It’s Rivalry Week in college football, meaning it’s time for pundits and fans alike to argue about which one is the biggest, fiercest and meanest in the land.
In my 30 years as a paid sportswriter, I covered several Alabama-Auburn games, quite a few Clemson-South Carolina games, and a handful of Georgia-Georgia Tech games.
So which is the biggest?
Now that I’m an unpaid sportswriter, I can honestly tell you that they are all equally important.
I can also honestly tell you they are equally unimportant – if you don’t have any skin in the game.
Fact is, if it’s the rivalry involving your team, that makes it the biggest rivalry going.
The first 20 years of my career were spent in Alabama, and during that time I sat in the press box for 16 Iron Bowls – including the first one ever played at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn and the inaugural Alabama-Auburn game staged at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa.
Having grown up among Crimson Tide and Tiger fans, I was conditioned to believe that their rivalry was not only the biggest, but the only one that mattered.
I didn’t bother to get the thoughts of those who had a stake in games such as Michigan-Ohio State, Texas-Texas A&M or Army-Navy – people who might have a wildly different opinion.
Then over the last 10 years I got to witness first-hand the rivalry between Clemson and South Carolina, and quickly realized their fan bases were just as rabid as the ones in my home state.
A decade of the Palmetto Bowl has shown me that to those schools’ faithful, the rivalry is every bit as intense as that of the Iron Bowl.
I will say, as both a live observer and one who followed the Georgia-Georgia Tech rivalry for a few years while serving as a beat writer for the Bulldogs, it has a really odd dynamic.
Georgia-Florida and Georgia-Auburn are traditionally much bigger games for the guys in red hats and silver britches. And while the Dawgs and Yellow Jackets bill their annual showdown as “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate,” it simply doesn’t have the same pop as many state rivalries.
That being said, Georgia is Georgia Tech’s biggest rival.
So there’s that.
From a national stakes standpoint this weekend, though, the Alabama-Auburn game is the top rivalry showdown on the schedule. The winner finishes atop the SEC West and gets a berth in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, and if that team happens to be Alabama, it almost assures the Tide a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Ranked No. 1 and one of only three undefeated teams left among Power 5 programs (Miami and Wisconsin are the others), even a loss to Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium would likely drop Nick Saban’s top-ranked team no lower than No. 4 in the CFP poll, especially if it’s close.
But if Auburn knocks off Alabama and whips the Bulldogs in the league title game (its second win over Georgia in three weeks), suddenly the two-loss Tigers might be invited to the playoff thanks to winning the SEC title.
Meanwhile, at Bobby Dodd Stadium …
A Bulldog win over the Jackets, coupled with a victory over the Tide or Tigers a week later, negates their regular season loss to Auburn and puts Kirby Smart’s team in the playoffs.
And if that win is over Bama, you can probably count on the SEC taking up two spots in the CFP – a decision that’s going to enrage those who don’t swear eternal loyalty to the Southeastern Conference.
As for the Palmetto Bowl, South Carolina is playing for a chance to derail Clemson’s hopes for a second consecutive national championship and upgrade its own postseason position.
If the Tigers enter the ACC Championship Game with two losses, even a win over Miami might not be enough to secure a spot in the semifinals (although ultimately that’ll be for the CFP selection committee to decide, of course).
However, if Dabo Swinney’s charges take care of business against the Gamecocks and Hurricanes, they’ll be ensconced in one of the four available playoff positions.
Yet before jumping ahead to the postseason, it’s all about the rivalries this holiday weekend – and all are pretty significant.
So if you happen to think the braggin’ rights battle you care about most is the biggest in college football, you’re absolutely right.
Just know that fans elsewhere disagree – and they’re absolutely right, too.