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6 things every rivalry can learn from great Thanksgiving rivalries

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Let’s apply some semi-science to figure out what makes a great Rivalry Week battle, then try to apply it to every game.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports. Banner Society Illustration.

A great rivalry can turn a bad season good, sour an opponent’s dreams, and give fans something to stew over for an entire year. If you have a great rivalry, savor the hate through the winter months, confident that you are virtuous and your rival wicked.

If you don’t? You can’t just manufacture one. As Mitch Hedberg said, “They say the recipe for Sprite is lemon and lime. I tried to make it at home … there’s more to it than that.” You can point a couple of division mates at each other and call it a rivalry, but there’s more to it.

I’ve identified six ingredients any rivalry needs in order to come out of the oven with a dense, light crumb and not a soggy bottom.

1. Proximity

In search of an enemy? Home is where the hate is. My next-door neighbor’s a dick. I know those branches don’t keep ending up on my side by accident. I retaliate by picking increasingly obnoxious Christmas decorations.

No pissing contest is more proximate than the Battle of the Ravine between Division II rivals Ouachita Baptist and Henderson State, across the street from each other in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. The “visiting” team gets dressed in their own locker room before walking to their opponent’s field.

Google Maps

2. Persistence

College football’s extremely old, outlived in America only by the Kentucky Derby, Westminster Dog Show, and institutional racism.

When the Wright Brothers pioneered the manned flight on a North Carolina beach? Virginia and North Carolina were a dozen games into the South’s Oldest Rivalry. There were only 44 states when Minnesota and Wisconsin began their tussle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe. When Carolina first took aim at Duke? Gavrilo Princip was 26 years from taking aim at the Archduke.

No two schools have more pestering persistence than FCS foes Lafayette and Lehigh, Pennsylvania schools separated by 17 miles, who began their rivalry so long ago they get to title it The Rivalry. 2019 marks their 155th meeting since 1884 and the 130th in a streak back to 1897. Some schools suspended their programs during World War II. These two? They just played each other twice as often in those years.

Kane Tanaka, the oldest verified living person on earth, was born in 1903. These schools had faced 36 times by then, more times than Ohio State and Penn State have faced ever.

3. Perspective

Contrast — or the perception of contrast — is important to establishing an “Us (Virtuous, Handsome) vs. Them (Michigan)” nature.

Often, this manifests as flagship university vs. land-grant college, research institution vs ag school, city slickers vs. country folk. Washington and Washington State are nearly opposites, and that’s what makes the Apple Cup so sweet. Sometimes, the differences are just deeply felt; Gamecocks and Tigers insist they’re worlds apart, even if that isn’t apparent to anyone outside of South Carolina.

The University of Cincinnati and Miami University are both in southwest Ohio, 40 miles from each other. For many years, they shared a similar athletic profile, even being conference-mates in the MAC.

They couldn’t be more different, though. Robert Frost once deemed Miami’s pastoral setting “the most beautiful campus there ever was.” Cincinnati is wedged onto two urban superblocks, packed in the heart of the city, chockablock with postmodern architecture. When one travels to the other in search of the Victory Bell, there’s never any doubt whose turf they’re on.

4. Parity

There might be tradition in Notre Dame playing Navy every year — a relationship based on Notre Dame’s sense of debt to the US Navy for establishing a training center there during World War II — but it didn’t feel like more than a formality when the Irish strung together 43 straight victories. (Charlie Weis: Reviver of Rivalries!) No, a rivalry is based on both teams winning.

FCS foes Richmond and William & Mary have a 62-62-5 record in their Capital Cup series, but 12 of the last 15 have gone to the Spiders. That clash between Cincinnati and Miami? After 124 meetings, it stands at 59-58-7 in favor of the RedHawks … but only after 14 straight (and counting) for the Bearcats.

