Thursday, July 2, 2009
Red-hot rivalries to provide '09 fireworks
By Pat Forde
Sportsmanship is all well and good, but let's be honest: The games are more fun when there's a little hate involved. It's what makes rivalries simmer, and rivalries are woven tightly into the fabric of competition.
And nowhere in sports do rivalries run as deep and spirited as in college sports. Blame it on the student sections, the battling bands, the misbehaving mascots -- or the millionaire coaches who sometimes just can't get along. For whatever reason, campuses are where the blood really runs bad and the fans really get mad.
So the midsummer quest was to identify which college rivalries are hottest now, right here in 2009. No living on past glory, which is why you won't find Miami-Florida State or Notre Dame-USC or Army-Navy on the football list (or Georgetown-Syracuse or Indiana-Purdue or UCLA-Arizona on the basketball list).
But you will find plenty to disagree about -- which is another staple of all rivalries and all lists. Let the partisan arguing begin.
1. Texas Longhorns-Oklahoma Sooners
Date: Oct. 17
Why It's Hot Now: Everything picks up where it left off last season -- with the Sooners and Longhorns at each other's throats. Both teams should start this year in the top 5. Both quarterbacks, Sam Bradford of Oklahoma and Colt McCoy of Texas, should start the season as prime Heisman Trophy candidates. And neither program has forgotten (or forgiven) the back-and-forth hissing over who deserved to win the Great Big 12 South Tiebreaker Debate of '08. At last count, everyone but the Blue Angels had been hired to fly a biting banner over the other team's stadium. More airplanes and acrimony in '09, please!
Upper Hand Today: Texas. Yes, Oklahoma won the divisional tiebreaker, but the Sooners lost the head-to-head contest last fall. And the Longhorns own the more recent national championship.
Upper Hand Historically: Texas leads the all-time series 58-40-5, but Oklahoma leads 19-16-3 since 1971.
Boomer to Bevo: People don't cry over deaths in the family for as long as you guys have cried over the way last season played out.
Bevo to Boomer: When we get to a January bowl game, we know how to win it.
2. Tennessee Volunteers*-Florida Gators
Date: Sept. 19
Place: Gainesville, Fla.
Why It's Hot Now: Perhaps you've heard of Loudmouth Lane Kiffin? And what the first-year Tennessee coach said about Urban Meyer back on signing day? About how Kiffin was going to turn in the Gators to the NCAA after Meyer "cheated" and still couldn't beat the Volunteers for a recruit? And how, oops, Kiffin got it wrong and Meyer hadn't committed a violation after all -- a point made swiftly and angrily by both Florida brass and SEC commissioner Mike Slive? Yeah, that's why. Put it this way: If the loaded and defending national champions can beat the visiting and rebuilding Volunteers 100-0, they will beat them 100-0.
Upper Hand Today: It's all Florida. Gators have won four straight and 12 of the last 16 -- not a small part of the reason why Phil Fulmer is currently out of coaching.
Upper Hand Historically: All-time series is tied at 19, although 10 of Tennessee's wins came between World War I and the Korean War.
Albert to Smokey: You're all bark and no bite, little yapping dog.
Smokey to Albert: Don't you have another player to bail out of jail, Gator?
* Kiffin's brashness -- that's a more charitable word than "obnoxiousness" -- has made the Volunteers a circle-the-date opponent for several other SEC schools beyond Florida. Alabama (Oct. 24 at Tuscaloosa) and South Carolina (Oct. 31 at Knoxville) lead the pack of rivals who will bring a little extra juice to the stadium when they play Tennessee.
3. Florida Gators-Georgia Bulldogs
Date: Oct. 31
Place: Jacksonville, Fla.
Why It's Hot Now: The past two Cocktail Parties have featured intentional party fouls by both teams. In 2007, Georgia unleashed its full-squad, Dawg-pile, end-zone celebration on the Gators early in what would become a 42-30 upset. In 2008, Florida coach Urban Meyer retaliated by using all his timeouts late in a 49-10 Gators rout -- rubbing it in for every second possible. What will 2009 bring? An athletic director brawl at midfield?
Upper Hand Today: Florida won last year's game and the national championship, and it's pretty hard to argue with that.
Upper Hand Historically: Georgia leads the all-time series 46-38-2, but Florida has won 16 of the past 19 meetings.
Albert to UGA: Care to compare the Matt Stafford era to the Tim Tebow era?
UGA to Albert: Do they make black jorts for formal occasions?
4. UCLA Bruins-USC Trojans
Date: Nov. 28
Place: Los Angeles (L.A. Coliseum)
Why It's Hot Now: UCLA took out some provocative newspaper ads aimed at USC after hiring Rick Neuheisel. But by his own assertion, the Eddie Haskell-esque Neuheisel played nice where the Trojans were concerned in his first season coaching the Bruins. That ended this spring, when Neuheisel took off the gloves and got personal with Pete Carroll in an address to UCLA boosters. In a YouTube video since taken down, Neuheisel said he was miffed at Carroll for being the lone Pac-10 coach to vote against coaches' having their children on the sideline during games. Among other things, Neuheisel said, "I'm going to get you. I'm going to reel you in," and promised that the Bruins would "get after their ass" in the fall. Neuheisel's popping off returned some pugnacity to a rivalry softened by the passive demeanor of former UCLA coach Karl Dorrell. Now the hard part: The Bruins have to back it up on the field.
