College football's best: tradition-rich rivalries

This is a delicious time of year for college football, not so much because things are getting sorted out among pretenders and contenders but because most of the greatest rivalries occur.

And a rivalry is infinitely better than just another game. Games are all the time, like in the early season when Rutgers played Cal and Murray State played Wisconsin. But rivalries are like next week's contests between Ohio State and Michigan, Oregon State and Oregon, Washington State and Washington. Oh my, be still our hearts.

A game addresses us superficially, while a rivalry addresses us at the core. The essence of sport is caring about the outcome. In a rivalry, millions really care.

A rivalry typically is fueled by matriculation as well as geographic proximity of the antagonists. Closeness breeds both love and contempt. There is much more at stake in a rivalry because we invest more of ourselves in it. There are not many graduates of Mississippi or Mississippi State, for instance, who are eyeing the Nov. 25 contest at Starkville with detachment.

Rivalries also are awash in history. No true fan can look down in jammed Michigan Stadium next week and not see ghosts of the old friends and adversaries, the late OSU coach Woody Hayes and the former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler. It seems like only yesterday that both of these indescribably irascible men were going at each other as if there were no tomorrow.

UCLA and USC also play next week. Neither team is much good, but it won't matter. And the past will make you weep. Example: It was just six falls ago that UCLA intercepted a pass in its own end zone on the last play of the game that looked as if it would produce the winning score for Southern Cal. Result was UCLA got to go to the Rose Bowl and USC got to fume.

Indeed, just the mere fact of a rivalry is ample but when it means something beyond even the rivalry - like who goes to the Rose Bowl - then it's almost too much for a body to bear. This could happen Nov. 20 when No. 1-ranked Florida State plays No. 4 Florida. Perhaps at stake, ultimately: the national championship.

Emotions at a game like this are raw.

Alabama, always proud and arrogant even when it has no entitlement papers, takes on Auburn next week. Alabama will win, just because it plans on it. Sometimes Auburn has the better team, but the Tide pays that no nevermind. A perfect example: In 1985, 'Bama made a 52-yard field goal as time expired to win, 25-23.

Harvard and Yale. Mercy, sakes. It matters not that the true glory years for each were eons ago. Yalies still grind their teeth over the 1968 game when Harvard scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion with no time left to tie them, 29-29.

A flock of tradition-rich rivalries come at the end of the month: Texas ("The eyes of Texas are upon you") and Texas A&M, Arizona and Arizona State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma, and Georgia and Georgia Tech. And certainly, Army vs. Navy, the 100th battle coming Dec. 4. Army leads the series, 48-44-7. Doesn't matter. Army has won five of the last six years. Neither is very good this year, with a combined record so far of 6-11. Doesn't matter.

What does matter is it's a game the players care so much about that sometimes it seems as if their giant hearts might burst in the quest. Millions of Americans have deep ties to one service or the other. Wars will do that. It's a game wrapped in remembrances of Roger Staubach playing for Navy and Doc Blanchard for Army.

Its two honorable institutions peopled by mostly honorable players having at it until some literally drop from exhaustion; It's competitive sport at its very best. This year, there's nothing at stake, really, except everything. It always has been thus. Eyes aren't always dry, nor should they be, when the Navy band starts playing: "Roll up the score, Navy, Anchors aweigh."

Too much of life is too blas. A catch phrase used these days is the shrugging observation: "Whatever." Nobody says "whatever" when it comes to the great collegiate football rivalries, and that's precisely why these games have become part of the fabric of so many lives.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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