Check out the Magic City Classic between Alabama State and Alabama A&M, the state’s two largest HBCUs, played at Birmingham’s Legion Field. A&M has extended its lead to 42-38-3, with both teams taking five of 10 games in the 2010s.

Want to keep your rivalry alive? Don’t win too often. [glares at Ohio State]

5. Purpose

The Old Oaken Bucket. The Little Brown Jug. Whatever the Land Grant Trophy is — a good game’s gotta have a prize.

You might be partial to the Golden Hat given to the winner of the Red River Shootout. Perhaps you lament that a trophy as good as the Wagon Wheel is wasted on Akron-Kent State.

The best, per my capricious metrics, is the Bronze Turkey, awarded to the winner between Division III rivals Knox College (the Prairie Fire!) and Monmouth College (the Fighting Scots!)

Most of these games are played right around Thanksgiving. Do you want to come home and say, “Hey, Ma! I brought you a Paddlewheel Trophy!” Of course not. You want to bring this graven image of gluttony.

Knox College

6. Pissedness

Some rivalries simmer because one school objected to acknowledging the other — Iowa refused to play Iowa State for decades, for one example. Division III rivals Millsaps and Mississippi College took 40 years apart in all sports after a spat between fraternities at a 1960 basketball game turned into a brawl. East Carolina and NC State went on a five-year hiatus after violent incidents marred their 1987 meeting.

You need hate stretching back to being essentially folklore. That’s what undergirds the Biggest Little Rivalry In America, the Division III matchup between Massachusetts’ Amherst College and Williams College.

A sibling schism on the level of Springfield vs. Shelbyville, their discord dates to the founding of Amherst itself. Williams professor Zephaniah Smith Moore decided Williams’ location was too remote, so he founded his own college, taking a share of Williams’ professors, students, and library. They had to wait for football to be invented to have a release for all this anger.

Next, stir vigorously.

Can a rivalry succeed without one of these elements? Sure. Notre Dame and USC aren’t anywhere near each other. Kentucky and Louisville have only played regularly for a quarter-century. The best rivalries are going to hit most categories, though.

2019’s Rivalry Week has 64 FBS games. Let’s take this formula and apply it to all of these rivalry games.

But Mr. Cookbook! My rivalry isn’t this week! We played our rival at a different point! Your premise is fundamentally flaw--

Nope. See the calendar? It doesn’t say Play A Team You Don’t Care About Week, does it? Nope, Rivalry Week is Rivalry Week. Participating during Rivalry Week is the same as declaring, “I, the designated representative of Michigan State, believe Maryland to be our biggest rival.” Schedule differently if you don’t like it.

For Proximity, Persistence, and Parity, it was simple. We entered the values (distance between campuses, number of meetings, winning percentage of the historically dominant rival as it deviates from .500) and assigned scores. For Perspective (cultural differences), Purpose (trophies), and Pissedness, it’s up to my whims. What’s more in the spirit of college football than creating an overly complex formula and spoiling it with arbitrary decisions by an unqualified entity?

TIER 5: You call THIS a rivalry? (Oh, you don’t? Good. You shouldn’t.)

These games are admissions that you do not have real rivals and might not be a college football program, but rather a money-laundering scheme.

64. Southern Miss - Florida Atlantic (SCORE: 1.07)
63. Coastal Carolina - Texas State (SCORE: 1.17)

The battle for the Hardest Team To Remember When Playing A Sporcle Quiz Trophy.

62. UTSA - Louisiana Tech (SCORE: 1.28)
61. Arkansas State - South Alabama (SCORE 1.33)
60. UAB - North Texas (SCORE: 1.38)
59. New Mexico State - Liberty (SCORE: 1.42)

The only rivalry to get a goose egg for Pissedness, since these teams played each other twice in both 2018 and 2019, via their mutual desperation for opponents. This isn’t a rivalry, it’s a codependent relationship.

58. Charlotte - Old Dominion (SCORE 1.45)
57. Boise State - Colorado State (SCORE: 1.57)

Feels like it should be a rivalry. Then you realize Boise State has an eight-game winning streak, and they’ve only played eight times.

