If you are a fan of college football, and you follow a particular team with a passion, there may be times when you’ve actually uttered the phrase, “I don’t care how bad our final record is, as long as we beat….”
That’s the intensity and gravity of a traditional college football rivalry. Win that game, at all costs.
Coaches have literally been fired because they couldn’t get it done in the rivalry games, even though their overall record was more than solid (ask Jim Donnan). Fans have gone as far as to vandalize the homes of players who didn’t perform well in such games.
The networks even have an entire weekend of football dedicated to games like this, and they creatively title it “Rivalry Week”.
These traditional backyard brawls are the lifeblood of college football.
And college football is killing them, in spite of itself.
We’ve already seen some of the oldest, most storied college football rivalries become eradicated by the movement of schools to different conferences, and by the oldest of evils – money.
Texas-Texas A&M proved that over a century of memories and families giving each other the finger across the yard, a tradition of 118 meetings, could be snuffed out by the Longhorns’ ultimate desire for network power and money, and the Aggies’ desire to play in a more financially lucrative conference.
The Border War, Missouri vs. Kansas, is now a relic of the “old days” of college football, a victim of far too low of television ratings, and (again) the Missouri Tigers looking for greener pastures and pockets lined with SEC gold.
Oklahoma-Nebraska was once a fierce western skirmish, but is now merely a footnote in the history books or a nostalgic chat over a beer, swept away by the winds of conference change and realignment.
West Virginia and Pitt used to play one of the most volatile rivalry games in the nation, perhaps not as recognized by fans outside the eastern seaboard, but to those who took part in this yearly bludgeoning know it was a staple of bragging rights for the following year.
The list goes on of games that were once considered to be the epitome of what college football represented, many of them with actual trophies that are now doorstops and dust collectors.
The thing about this list is that all — every single one — of these rivalry games was killed off during the BCS era, something which has now itself been killed off. This year the BCS gives way to the new college football playoff system, something for which fans have been begging for what seems like an eternity.
Well, be careful what you wish for.
Although the playoff itself (once tweaked and molded into the image of those who control the money) will provide a more interesting end to the season — because lets face it, pitting the “two best teams” head to head was rather anticlimactic — it will present more interesting problems for the rivalry games.
One of the factors that will weigh heavily for the playoff selection committee is strength of schedule. Now if you’re a team in a power conference, and you have the choice of playing one more conference game that will boost your SOS, or playing a traditional rival from a weaker conference that will dilute your SOS…what do you do?
That’s right. The opportunity for postseason play and shiny rings and bobbles will most certainly take precedence over the decades and generations of tradition and sentiment that come with playing that “other team”.
Oh sure, some games will survive the purge.
There are some games like Georgia-Florida and USC-UCLA that will always be a draw. Heck, the Iron Bowl will probably outlive the college football playoff, and whatever comes after it.
And games like Army-Navy or Nevada-UNLV probably won’t ever have much of an effect on either team’s chances of being selected for the playoffs (besides, having an actual cannon for a trophy is just too cool to kill).
But title contending schools are now going to be much more concerned with making a good showing within their conference and making sure that any (if any end up being left) non-conference games are only against A-list teams. Even rivalry games within a conference but in different divisions are in jeopardy.
So what games are in danger of being wiped away like chalk on a blackboard once the playoff system gets rolling along?
Army-Notre Dame, Boston College-UMass, Georgia-Georgia Tech, Maryland-Navy, East Carolina-NC State and SMU-TCU are all games that could fall victim to being nixed by a team who feels that playing in that game could hurt their playoff chances.
One common theme there – every one of those games, with the exception of East Carolina-NC State (which began in 1970) has been played for over 100 years.
That’s a lot of tradition potentially being boxed and crated, only to be pulled out and dusted off for highlight shows and tributes.
Now you can sit there and say I’m an alarmist, or pessimist and that I’m way ahead of myself in just thinking the worst.
Funny though, I made similar predictions when the BCS era began.
Well, here’s a toast to progress…and to the slow and probably painful death of the college football rivalry.