College football used to own Thanksgiving Day. There have been more than 1,400 FBS-equivalent games on Thanksgiving itself, starting well before the end of the 19th century and running to now.
But they’ve tapered off, starting during World War II and continuing since the NFL made Thanksgiving broadcasts one of its own annual staples, starting in the 1970s.
Why compete with the NFL? Modern dynamics made it inevitable that college football would reduce its Thanksgiving presence. Still, the college version remains America’s oldest sports tradition on this holiday.
One of the best parts of college football Thanksgiving is that it’s historically been a key part of Rivalry Week, the thing CFB does better than any other sport. So, it’s not just the sport that’s become part of a lot of families’ Thanksgiving traditions. It is specific opponents, who’ve had the capacity to ruin whole holidays for their rivals and those rivals’ fans.
Even though college football’s modern Rivalry Week is less about Thanksgiving Day itself, we can still learn some things by looking back at what Turkey Day has meant since very near the beginning of the sport.
The oldest Thanksgiving rivalry: Yale-Princeton
The first football game on Thanksgiving was Yale 2, Princeton 0, in Hoboken on November 30, 1876. Public information is sparse, but Princeton’s student newspaper thought it was fishy that the referee was “a Yale man.”
They played 11 more times on Thanksgiving, all before 1900. Now the Ivy League season ends before Thanksgiving, and Yale spends the prior weekend with Harvard. Yale faculty didn’t want students playing sports on a holiday, a Princeton researcher found.
Plus, why play in front of empty stadiums when your students are home on break? That’s a concern for schools to this day.
The most obviously Thanksgiving rivalry: Alabama State’s Turkey Day Classic
We’re mostly looking at FBS-equivalent games here, but the Hornets’ long tradition of welcoming other HBCUs — most frequently Tuskegee — to Montgomery on Thanksgiving Day must be mentioned.
The most Thanksgiving rivalry in FBS-equivalent football, both in raw quantity and as a percentage of total games: Penn-Cornell
The Quakers and Big Red played 59 times on Thanksgiving, 47% of their all-time meetings. It was an annual date through 1965. Some of these games were huge, like the 1947 meeting that drew a reported 80,000 to watch the Quakers finish undefeated.
“Certainly a significant number of people remember the good old days and remember Penn playing Cornell,” Penn AD Paul Rubincam told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1989, when the game was briefly moving back to Thanksgiving because ESPN wanted to televise it on a day with one FBS game. “It was something they built their Thanksgiving Day around.”
The Inquirer cited flagging attendance as a reason the tradition stopped. “We face the risk of a fairly empty student section,” Rubincam said.
Penn and Cornell haven’t played on the holiday since ‘89 and never will again, absent changes in the Ivies’ scheduling structure. That means they’re primed to get overtaken in the Thanksgiving standings by ...
The Thanksgiving rivalry that’s most consistently remained a Thanksgiving rivalry in the modern era: Ole Miss-Mississippi State
The Egg Bowl is now college football’s closest thing to an exclusively Thanksgiving affair, with 26 meetings and counting, as of 2019.
Mississippi’s bitterest haters first met on the holiday in 1998, and they played on Thanksgiving five more times in the next eight years. They took a break but have since returned as a somewhat reliable holiday staple.
It’s often an ugly game, but it’s produced plenty of internet fun. My favorite Thanksgiving Egg Bowl moments are:
1. D.K. Metcalf catching a touchdown and pretending to pee like a dog on MSU’s field:
2. Breeland Speaks recovering a fumble and then staring right into ESPN’s camera lens and waving like he was excited to be on TV for the first time ...
Breeland Speaks recovered a fumble, and says “hi.” pic.twitter.com/Ee4i7Pb0wM— Barrett Sallee (@BarrettSallee) November 24, 2017
... except that wasn’t what Speaks was doing at all. The real story is better! I asked him about the wave at his NFL Combine a few months later, and he told me he wasn’t waving at the camera, but at State head coach Dan Mullen. Thus, the Egg Bowl became the Egg Troll.
3. The 2013 game leaning into the ugly, even on in to overtime:
The Rebels and Bulldogs decided it would be cool to take the national Thanksgiving night TV spot once the teams who previously owned that slot got out of the way. Those were:
The Thanksgiving rivalry the fans of both teams miss the least, because they absolutely do not care about one another and certainly enjoy their Hate Week replacement rivalries just as much as their old one: Texas-Texas A&M
The Longhorns and Aggies spent 54 Thanksgivings together before political talk at the table drove them apart. They have not played since 2011, when Texas won 27-25 in their last meeting before A&M skedaddled to the SEC.