Upper Hand Today: Um, USC. The Trojans have won the past two meetings by a combined score of 52-14 and nine of the last 10.
Upper Hand Historically: Despite losing eight straight in the 1990s, USC leads the all-time series 43-28-7.
Tommy Trojan to Joe Bruin: Call us when you're ready to compete, Basketball Boy.
Joe Bruin to Tommy Trojan: We'll call you, all right. Just as soon as that NCAA investigation into Reggie Bush and O.J. Mayo wraps up, you'll hear from us loud and clear.
5. LSU Tigers-Alabama Crimson Tide
Date: Nov. 7
Place: Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Why It's Hot Now: Last year, roughly 90,000 LSU fans spent a tense and emotionally charged afternoon coating former-savior-turned-Alabama-savior Nick Saban in boos -- arguably the largest concentration of ill will upon a single individual in sporting history. (Go ahead, name me one greater.) Crimson Tide fans took it personally because they're Crimson Tide fans -- they take everything football-related personally. Thus, LSU coaches, players and fans should expect similar hostility in Bryant-Denny Stadium this year. In a league that never turns the other cheek, it's all about the payback.
Upper Hand Today: Bama won in overtime last year on its way to the SEC West title.
Upper Hand Historically: Alabama leads the all-time series 44-23-5, although LSU had won five straight before last season.
Big Al the Elephant to Mike the Tiger: Got Nick?
Mike the Tiger to Big Al the Elephant: Got any textbooks I can buy?
6. Texas A&M Aggies-Texas Tech Red Raiders
Date: Oct. 24
Place: Lubbock, Texas
Why It's Hot Now: The April NFL draft served as the flash point for this rivalry. After former Aggies quarterback Stephen McGee capped an up-and-down college career by being selected by the Dallas Cowboys in the fourth round, famed smart-aleck Mike Leach observed, "I'm happy for Stephen McGee. The Dallas Cowboys like him more than his coaches at A&M did." That crack so irritated A&M coach Mike Sherman, who played McGee sparingly as a senior in part because of injury, that he fired back on consecutive days -- once in a statement from the school: "There is nothing Mike Leach could ever say that would offend me. I do find it unfortunate, however, that a college coach feels the need to question the handling of a player by a staff particularly without any knowledge of the facts or the extent of a player's injury. It is equally bothersome that a football coach would question the draft status of a player. This doesn't make any sense to me." Leach, feeling the muscle from owning the rivalry in recent years and always in search of the last word, got it when talking to the Lubbock Avalanche Journal: "I've always known A&M had great players. The fact that they have the luxury to put a third- or fourth-round draft pick on the bench, to me, identifies what a truly great team they are.
It's an honor for us at Texas Tech to have the opportunity to play them. There are numerous players on our team that will never get a look or play a down in the NFL, so you can imagine how exciting it is for me and them to go play a team the magnitude of Texas A&M and look over there on the bench and see third- and fourth-round draft picks." Shortly thereafter, both coaches reportedly attempted to call each other without getting through.
Upper Hand Today: Tech won last year's game, has won four straight and has been the much stronger program in recent years.
Upper Hand Historically: Texas A&M leads the all-time series 34-32-1, but Tech has won 11 of the last 14.
Reveille to Masked Raider: Your coach has no class.
Masked Raider to Reveille: Your coach has no wins.
7. Ohio State Buckeyes-Michigan Wolverines
Date: Nov. 21
Place: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Why It's Hot Now: Not so much because of on-field competitiveness, as the Wolverines attempt to dig out of a rare downturn. This particular meeting gets its heat from the eligibility of honorable mention all-Big Ten offensive lineman Justin Boren at Ohio State after a publicly acrimonious transfer from Michigan. Boren had rather famously announced that "family values have eroded" at Michigan under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez -- chapping many hides within the program. Then he made it worse with what is believed to be the first high-profile transfer between the two ancient rivals since World War II. He's slated to start for Ohio State, and no guard's play will be more closely scrutinized in a single game all season than Boren's in this one.
Upper Hand Today: Ohio State is on a Buckeye-record five-game winning streak in the series under Jim Tressel and has allowed just 10 points the last two meetings.
Upper Hand Historically: The Wolverines lead the all-time series 57-42-6. In fact, the winningest program in college football history leads every all-time series of 20 meetings or more (13 in all).
Brutus Buckeye to, um, Nobody (Michigan does not have a Wolverine mascot, just a nickname): The Vest is best.
Nobody to Brutus Buckeye: Rod is God (or will be, eventually, we really hope).
