their neighboring state in major professional teams by the same amount. But residents of the Sooner State have the edge in one department: The Oklahoma Sooners have beaten the Texas Longhorns more often at Dallas’ Cotton Bowl, where the game is played. The “Showdown” will continue even after the two teams’ impending switch from the Big 12 to the SEC.

Kenny McIntosh runs towards the end zone during a game between Auburn Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs.

ISI Photos // Getty Images

#11. Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry: Auburn | Georgia

– First game at major college level: Nov. 27, 1902
– Games played: 119
– Series record: Georgia leads 61-52-6
– Difference: 9 games (7.6%)

Southerners love their football—high school, pro, and especially college—so this annual matchup is treasured. Although the Georgia Bulldogs have won 15 of the last 18, there have been some nail-biters—none as stirring as the 56-49 Georgia win in 1996. It marked the 100th meeting of the two teams and the first overtime game in SEC history, a game that required four overtime periods before the Southern dust settled.

Deshaun Fenwick of the Oregon State Beavers fends off Jeffrey Bassa of the Oregon Ducks.

Ali Gradischer // Getty Images

#10. Oregon | Oregon State

– First game at major college level: Nov. 25, 1916
– Games played: 106
– Series record: Oregon leads 54-46-6
– Difference: 8 games (7.5%)

This natural rivalry between Oregon’s two biggest schools, located only 50 miles apart, was called “The Civil War” for decades before the term was officially scrapped in 2020 due to its perceived associations with slavery. The financial support of Nike, whose co-founder Phil Knight was a University of Oregon track star, has favored the Ducks in recent decades, as they’ve won 12 of the last 15 showdowns. Despite the Ducks’ dominance and the removal of the game’s nickname, however, the Thanksgiving weekend classic is still a season highlight for both teams.

Darius Robinson of the Missouri Tigers tackles Deuce Vaughn of the Kansas State Wildcats.

Peter Aiken // Getty Images

#9. Border War: Kansas | Missouri

– First game at major college level: Nov. 28, 1901
– Games played: 110
– Series record: Missouri leads 54-48-8
– Difference: 6 games (5.5%)

Kansas and Missouri are natural rivals as it’s only a 2.5-hour straight shot on I-70 between the two campuses. Officially called the “Border Showdown” since 2004, the rivalry is historic partly because the rivals’ 1911 square-off in Missouri is regarded by the NCAA as the first-ever homecoming game. Homecoming is a tradition that later spread to countless college and high school series, usually featuring archrivals in games that feature big crowds of students and alumni and special events that surround the games. Missouri’s jump to the SEC in 2012 put a temporary end to the series, but it was announced in 2020 that the teams would resume the series in 2025, 2026, 2030, and 2032.

Wyoming Cowboys' Xazavian Valladay and Colorado State Rams defensive lineman Manny Jones in play.

The Denver Post // Getty Images

#8. Border War: Colorado State | Wyoming

– First game at major college level: Nov. 25, 1905
– Games played: 108
– Series record: Colorado State leads 54-50-4
– Difference: 4 games (3.7%)

These two teams are rarely part of the conversation among college football fans—except in Fort Collins, Colorado, and Laramie, Wyoming. One of the oldest rivalries in the West, the two teams first met Thanksgiving day in Laramie in 1899 and only paused during World War II. Lately, Wyoming has been faring well, winning nine of the last 14 games. The Bronze Boot, a traveling trophy once worn by a Colorado State ROTC instructor and soldier in the Vietnam War, goes to the winner.

Markel Johnson of the Army Black Knights runs for a touchdown against the Navy Midshipmen.

Edward Diller // Getty Images

#7. America’s Game: Army | Navy Game

– First game at major college level: Nov. 28, 1891
– Games played: 119
– Series record: Navy leads 58-54-7
– Difference: 4 games (3.4%)

Patriotism is on full display at this game, arguably the most storied rivalry of them all. The contest for military-branch bragging rights annually matches the U.S. Military Academy Black Knights (West Point, New York) and the Navy Midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy (Annapolis, Maryland). As “America’s Game,” it has been played in seven other cities, but most often in Philadelphia, where they will return in 2027. The next five will be played in five different East Coast cities.

Wisconsin running back Isaac Guerendo runs after a pass reception as Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell defends.

Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

#6. Iowa | Wisconsin

– First game at major college level: Nov. 3, 1906
– Games played: 95
– Series record: Wisconsin leads 48-45-2
– Difference: 3 games (3.2%)

With Big Ten teams on either side, this rivalry is closely watched, but it also doesn’t have the usual off-field vitriol. Wisconsin has had more success lately, winning eight of the last 11. Wisconsin won the first contest in 1894 by a score of 44-0, but since then, games have been markedly closer in score, with few precious blowouts—the last two coming in 1996 (Iowa on top) and 1998 (Wisconsin winning), when the teams traded 31-0 victories. Each year, the winning team earns the Heartland Trophy, which depicts a brass bull.

Donovan Edwards of the Michigan Wolverines runs with the ball during a game against the Ohio State Buckeyes.

Ben Jackson // Getty Images

#5. The Game: Michigan | Ohio State

– First game at major college level: Oct. 15, 1904
– Games played: 105
– Series record: Ohio State leads 52-49-4
– Difference: 3 games (2.9%)

If you want to see this game in person, open your wallet. Most tickets go for north of $200 apiece, which seems steep when you consider each team’s stadium holds more than 100,000 fans, but the rivalry is that hot. Both teams are routinely nationally ranked, making their meetings often important enough to determine the conference title or bowl-game placements. The pinnacle of this rivalry came in 2006. At the time, both Ohio State and Michigan were undefeated teams and ranked first and second, respectively; Ohio State won that “Game of the Century” 42-39.

Peyton Ramsey of the Northwestern Wildcats is hit by Seth Coleman of the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Jonathan Daniel // Getty Images

#4. Illinois | Northwestern

– First game at major college level: Oct. 12, 1892
– Games played: 116
– Series record: Illinois leads 57-54-5
– Difference: 3 games (2.6%)

Illinois enjoyed a satisfying 41-3 blowout win over Northwestern in 2022. Thus, the Land of Lincoln Trophy will reside in Urbana, Illinois—at least until their next game on Nov. 25, 2023. The trophy replaced the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk in 2009, which was regarded as offensive to Native Americans. The following year, the two teams played at Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, though the baseball-field dimensions required that both teams shared the same end zone.

Linebacker O'Rien Vance of the Iowa State Cyclones and defensive lineman Isaiah Lee of the Iowa State Cyclones.

David Purdy // Getty Images

#3. Farmageddon: Iowa State | Kansas State

– First game at major college level: Nov. 10, 1917
– Games played: 106
– Series record: Iowa State leads 52-50-4
– Difference: 2 games (1.9%)

Most longtime rivalries are interrupted for a year or two at least once due to a World War, a pandemic, or simply a football conference realignment. Not this one. This annual meeting between the Iowa State Cyclones and Kansas State Wildcats has been played every year without fail since 1917. Kansas State has won 25 of 32 since 1990 but still needs to win a few more to take over the series lead. The series holds enough interest in the heartland that it’s twice been held at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, with Kansas State narrowly winning those 2009 and 2010 games.

Chez Mellusi and Minnesota defensive back Darius Green during a game.

Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

#2. Border Battle: Minnesota | Wisconsin

– First game at major college level: Oct. 29, 1892
– Games played: 130
– Series record: Minnesota leads 62-60-8
– Difference: 2 games (1.5%)

No college football rivalry has been as durable as this one, featuring a record 130 meetings dating back to 1892. And with a scant two wins separating their records against each other, almost no other rival teams have been as evenly matched. Though legend says that a decree by Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 prevented this rivalry from playing out that year, Eric Strack of Minnesota Sports Fan found that it was actually a decree by the University of Wisconsin over the safety of football (players were getting badly injured or killed in those pre-helmet days) that led to the cancellation of this storied game that one year. The annual winner gets to keep “Paul Bunyan’s Axe.”

Devin Mockobee runs with the ball during a game between Purdue and Illinois.

Icon Sportswire // Getty Images

#1. Illinois | Purdue

– First game at major college level: Oct. 8, 1892
– Games played: 97
– Series record: Purdue leads 46-45-6
– Difference: 1 game (1.0%)

No two teams that are part of a major college football rivalry are as closely matched as the Illinois Fighting Illini and the Purdue Boilermakers. Their historic record stands with only a single game of separation, and although Purdue has won their last three contests, each game had a margin of victory of one touchdown or less. The victors get to keep a miniature replica of a cannon that was first brought to the game by Purdue students in 1905.

This story originally appeared on Best Universities and was produced and
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