56. Army - Hawaii (SCORE: 1.58)
55. FIU - Marshall (SCORE: 1.63)

Big “December 18 bowl in Destin, Florida” energy.

54. Navy - Houston (SCORE: 1.67)
53. East Carolina - Tulsa (SCORE: 1.97)
52. Wake Forest - Syracuse (SCORE: 2.0)

The first Power 5 game on our list! This might be a compelling matchup. In basketball. In 1996.

TIER 4: It seems like you might actually want this to be a rivalry, which only makes it worse.

51. Bowling Green - Buffalo (SCORE 2.03)
50. Baylor - Kansas (SCORE 2.07)
49. Rutgers - Penn State (SCORE: 2.08)

I don’t want to imply Rutgers is likable. They’re extremely unlikable. Attend a game and you’ll see. But it’s just, well [gesturing to scoreboard], it’s hard to care too much.

48. Maryland - Michigan State (SCORE: 2.1)
47. Utah State - New Mexico (SCORE: 2.15)
46. Miami - Duke (SCORE: 2.17)

There’s no way you can have a game end the way their 2017 meeting did and not end up with people furious.

45. UConn - Temple (SCORE 2.28)
44. Rice - UTEP (SCORE: 2.32)
43. Appalachian State - Troy (SCORE: 2.43)
42. BYU - San Diego State (SCORE: 2.48)

There are fundamental differences between Provo and San Diego, but that alone can’t support a rivalry.

41. Boston College - Pittsburgh (SCORE: 2.52)
40. Tulane - SMU (SCORE: 2.55)
39. Cincinnati - Memphis (SCORE: 2.6)

Deeply weird river towns that have little in common with the rest of their states? There’s something to work with.

TIER 3: This house has good bones. A few leaks. Some mice. Might be haunted. Good bones, though.

38. West Virginia - TCU (SCORE: 2.67)
37. Toledo - Central Michigan (SCORE: 2.73)
36. Iowa - Nebraska (SCORE: 2.8)

The Heroes Trophy, while well-intentioned, carries the stink of 2011 Big Ten thinking. We’ve moved beyond Legends and Leaders, guys.

35. Western Michigan - Northern Illinois (SCORE: 2.87)
34. Kent State - Eastern Michigan (SCORE: 2.92)
33. Ohio - Akron (SCORE: 2.95)
32. Notre Dame - Stanford (SCORE: 2.97)

Aren’t anywhere near each other, and they’ve only played 32 times. They make up for it with balance and a trophy made of “a Dublin Irish crystal bowl resting on a California redwood base.” We respect the blending of the two schools and the erasure of Indiana. (Even if the trophy looks like it came from Crate & Barrel.)

notre dame stanford legends trophy

31. Miami (Ohio) - Ball State (SCORE: 2.98)
30. Missouri - Arkansas (SCORE: 3.0)
29. UCLA - California (SCORE: 3.05)
28. UNLV - Nevada (SCORE: 3.18)
27. Wyoming - Air Force (SCORE: 3.33)
26. Iowa State - Kansas State (SCORE: 3.35)

TIER 2: You might be on to something. But it is the official stance of Banner Society, which I do not technically work for but am happy to speak for, that every rivalry here, including #13, is a second-tier rivalry.

25. Texas - Texas Tech (SCORE: 3.37)

With extra points for the 2008 Michael Crabtree game.

24. Georgia State - Georgia Southern (SCORE: 3.38)
23. Middle Tennessee - Western Kentucky (SCORE: 3.42)
22. ULM - Louisiana (SCORE: 3.47)
21. Vanderbilt - Tennessee (SCORE: 3.48)
20. Fresno State - San Jose State (SCORE: 3.5)

A pretty great matchup! Only 150 miles apart. They’ve met 82 times, with Fresno holding a slim, 42-37-3 lead.

