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College football’s most chaotic major rivalry is ...

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A semi-scientific review finds Red River racks up more ruckus than any other big-time classic.

Texas, Your Texas

“Throw out the record books when these two play,” they say. But which is our record-throwingest rivalry?

Let’s put it to the test, somewhat.

To start, refer back to this post, which ranked the internet’s 23 most prominent FBS football rivalries by one measure of chaos, which I’ll explain further below. Those rivalries, based entirely on a master list of rankings pulled from everywhere else online, were:

  • Alabama-Auburn
  • Alabama-LSU
  • Army-Navy
  • Auburn-Georgia
  • BYU-Utah
  • Cal-Stanford
  • Clemson-South Carolina
  • Florida-Florida State
  • Florida-Georgia
  • Florida State-Miami
  • Georgia-Georgia Tech
  • Kansas-Missouri
  • Michigan-Michigan State
  • Michigan-Ohio State
  • Minnesota-Wisconsin
  • Mississippi State-Ole Miss
  • Notre Dame-USC
  • Oklahoma-Oklahoma State
  • Oklahoma-Texas
  • Oregon-Oregon State
  • Pitt-West Virginia
  • Texas-Texas A&M
  • UCLA-USC

This is not my personal list of college football’s best rivalries. Save your emails for the end of this blog. This was a combined ranking of the internet’s most recognized big rivalries. There is no possible perfect list of great rivalries; this one includes almost no non-Power 5 games, includes a few series that are on hold, and excludes a game you are emailing me about right now. I did not make this list. The internet did.

(I added just one game. In every stage below, Washington-Washington State joins us. This corrects the internet’s most glaring FBS oversight.)

What happened next, in 2019: a three-step process to whittle this list until we discover the most CHAOS-prone major rivalry of the last 25 years.

Stage 1: Which of these rivalries has the most games in which the “better” team lost?

As in the original post, let’s define this stage based on games in which a team lost to a rival that graded three or more points worse on the year in full-season SP+. These aren’t necessarily Vegas upsets (those come later), but are games in which the team that was better over the course of the entire season lost to its rival anyway.

Let’s now list only rivalries that have achieved this at least four times over the last 25 years. This cuts the list of 24 games down to 13:

Major rivalries, ranked by games in which the significantly inferior team* won (1994-2018)

Rivalry Anti-math games Rivalry's best math conqueror
Rivalry Anti-math games Rivalry's best math conqueror
Florida-Georgia 7: '97, '02, '03, '05, '07, '12, '14 Florida, 5 times
Oklahoma-Texas 6: '96, '01, '06, '08, '15, '18 Texas, 6 times
UCLA-USC 6: '94, '95, '00, '06, '12, '18 UCLA, 6 times
Washington-Washington State 6: '97, '01, '02, '03, '06, '12 Washington, 4 times
Michigan-Michigan State 5: '95, '01, '11, '15, '17 Michigan State, every time lol
Kansas-Missouri 5: '96, '97, '99, '03, '08 Kansas, 4 times
Minnesota-Wisconsin 4: '94, '01, '05, '18 Minnesota, 4 times
Oregon-Oregon State 4: '98, '03, '07, '16 Oregon State, 3 times
Auburn-Georgia 4: '96, '01, '06, '16 Georgia, 4 times
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State 4: '01, '02, '13, '14 Oklahoma State, 3 times
Texas-Texas A&M 4: '98, '06, '07, '11 Tied
Pitt-West Virginia 4: '97, '07, '09, '10 Tied
Michigan-Ohio State 4: '94, '95, '96, '01 Tied
* Based on season-ending SP+

This category is the Cocktail Party specialty. This sample begins with Steve Spurrier emptying his QB depth chart to try and avoid his first-ever coaching loss against the Dawgs and ends with a horrid Will Muschamp offense erupting for 418 rushing yards against an otherwise respectable UGA defense.

The other one to note here is Michigan-Michigan State. Surprising no one, every time this game ends with the inferior team on top, the Spartans are the team overcoming all logic and reason. Even if you took this back into the mid-’80s, that would continue to be the case. Michigan should cancel this series.

Now let’s trim this list of 13 rivalries some more.

Stage 2: Hindsight is one thing, but which of these reasonably chaotic rivalries has the most in-the-moment upsets?

Reassessing at the end of the season is of great value, but it’s difficult to apply that cold, Playoff-committee rationale to college football rivalry upsets. These are the blood-flowingest, spittle-fleckedest, neighbor-punchingest outcomes in all of American sports. So which rivalries most reliably produce that kind of wreckage in real time?

