Battles for the Bowls

NFL alumni tell us why these rivalry games are must-watch BCS matchups

Originally Published: November 14, 2012
By ESPN The Magazine staff | ESPN The Magazine

TitansDon McPeak/US PresswireIt's been years since Damian Williams (right) was at USC, but he still keeps up with the rivalry.

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YES, WE'RE DEVOTING an entire issue to Bama's trip to LSU. Yes, we watched the game of the year in front of a Death Valley-record 93,374 screaming fans (and Shaq!). And yes, we witnessed the most disturbing tailgate feast, a roasted pig in the shape of a baby elephant. But none of that means the Tigers and the Tide have the only grudge match that matters. With rivalry week coming up fast, we combed the calendar and circled these must-watch games with BCS berths on the line -- then found alumni from the NFL to tell us why their games matter just as much as any Bayou brouhaha.

Nov. 17 : USC at UCLA
Trojans lead series 46-28-7
With No. 17 UCLA* and No. 18 USC the top two teams in the Pac-12 South, this game should decide who faces Oregon, Oregon State or Stanford for the conference title.

Damian Williams, USC 2008-09 | Titans WR
"We said it was just another game, because we used to beat them all the time, but it's their Super Bowl. We knew we were going to get their best effort. Because we're just 15 miles down the road, we saw them in passing all the time, so it's a huge game. There's usually a fight or two, and the winner gets to claim the city."

Alterraun Verner, UCLA 2006-09 | Titans CB
"When you grow up in LA, there are two teams and you pick a side. I respect USC, but that was the team I wanted to beat. That's the game you're waiting for. You know a lot of guys on the other team because you played them in high school, so that game is to own the city. It's to hold your head high in LA."


Nov. 24 : Oklahoma state at Oklahoma
Sooners lead series 82-17-7
This season, at No. 12, Oklahoma is on the cusp of an at-large bid for a BCS bowl. A dominating win over the unranked Cowboys could seal the deal.

Barry Sanders, OSU '88 Heisman winner | Former Lions RB
"There was no bigger Oklahoma football fan than my dad. When we played OU, he made it clear that he wished me all the best, but he was a Sooner. I couldn't wait for that game. It was a tremendous rivalry and a chance for me to silence the naysayers and show what I could do against a top-notch opponent."

Billy Sims, OU '78 Heisman winner | Former Lions RB
"The saying in Norman is they win once every 10 or 20 years. It's big brother against little brother. When they beat us my sophomore year, their band played long after everyone left the stadium. It's a hate-hate relationship, and the hate is handed down generations. Whatever color they put you in in the crib is your fate."


Nov. 24 : Florida at Florida State
Gators lead series 33-21-2
The No. 6 Gators are likely headed to the BCS if they win out, while the No. 10 Seminoles need to pad their ranking as insurance against losing the ACC title.

Tim Tebow, Florida 2006-09 | Jets QB
"I grew up loving the Gators. I would cry when we lost to FSU and beg not to go to church so I didn't have to see the FSU fans. With Coach Meyer, we didn't call them Florida State or the Seminoles; they were 'that team out west.' If I'm asked what I'm most proud of from college, it's going undefeated vs. FSU."

Antonio Cromartie FSU 2003-04 | Jets CB
"It's the last game of the year and it's always meaningful. If you aren't going to a bowl, making sure they don't is enough. In the Swamp all you hear is 'Blue! Orange!' all day long. If you can silence that crowd, it's incredible. Today, whenever I see a Gator line up across from me, the rivalry carries over."


Nov. 24 : Georgia Tech at Georgia
Bulldogs lead series 62-39-5
Who cares if the Yellow Jackets aren't ranked. The No. 5 Bulldogs need the win to hold off Florida for the chance to take on the Tide for the conference title.

Michael Johnson, Georgia Tech 2005-08 | Bengals DE "A Georgia fan goes to Walmart, buys a T-shirt and calls himself a Bulldog. Georgia Tech folks have an affiliation with the school. Geno's always talking Georgia this, Georgia that, but Atlanta is where everyone wants to be, and the guys at Georgia Tech get to experience that in college. We're just way cooler."

Geno Atkins Georgia 2006-09 | Bengals DT
"I didn't know the extent of the rivalry until college, but I learned. It's a must-win game that people get into fights over. My junior year, they beat us and tore down our hedges, so the next year, when we won, someone stuck a Georgia flag in the middle of their field. I always mess with Mike. I remind him that Georgia runs the state."


Nov. 24 : South Carolina at Clemson
Tigers lead series 65-40-4
No. 11 Clemson might need an at-large berth if it doesn't win the ACC, while No. 9 South Carolina fights for the same in the SEC. Their hopes will live or die in the other Death Valley.

Stephon Gilmore, South Carolina 2009-11 | Bills CB
"C.J. and I sat next to each other in our team picture and I said, 'Why did you have to put me next to a Tiger?' If we lose to Clemson, people say it's the worst season ever; if we win, it's the best. My freshman year, we weren't going to a bowl, but our coaches said we would get respect if we won that game. We did."

C.J. Spiller, Clemson 2006-09 | Bills RB
"Even if you lose all of your games, if you beat USC, you get yearlong bragging rights. The rivalry goes deeper than the players on the field, and as long as Steve Spurrier is at USC, it'll keep getting bigger. He'll always have something to say about our program, and Coach Swinney won't ever back down."

*All rankings through Week 12. Reporting by Morty Ain, Anna Katherine Clemmons, Josh Cooper and Alyssa Roenigk.

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