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November 26, 2010

Rivalry Week

Joe Charlebois

Who fights over an old oaken bucket or an axe wielded by a monster of lumberjack? Who still wants to fight the Civil War or a backyard brawl?


The answer to these questions is quite obvious; college football players do. Rivalry week is upon us and the number of rivalry games for schools both big and small is huge. But some rivalries rank higher than others.


The original rivalry has to be the matchup of Harvard and Yale; it may not be the oldest or most played rivalry, but the games of these two early football powerhouses molded the game of football that we know today. Between these two teams they share 26 national championships – eight for Harvard and 18 for Yale.


Likely the most overlooked, but most emotional rivalry, has to be the Army-Navy Game. The possibility of this rivalry ever producing a national title conversation has gone by the wayside, much like the Harvard-Yale game (Harvard and Yale are now NCAA Division 1 – Football Championship Subdivision). Navy has one national championship and Army claims three titles – three consecutive during World War II. This game doesn’t produce national champions, but it does produce national heroes.


There is one conference that hands down – as a group – carries on traditional rivalries with the best trophies. The Big Ten – soon to be a 12-team conference – has to get the prize for best trophies. The conference boasts The Paul Bunyan Trophy– a four-foot tall statue of Paul Bunyan (Michigan-Michigan State); Floyd of Rosedale – a bronze pig (Iowa-Minnesota); Heartland Trophy – a brass bull (Iowa-Wisconsin); Illibuck– originally a live turtle, now a wooden carving (Illinois-Ohio State);Land of Lincoln Trophy – replacing the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk(Illinois-Northwestern); The Little Brown Jug (Michigan-Minnesota); The Old Brass Spitoon (Indiana-Michigan State); The Old Oaken Bucket (Purdue-Indiana); Paul Bunyan’s Axe (Minnesota-Wisconsin); and The Purdue Cannon (Purdue-Illinois).


Of course, as with anything, there are exceptions. The only thing more boring than the Nittany Lions of Penn State’s uniforms are the rivalry trophies that they play for – The Land Grant Trophy (Penn State-Michigan State) and The Governor’s Victory Bell (Penn State-Minnesota) are to put it nicely – unimaginative.


The Big Ten made a mistake when it concocted rivalries that weren’t there. How does Minnesota or Michigan State have any natural rivalry with Penn State? In short, they don’t.


Prior to joining the conference, Penn State never played Michigan State or Minnesota. Thank goodness that starting next year these “rivalries” will take a hiatus. There are only two programs in the Big Ten that could have been considered natural rivals when they entered the conference in the early 90’s and that was Ohio State, due to proximity, and Michigan, to history. Even though they don’t play for a trophy at least Penn State and Ohio State do play each other every year.


Ironically the greatest rivalry within the Big Ten is the Michigan-Ohio State rivalry, which has no formal trophy. The fact that these two teams have been in the title hunt more than the other teams in the conference of late is a testament that bragging rights and a shot at the Rose Bowl, or a national title, are much better than a trophy.


When Nebraska – the newest member of the Big Ten – joins play, their designated rival is now Penn State. This displaces the unnatural rival Michigan State. Nebraska has already played the Nittany Lions on 13 previous occasions of which a handful of the games have had championship implications.


This is a good choice by the Big Ten; and it should add some excitement to the unbalanced schedule that will exist with the conference going to two divisions.


Today I’ll be at the “Backyard Brawl”™ the annual rivalry game between West Virginia and the University of Pittsburgh at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. Both teams have a chance to win the Big East title and subsequently get an automatic invitation to a BCS bowl game in January – even though no Big East team deserves a spot at the table this year.


Even if the chance at a BCS bowl wasn’t on the line, this rivalry wouldn’t need that added incentive to be the great game it will be.


Rivalries like these are what can make an average game exciting. Rivalries can take two teams with .500 records and create a championship game-type atmosphere.


When it comes to rivalry week, I love to see the exhausted but exuberant players hoist an axe, a bronze pig, or an iron skillet off the field as they celebrate their victory over an archrival, but it isn’t necessary.


It’s just fun to watch. It’s the pageantry of college sports that makes us fans.


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