8. Washington Huskies-Washington State Cougars
Date: Nov. 28
Why It's Hot Now: Who cares if both teams are terrible? The enmity between them is BCS-worthy. This rivalry went all the way to the state capitol during the offseason, as a Washington bid to get $150 million in state funding to renovate Husky Stadium met stiff resistance from Washington State boosters. They met with members of the legislature and went to so far as to rent a plane with a banner to fly over the capitol urging lawmakers to vote against the state senate bill that would provide the funding. UW athletic director Scott Woodward took shots at the Wazzu administration when the funding was killed off. "The most disappointing thing about it is that [WSU president] Elson Floyd and [WSU athletic director] Jim Sterk didn't do anything to try to contain that little group of Cougars that were out there doing that," Woodward told the Seattle Times. "It was a shame that they didn't show leadership or courage to curtail something like that." Sterk's response, via the Spokane Spokesman-Review: "It was so inappropriate that I laughed, basically. I could not believe those comments were coming from him. One, to me as athletic director, but then two, to the president of the university." Fellas, let's meet in Yakima and settle this once and for all!
Upper Hand Today: Washington State asserted, ahem, state superiority with a 16-13 double-overtime victory last year. That lifted the Cougars to the dizzying height of 2-11 while dooming the Huskies to 0-12.
Upper Hand Historically: Washington has dominated, leading the series 64-31-6, though Washington State has won four of the last five.
Harry the Husky to Butch T. Cougar: Wait until you try to get a dime of public funding to renovate that Division II bandbox you call a stadium.
Butch T. Cougar to Harry the Husky: Wait until we beat you this fall for our first three-game winning streak in series history.
9. Ole Miss Rebels-Arkansas Razorbacks
Date: Oct. 24
Place: Oxford, Miss.
Why It's Hot Now: You mean beyond the obvious -- Houston Nutt ending a successful but hugely controversial run with the Razorbacks to coach the rival Rebels in the same SEC division, then beating the Hogs last year? Yeah, well, there's also Ole Miss' complaint lodged with the SEC office after last year's game about abusive treatment of the Rebels' ball boys on the rival sideline from Arkansas staffers. And the postgame confrontation between Arkansas videographer Matt Wolfe and Ole Miss fan-site editor Chuck Rounsaville, which led to Wolfe's being cuffed on the field. These two programs don't need Houston to have a problem.
Upper Hand Today: The Rebels won on the road last season on their way to a surprising 9-4 season, while the Razorbacks tumbled to 5-7, and Ole Miss is considered a contender to win its first-ever SEC West crown.
Upper Hand Historically: The Hogs lead the all-time series 29-25-1 and have won 10 of the past 15 -- many of those with Nutt as coach.
Colonel Reb to Boss Hog: Which job will Bobby Petrino chase this year?
Boss Hog to Colonel Reb: He already turned yours down years ago.
10. Boston College Eagles-Virginia Tech Hokies
Date: Oct. 10
Place: Blacksburg, Va.
Why It's Hot Now: The former Big East opponents have upgraded their rivalry in the ACC, facing off four times in the past two years -- twice in the regular season and twice in the ACC title game. In those meetings the regular season has belonged to the Eagles and the postseason has belonged to the Hokies. With BC's moving on to its third head coach in the last four years, there's no telling how that might affect the rivalry.
Upper Hand Today: Tech has the league hardware and BCS bowl appearances on its side, which more than offsets losing three of the last five in the series.
Upper Hand Historically: The Hokies own an 11-6 all-time series lead, including seven straight from 1996 to 2002.
Baldwin the Eagle to HokieBird: Which former Atlanta Falcons No. 1 draft pick would you rather be, Michael Vick or Matt Ryan?
HokieBird to Baldwin the Eagle: What's it like to have head coaches walk out on you more often than John Daly's wives?
Ohio State-Penn State (Nov. 7, State College, Pa.): The Buckeyes or Nittany Lions have won the past four Big Ten titles, and as long as western Pennsylvania native Terrelle Pryor wears an Ohio State uniform, this will be spicy.
Florida State-Clemson (Nov. 7, Clemson, S.C.): It's not the Bowden Bowl anymore, and that cannot please the coach of the Seminoles.
Missouri-Kansas (Nov. 28, Kansas City): Old-time hostility, newfound respectability for both programs.
USC-Oregon State (Oct. 24, Los Angeles): What is the only team with a winning record against the Trojans the last three years? The Beaver believers.
Utah-BYU (Nov. 28, Provo, Utah): One or both of the Holy War combatants have had at least 10 wins in five of the last six seasons, dominating the Mountain West Conference.
West Virginia-South Florida (Oct. 30, Tampa, Fla.): One or both of these cultural opposites have been ranked in every meeting as Big East opponents.
Boise State-Hawaii (Oct. 24, Honolulu): The Broncos have won 25 of their last 26 Western Athletic Conference games. The lone loss: to the Warriors in 2007, the rare occasion when two WAC teams were ranked.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.