Here, let’s cut it down to only rivalries that have more than seven Vegas point-spread upsets in the last 25 meetings:

Major rivalries, ranked by outright upsets (1994-2018)

Rivalry Outright upsets Rivalry's upset master
Rivalry Outright upsets Rivalry's upset master
Oklahoma-Texas 11.5 (listed below) Texas, 7 times
Washington-Washington State 9: '94, '01, '02, '03, '06, '07, '08, '12, '18 Washington, 5 times
UCLA-USC 8: '94, '95, '00, '01, '06, '12, '13, '18 UCLA, 6 times
Michigan-Ohio State 8: '94, '95, '96, '00, '01, '04, '18 Tied
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State 8: '95, '96, '01, '02, '10, '13, '14, '17 Tied
Auburn-Georgia 7.5: '94 (tie game), '96, '99, '01, '05, '06, '16, '17 Auburn, 5 times
Odds Shark database

Florida-Georgia tumbles in this category, falling below Kansas-Mizzou, Aggies-Horns, and Pitt-WVU rivalries that have been dormant for years. In hindsight, the Cocktail Party’s game outcomes make more sense than they do at the time, which is the opposite of choices made by fans attending the Cocktail Party.

The Red River Reckless Rumpus Room rises to the top here, but more on that game in Stage 3 (spoiler alert).

Let’s discuss the Apple Cup’s incredible versatility. Because not only does this series bring all that steady stupidity, I can’t think of another rivalry that’s exceeded this range of stakes within basically a decade:

  • In 2008 (sorry for bringing it up), the 0-11 Huskies lost as a touchdown favorite in Pullman against the 1-10 Cougars. Neither of these teams should’ve been favored by a touchdown over anyone.
  • In 2018, the #8 Cougars had an outside shot at making the College Football Playoff, but the underdog Huskies won the state, division, and then conference.

No matter whether the Apple Cup is giving us arguably the worst rivalry matchup ever (2008 is the only power-conference rivalry game to come anywhere near making this all-time horrendous list) or a battle for a shot at the Rose Bowl, we know this: it’s gonna be dumb. Thank you, Apple Cup.

Stage 3: What if we include games in which the favorite won, but with peril? That counts as mayhem too.

The Red River Royal Rumble continues to set itself apart.

Over the last 25 years, all but one of these rivalries finished with no more than 13 games in which the underdog beat the point spread. Yep, even Army-Navy.

However, in the Red River Really Rowdy Revelry, the underdog has beaten the Vegas spread at least 15.5 times in 25 regular season meetings, according to the Odds Shark and Covers.com databases of historical spreads. Behold the Red River Ridiculous Ragnarok’s trail of lunacy:

  • 2018: 7-point underdog Texas 48, Oklahoma 45
  • 2017: Oklahoma 29, 9-point underdog Texas 24
  • 2016: Oklahoma 45, 13.5-point underdog Texas 40
  • 2015: 16.5-point underdog Texas 24, Oklahoma 17
  • 2014: Oklahoma 31, 16.5-point underdog Texas 26
  • 2013: 13.5-point underdog Texas 36, Oklahoma 20
  • 2009: Texas 16, 3-point underdog Oklahoma 13 (this is the .5 in our total)
  • 2008: 7-point underdog Texas 45, Oklahoma 35
  • 2007: Oklahoma 28, 12-point underdog Texas 21
  • 2001: 3-point underdog Oklahoma 14, Texas 3
  • 2000: 3-point underdog Oklahoma 63, Texas 14
  • 1998: 8-point underdog Texas 34, Oklahoma 3
  • 1997: 4-point underdog Texas 27, Oklahoma 24
  • 1996: 21-point underdog Oklahoma 30, Texas 27
  • 1995: tie (Texas was a 1.5-point underdog)
  • 1994: 3-point underdog Texas 17, Oklahoma 10

I say “at least 15.5” because Odds Shark also lists this, though Covers has OU as the favorite here:

  • 2002: 3-point underdog Oklahoma 35, Texas 24

Sort of like the Apple Cup, OU-Texas/Texas-OU has been bonkers no matter whether there’s everything to play for (2008 was one Michael Crabtree away from deciding a BCS Championship spot) or nothing to play for (the combined record at 1996’s kickoff was 3-6). It mixes all three of our factors into a big ole fried chiliburger-doughnut-pizza-cake-calzone of chaos, served up fresh fried at the Texas State Fair next door.

Why?

It can’t be just the midseason, neutral-site setting, because Florida-Georgia has nowhere near this level of constant insanity.

This game’s immense talent levels aren’t enough to create such unpredictable shifts, because Alabama-LSU produces clockwork by comparison.

It’s likely not just the rivalry’s frequent early kickoffs. I doubt starting one local hour earlier than Michigan-Ohio State makes that much delirious difference.

You can’t chalk it all up to minimally challenged assumptions about, say, Bob Stoops choking in big games, because Bob Stoops was actually good in big games.

It can’t just be the pew pew pew Big 12-ness, because this series was like this even before the lessons of Mike Leach’s brief Sooners stint really took hold throughout the conference and region.

The only way to understand the utter entropy of the Red River Rampant Riot is to look up into the eyes of the Chaos God himself.

Do you see?