Forget history, these are the best modern college football rivalries
Ohio State-Michigan has a storied past, but recently it's Ohio State-Michigan State has been the best Big Ten matchup
Michigan fans disagree, obviously, as do some Buckeyes. The Big Game wins over time, sure, but in this moment Sparty-Buckeyes is the premiere Big Ten conference game. It's one that gets circled by all college football fans a week or two in advance to avoid missing the next chapter of the Mark Dantonio-Urban Meyer rivalry.
Because we are prisoners of the moment in college football and stuck with only a small sample size of games to feed our addiction as fans, it doesn't take too many seasons to establish a modern rivalry. They are often centered around coaches and their back-and-forth both on and off the field, but a few disappointing (or program-changing) results can quickly heighten those rivalries in the locker room as well.
College football's best modern rivalry escalated to a new level in a disappointing loss for the Buckeyes that was also a program-changing win for Mark Dantonio and Michigan State.
Urban Meyer has won three national titles at two different schools and is rightly regarded as one of the best coaches in college football, but the pizza game was a moment in time that will never be forgotten by Big Ten fans. A photo, taken by USA Today's George Schroeder, encompassed the emotions of having a title shot stripped away in the final moments of grueling regular season.
Ohio State had won every game with Meyer on the sideline to that point, 24-0 and perfect against Big Ten opponents. The Spartans, one year removed from a 7-6 finish, pulled off the upset and rode the momentum into the Rose Bowl. That 2013 Big Ten title game was a defining moment in the rivalry.
Surrounded by family, Urban Meyer eats postgame pizza very quietly in corridor beneath Lucas Oil Stadium. pic.twitter.com/80FtTVegWQ— George Schroeder (@GeorgeSchroeder) December 8, 2013
Since that 2013 win against Ohio State, Michigan State has an uptick in the recruiting rankings every year. No longer the "little brother" in the state, the Spartans now stand eye-to-eye with the Wolverines thanks to their recent success and the recruiting rankings show an increasingly competitive battle on the trail as well.
|Year|| Michigan State |
(Ranking, Avg. Rating)
| Michigan |
(Ranking, Avg. Rating)
|2013||No. 5 Big Ten, Avg: 85.60||No. 2 Big Ten, Avg: 86.22|
|2014||No. 4 Big Ten, Avg: 86.71||No. 2 Big Ten, Avg: 82.25|
|2015||No. 3 Big Ten, Avg: 87.70||No. 5 Big Ten, Avg: 87.81|
|2016||No. 3 Big Ten, Avg: 88.83||No. 2 Big Ten, Avg: 89.96|
|Rankings via the 247Sports Composite|
"We used to sell recruits on a vision, now we can sell results," Dantonio told CBS Sports on National Signing Day in 2015. It's a phrase that he's continued to use on the recruiting trail to point out five 11+ win seasons, three conference titles and and three straight top-six finishes in the polls at the end of the year.
But the tipping point when it comes to ranking rivalries is drama, and OSU-MSU has just meant more in recent years. The 2013 pizza game came after a 17-16 Ohio State win the year before, evening the score between Dantonio and Meyer. The Buckeyes responded with a 49-37 win in East Lansing the next year on the way to winning the national title before stumbling last season in Columbus.
The fallout from that 17-14 last-second loss to Michigan State included finger-pointing, the beginning of an NFL Draft exodus and disappointment that felt all-too-familiar to anyone who was there for the 2013 Big Ten title game loss as well. Ohio State went 12-1, a banner year for anyone else in the country, and it was a disappointment because the preseason No. 1 team in the country missed out on the College Football Playoff.
There's just not a modern rivalry in college football that has combined winning at the highest level with the ultimate drama over the last four years than the Meyer-Dantonio era of Ohio State-Michigan State.
Excluding just a short list of "traditional rivalries" -- Alabama-Auburn, Michigan-Ohio State, Notre Dame-USC, Oklahoma-Texas, Army-Navy, BYU-Utah, Cal-Stanford, Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Clemson-South Carolina, UCLA-USC, Arizona-Arizona State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Oregon-Oregon State -- here are the next best modern rivalries.