19. Oklahoma - Oklahoma State (SCORE: 3.63)
18. Colorado - Utah (SCORE: 3.7)

I would be derelict if I did not respect a rivalry titled Rumble in the Rockies. Despite its recent revival, they’ve met 65 times, mostly in the first half of the 20th century.

17. USF - UCF (SCORE: 3.78)

This one’s tough, because obviously one team is of a higher tier.

Of course we mean USF, who holds a dominant, 6-4 lead. They have never trailed UCF in head-to-head, have reached a higher place in the AP rankings (#2) than UCF (#8), and have never had a winless season, let alone one this decade. Please submit any complaints about this list of facts to

16. Texas A&M - LSU (SCORE: 3.83)

The scale of Pissedness is supposed to go from 0 to 5. I assigned this a 7, because I fear what Kevin Faulk might do if I don’t.

15. North Carolina - NC State (SCORE: 3.85)
14. Florida - Florida State (SCORE: 4.02)
13. Alabama - Auburn (SCORE: 4.08)

The top rivalry in our second tier, this is in our second tier. This is a second-tier rivalry. I don’t make the rules. (I do make the rules.)

Things working against it: not quite as close, frequently played, or balanced as some.

Things really working against it: the trophy is a silver object called the James E. Foy Sportsmanship Award. This is the Iron Bowl. I want a danged iron bowl.

TIER 1: If your rivalry isn’t in this tier, you should be personally ashamed.

12. South Carolina - Clemson (SCORE: 4.18)
11. Virginia - Virginia Tech (SCORE: 4.28)
10. Washington - Washington State (SCORE: 4.3)
9. Northwestern - Illinois (SCORE: 4.32)
8. Arizona - Arizona State (SCORE: 4.33)
7. Indiana - Purdue (SCORE: 4.38)

The Old Oaken Bucket is such a Big Ten trophy it hurts.

NCAA FOOTBALL: NOV 26 Purdue at Indiana Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6. Georgia - Georgia Tech (SCORE: 4.4)
5. Ohio State - Michigan (SCORE: 4.42)

Should be as good as a rivalry comes. Two of the most storied programs, with a century-plus of conflict featuring epic games and huge stakes. One of the best rewards in college football: Ohio State’s gold-pants pendants to every player who beats Michigan.

The only thing holding it back is Michigan’s 21st-century aversion to showing up.

4. Louisville - Kentucky (SCORE: 4.48)

They’ve only played 31 times, but that adds to the Pissedness score, as Kentucky refused to acknowledge Louisville for decades. It’s got razor-thin margins, with Kentucky leading 16-15. As a neutral party who lives in this footprint? Every person on both sides is out of their mind. (That’s a good thing.)

3. Oregon - Oregon State (SCORE: 4.65)

Two of the closest schools in FBS, with only 44 miles between. A history well past a century. A reasonable amount of winning on each side. Stark differences in culture and style. Oh, and something called the Platypus Trophy?

1T. Ole Miss - Mississippi State (SCORE: 4.72)

A mere hundred miles apart. A hundred-plus meetings. A flagship that draws from out-of-state with its preppy vibe vs. a land-grant with agricultural roots. The Golden Egg trophy. Parity. The fundamental belief, somewhat merited, that the other guys are lying, cheating, and lying about cheating.

1T. Minnesota - Wisconsin (SCORE: 4.72)

Distance is the only category where this lags, and that doesn’t seem fair: sure, there’s 270 miles between Minneapolis and Madison, but this runs right to the state line. They’ve got one of the greatest trophies in sports, Paul Bunyan’s Axe. With 128 meetings, it’s the most-played series in FBS … and 2019’s winner takes the lead, which had been deadlocked at 60-60-8.

And finally, we’ve selected some lower-performing rivalries that still have promise. These are fixer-upper Rivalry Week games.

With elbow grease, we can turn these duds into top-tier games! Or flip them for a profit before anyone notices the shoddy wiring.

