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What other sports can learn from college football rivalries

The biggest games are the biggest games because they don’t come around often. Plus, they’re in defined time slots.

Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

I think the best college football rivalries are the best rivalries in sports, period. Some of that’s because of close geography, institutional rivalries that go beyond sports, more than century-long histories, and established annual time slots. But a lot of it’s because the games happen just once a year.

Scarcity drives intensity.

Not every level of sports can make it so that its biggest games only happen once every 365 days. But every sports league could learn from what CFB does to make sure rivalries are deliberately scheduled, and one league in particular could be a lot more like its feeder.

In the NFL, a 16-game schedule could break down like this:

  • Three divisional games
  • Eight non-divisional conference games
  • Five games against the other conference

Add and subtract from the latter two groups as much as you please.

Like college teams and conferences already do on their own, the NFL could load up on divisional and rivalry games during specific HATE WEEKS:

  • Week 1 (because divisional openers are good fun)
  • Week 12, AKA Thanksgiving (because college already has Rivalry Week at this time, but that’s all between Thursday and Saturday, and we could just make it a whole big rivalry bonanza of a weekend — although this could be dangerous to the heart health of college fans who also care a lot about NFL teams)
  • Week 17 (to drive up standings stakes, as the league already does)

The league could move divisional games off these weeks as needed, because its primetime TV partners might not feel like showing Bucs-Bears or whatever in Week 3. But in general, it could schedule the same rivalry games on the same weekends every year.

Designating two of the three HATE WEEKS for later in the season serves the NFL’s goal of keeping divisional races interesting. Those are opportunities for two-game swings, making it less likely that teams fall out of contention by early November.

Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
Imagine the stakes if this happens just once a year, and preferably not until there’s snow
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

At their core, rivalries are about bragging rights and feeling superior to some team you hate. There’s no better way to encourage that than only playing once a year.

If Florida loses to Georgia, Gators fans have to sit with that all year. It’s part of what makes their annual meeting in Jacksonville such a huge deal.

Imagine that in the NFL. How amazing would it be if the Bills beat the Patriots or the Browns beat the Steelers for the first time a decade, and then the Patriots and Steelers didn’t have a chance to make it right? That’s fun.

There’s nothing fun about teams splitting a series 1-1, but considering the NFL’s intentional parity, the likeliest season outcome for divisional foes is a 1-1 split.

The terror of a major college football rivalry is knowing that if you lose, you’ll have to hear about it for 12 months — exactly 12 months, because your team doesn’t get another crack at Rival U for another 52 weeks. When your side wins a game like that, it’s even more special.

Cutting back on divisional games in the NFL would, in addition to juicing each game, let fans watch more teams up close.

College football fans get to watch their team play 12 different opponents. That’s fun, even if one of those is Rutgers or whoever. Despite a 16-game schedule, NFL fans only get to watch their teams play 13 different opponents.

Most fans in other sports don’t buy premium packages to watch out-of-market games that aren’t on national TV. Most of them aren’t running through coaches’ film on NFL League Pass on Monday afternoons. The surest way for fans to see more teams is to put them up against the teams fans care about.

Right now, NFL teams go up to four years without facing certain non-conference opponents. Plenty of fans don’t get to see Patrick Mahomes up close until his fourth year.

(Baseball trying this would let every team play every team, which would infuriate an old guard that hates interleague play, which is a big reason it’ll never happen.)

Simply chopping the number of meetings in half doesn’t work in other sports, but those leagues could be more intentional about giving rivalry games teeth.

Baseball is a good example of the problem when rivalry hatred is spread around to too many meetings across the year. The Red Sox and Yankees are fairly boring amid nearly 20 annual meetings, and that dilutes the bad feelings in any one game. It has to be a postseason series for even baseball’s greatest rivalries to truly ooze anger. Few people have the capacity to get extremely worked up at a sports team 20 times a year.

So MLB could try something like this plan, cutting down from 18 or 19 matchups per year between divisional opponents to around 10, but this part isn’t essential.

Imagine if every team only played its divisional opponents six times apiece over the first 158 games, then every team closed with a four-game divisional set in late September or early October? It’d max out the chances of final-weekend drama. Baseball might actually attract some new fans on a weekend when more people are watching football.

In the NBA and NHL, there are 82 games, 30-some teams, and only four matchups per year between divisional opponents. (Hockey has bigger divisions, but the concept is similar in both sports.) Everyone already plays everyone. They’re not cutting back to two meetings per year between the Celtics and 76ers, for instance.

But perhaps the NBA and NHL could reserve certain weeks for exclusively divisional games to drive up the stakes. It’s true that some of the NBA’s best rivalries are inter-divisional, but it already loads up on those games on Christmas Day. Imagine if the last week of the season were only for divisional games. It could spice up the playoff race a lot, and the NBA needs that seasoning, because whoever gets the #8 seed is getting bounced soon anyway.

Most big soccer leagues don’t have their teams play more than twice (not counting cup matches and such), and they also don’t typically have divisions. They’re excused here.

Scheduling is really important. Part of what makes college rivalries so fun is that they often happen on the same days every year.

Ohio State and Michigan fans know that they’re playing on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. They know they’re not playing any other time all year.

The biggest NFL rivalries might happen anywhere between September and January. That detracts a little bit from them being calendar-marked events. It’s a lot easier to tie one game to a specific week than to do that with two. Imagine if the NFL had the Saints and Falcons play every year in Week 17, without fail? It’d be an enormous thing almost every year.

By paring down every rivalry’s meetings from two to one, it’s not like the NFL would be losing hatred. It would just be packing all of it into one glorious day.