Jon Solomon wrote extensively on the modern Clemson-Florida State rivalry last month, where he was sure to note that only three teams have finished in the top 15 of the AP Top 25 each of the last four years: Alabama and the two ACC Atlantic foes that have given us instant-classic regular season clashes on the field.
"That's a game that the fans and the players and our whole staff look forward to," Dalvin Cook told CBS Sports. "They recruit talent just like we do so you've got to respect the game. That's just become the rival between Florida State and Clemson and I love it."
Does location matter in 2016? Absolutely. Clemson has only won in Tallahassee once (2006) since 1990. The Tigers are the No. 2 team in the country, a popular pick for the College Football Playoff and absolutely capable of winning at Florida State, but the Seminoles are just as title-worthy, even after the loss of Sean Maguire to an ankle injury. A win for Clemson in the 2016 edition of this rivalry would be a monumental accomplishment but a loss would not be surprising given the way this often has played out in the past.
3. Alabama vs. LSU
Would be No. 1 or No. 2 if not for the Tide's five-game winning streak in the series. Don't get it twisted though, everything about Alabama-LSU is still just as strong as though the score is even (but for the record, it's 50-25-5 all-time in favor of the Tide). The game gets primetime treatment, usually is decided by just a few key plays and always is loaded with future NFL players.
Best matchup for 2016 edition: Leonard Fournette vs. Alabama's front seven. Each of the last two years, Fournette has run into the brick wall that is Alabama's defensive front and needed a game (both years the Arkansas game) before getting back on track. Last year the sudden halt not only happened statistically but also impacted the Heisman Trophy race. Fournette knows he was one of the best backs in the country last season, but totaling 31 yards against Alabama and 91 against Arkansas after rushing for 150+ in every single game was a letdown in the eyes of some voters who were then distracted by Derrick Henry's production with an incredible workload.
Fournette's tweet of a "side-eye" emoji after a Heisman finalist snub made LSU fans every excited for what might be a vengeful 2016 campaign from one of the hardest runners in college football. If the Alabama game derailed his Heisman campaign a year ago, you can bet it will be as big a storyline as Les Miles-Nick Saban during game week.
😒— 7⃣ (@_fournette) December 7, 2015
Since 2009, either the Cardinal or Ducks has won the Pac-12 title. That kind of conference dominance is similar to what Florida State and Clemson have in the ACC, even as both teams have undergone coaching changes. The key to sustaining the rivalry has been the continuity in each program with David Shaw and Mark Helfrich, respectively, maintaining the high level of play established when they were offensive staffers under Jim Harbaugh and Chip Kelly. Even in a supposed down year for the Ducks, this rivalry got a new wrinkle as Oregon's 38-36 win in Palo Alto likely kept Stanford from the College Football Playoff.
New question: Can they defend the North crown from the Huskies? There is a lot of buzz around Washington this season. The Huskies are nationally ranked, led by one of the winningest coaches (percentage-wise) in the sport and have something Oregon and Stanford lack in a returning starting quarterback. It's a jump to think that this 7-6 team from 2015 will be able usurp both of the perennial Pac-12 powers, so while Washington might knock off one it's going to be another year before the Bird-Tree alliance gives up the top spot in the North.
5. Baylor vs. TCU
Art Briles and Gary Patterson each won three games during the 2010-15 run of their in-state series, including three absolute classics, all won by the Bears. Two up-start in-state programs -- Baylor on its way to national prominence and TCU moving up into the Big 12 -- held the attention of the college football world in 2014, first with the 61-58 shootout that was one of the biggest wins in Baylor program history and then with the controversial tie for the Big 12 title. These modern rivals found themselves as the first two teams left out of the first-ever College Football Playoff, and that confusion of the final week will forever be tied to their high-scoring Texas rivalry.
Best modern rivalry moment: Baylor trolled TCU in its 2015 team picture, putting No. 61 Jarrell Broxton and No. 58 Spencer Drango side-by-side on the front row, just to the right of then-coach Art Briles. The 61-58 troll was art, by Art.
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