UCLA - California

Notre Dame’s rivalries with USC and Stanford muck up scheduling, so we’re often left with this game in Rivalry Week.

UC Los Angeles and UC Berkeley have one factor in common that their traditional rivals don’t: they’re public universities. So this is now the Public Enemies Game.

They can embrace Prohibition-era lawlessness and play for a bootlegger’s hot rod or steal from the East Coast and have Flavor Flav’s clock necklace as a trophy. They could bring in law-breaking alumni like UCLA’s Nicolas Cage, who once stole the Declaration of Independence, or Kevin Love, who kidnapped Steph Curry in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

Missouri - Arkansas

This shows promise. They play every year now, share a border, and have a cool trophy that uses both states’ outlines to look like a happily fat man. It just needs something to up the ante.

Consider the “Battle Line” of the Battle Line Rivalry. Missouri and Arkansas debated their demarcation from the start, with landowner John Hardeman Walker’s machinations securing the “boot heel” that dips below 36°30’ into Arkansas’ logical boundaries.

Let’s put something at stake. Let’s move the border with each game.

Google Maps

West Virginia - TCU

Nothing in common, aside from the desperation that led them to join the Big 12. TCU’s a geographic fit, but West Virginia was a marriage of convenience. That doesn’t mean this can’t be happily contentious, even with 1,200 miles separating Fort Worth and Morgantown.

What made the Backyard Brawl great was the proximity between Pitt and WVU. TCU is sitting happy in this sense, having SMU and Baylor close by, so they won’t expect what we’re proposing: the Mountaineers invade.

West Virginia should spend an entire season in the Metroplex as occupying forces. They can camp out in the Cowboys’ stadium. It’s a big venue with a lot of hiding places, and Mountaineers are crafty.

TCU will reconsider their rivalry list once they have to go to Morgantown to get their Frog Fountain back.

Ah geez they filled it with beer we’re gonna have to have this thing cleaned when we get it home

Maryland - Michigan State

Another union forced by realignment. Not a lot to get excited about. Maryland is sometimes briefly ranked, including in 2019, a grievous error that undergoes market correction. Michigan State has pretty much always played ugly football, only occasionally successfully.

Around Thanksgiving, both teams often prefer we focus on other sports. So let’s borrow a trick from former MLB commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig. We’re going to say “This One Counts!” and give the winner home-court advantage in both of their basketball meetings.

Miami - Duke

Should pick a new location more convenient for both fanbases — at the geographic epicenter of Miami and Duke rooting interests. They can take a page from Virginia Tech and Tennessee’s Battle at Bristol Motor Speedway, finding a historic, large-capacity, non-football venue.

They can play at Belmont Park on Long Island.

Baylor - Kansas

[clears throat]

[tunes guitar]

[approaches mic]

You’ll say

We’ve got nothing in common

No common ground to start from

and Baylor leads 14-4

You’ll say

The Big 12 doesn’t need us

Our teams don’t really mean much

and I know no one cares

And I said, “What about, we let real bears play hawks?”

She said, “I think that people might die”

But as I figure, people would watch it

and I said, “well, that’s the one thing we’ve got”

Penn State - Rutgers

[the long, deep sigh of someone forced to consider Rutgers in the Big Ten, despite the failure of Jim Delany’s craven experiment in television empire-building] why do we have to do this

Let’s find some meat on these bones. They’re from neighboring states? Uhh, they’re later entries into the Big Ten? They … hmm.

You know how Rutgers — possibly speciously — touts their role as the Birthplace of College Football, with their not-really-football contest being claimed as the first game? This should be played exactly as that 1869 contest was. No throwing, 25 players on the field for each team, scoring in 10 single-point “games.”

Rutgers will find a way to lose by 30, but it’ll make for interesting television. And if there’s any team that loves living in the past as much as Rutgers, it’s Penn State.

These are my proposals, college football.

I await your response.