Both schools are very happy, thank you very much, with their hastily assembled replacement rivalries. Texas has played a couple of forgettable games against TCU and Texas Tech at basically the same time it would’ve played A&M before. The Aggies have made an annual date with LSU that’s been on Thanksgiving Night a couple of times. When they played one of the wildest games ever, however, it was on a Saturday.
This is where we talk about how realignment has been as much of a factor as TV (though the two are intertwined) in damaging great Thanksgiving rivalries. After Penn-Cornell, these are the most frequent Thanksgiving rivalries in major CFB history:
- Virginia Tech-VMI: 56 meetings (71% of total matchups)
- Texas A&M-Texas: 54 meetings (46%)
- Utah State-Utah: 36 meetings (32%)
- Pitt-Penn State: 33 meetings (33%)
- Missouri-Kansas: 32 meetings (27%)
Tech-VMI lasted for a while after the Hokies’ left the Keydets in the depleted Southern Conference. But as the SoCon dropped to FCS after 1981, a nice rivalry that had typically been played on Thanksgiving soon ended. VMI was 18-33-5 against the Hokies on Thanksgiving, and 25-49-5 overall, which I’m betting are better marks than you thought.
Utah State-Utah has gone from annual to sporadic since the Utes joined the Pac-12.
The start of the breakdown in Pitt-Penn State was about Pitt rebuffing Joe Paterno’s 1980s idea for an Eastern all-sports conference. Now, Penn State cites its nine-game Big Ten schedule as part of the reason it can’t make room for Pitt.
Missouri-Kansas ended like A&M-Texas: when one party bolted for the SEC. Here is Jayhawk diehard Rob Riggle telling us how he feels about that:
Missouri can go do whatever they want to do. Good luck. They made their choice. When you sneak out of a conference in the middle of the night, a conference that you helped found, go enjoy the Southeastern Conference, and good luck to you. Whatever, it’s fine.
Not annoyed at all.
The Thanksgiving rivalry with the greatest geographical convenience, best allowing dinner and a game on the same day: Iowa State-Drake
In the early 20th century, these schools — a mere 34 minutes apart — played on Thanksgiving 11 times. Iowa State won 10 and was courteous enough to play all of them on the road (neither program was great at the time), making for a day of family fun.
Among games that are not basically defunct, Richmond-William & Mary is a cartographical dream, as the campuses are a clean hour apart. A fan who lives on the right spot along I-64 could get to either campus in half that, then make it home to help cook. Thanksgiving used to provide ample chances. Bonus points if you’re able to get there without going north or south along I-95, a hellacious road.
U of R and W&M have played on the holiday 25 times, though they also can’t get back to Thanksgiving Day without big changes to the FCS schedule.
The saddest Thanksgiving rivalry ever, absolutely not worth people missing holiday time: a multi-way tie
- Maryland went 12-1 on Thanksgiving against Johns Hopkins long ago. These were not lacrosse games, and thus there was no reason to watch.
- Vanderbilt used to beat the hell out of Sewanee on Thanksgiving, going 10-3 on the holiday against the Tigers, including 23-6, 20-0, 27-0, 31-0, 40-0, and my personal favorite, 68-4. The Commodores were so good that they got to become the SEC’s doormat, while Sewanee wound up in Division III.
- Lafayette went 14-1 on a bunch of ancient Thanksgivings against Dickinson. The scores were almost never close and got worse as time went on.
The best Thanksgiving rivalry for a non-power owning a “power”: also a multi-team grab bag
One of the most fun historical threads involves finding have-nots that have great records against blue-bloods. Here are some Thanksgiving Day histories along that line:
- Saint Mary’s is 4-1 against Oregon on Thanksgiving. Saint Mary’s no longer has a team.
- Washington & Lee is 6-1 against NC State on that day. The Generals are now in DIII.
- Thanksgiving Davidson is 10-4 against Wake Forest. Davidson now plays non-scholarship FCS.
- And though Georgia Tech was long a heavyweight, that 8-2 Thanksgiving record against Clemson stands out now, with seven wins by 20 or more.
The Thanksgiving rivalry that allows a middling SEC program to legitimately claim Bama has not beaten it at something: Mississippi State vs. the Tide
Bama is 27-9 on Thanksgiving. But the Tide don’t really have one Thanksgiving rival. They’ve played Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt a handful of times each on the day, plus a few Auburns and other games thrown in.
The Tide have a winning record in all of those multi-game series, except for the one against MSU. They’re 3-3 in that one. The Bulldogs have never won the modern SEC, but they can say they ruined Thanksgiving for the Tide in 1913, 1914, and 1921.
And isn’t that what the holidays are all about?