Rivalry week is always the most electric time in college football, and this year is no exception. With both pride and playoffs on the line, Saturday promises to be a thriller. Here at Halftime, our staffers previewed some of their favorite matchups.
The Game: No. 3 Michigan (10-1, 7-1 Big 10) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (10-1, 7-1 Big 10)
Jorge DeNeve: In 2000, ESPN ranked this game as the greatest North American sports rivalry. This year’s edition features two of the top three teams in the nation, adding extra incentive to knock their fiercest rivals out of a College Football Playoff spot.
The rivalry began in 1897 and has played annually since 1918. Players such as eventual Super Bowl MVP Desmond Howard and fellow Heisman Trophy winners Charles Woodson, Eddie George, and Troy Smith have graced the field in this rivalry, as well as a certain quarterback named Tom Brady. The two traditional college football powerhouses are often battling for bowl spots when they meet at the end of the year, with the biggest stakes in recent memory coming in 2006, when then-No. 1 Ohio State beat then-No. 2 Michigan to earn a trip to Phoenix for the National Championship game (the Buckeyes would go on to lose to Florida).
After missing out in 2015, the Buckeyes come into this matchup looking to return to the College Football Playoff for a chance to win their second national title in three years. Coach Urban Meyer’s team is led by junior quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has thrown 24 touchdowns with only four interceptions and added eight more scores with his legs this season. Freshman running back Mike Weber has another eight touchdowns this year. The high-flying Buckeyes hit a bit of a speed bump last week, barely eking out a 17-16 win over Michigan State (3-8, 1-7 Big 10) but have shown the ability to score points in bunches heading into this week’s matchup.
Michigan hasn’t won a title since 1997, but under head coach Jim Harbaugh, the Wolverines have been revitalized. With the exception of a one-point loss at Iowa (7-4, 5-3 Big 10), Harbaugh’s second season in charge has seen the Wolverines win every game by at least a touchdown behind a defense that has only allowed over 15 points twice this season. Senior running back De’Veon Smith has 10 touchdowns on the year while junior quarterback Wilton Speight has added 15 touchdowns with only four interceptions. The Blue’s real star, however, is junior Jabrill Peppers. Listed as a linebacker, Peppers has recorded 59 tackles on the season, while at the same time gaining 317 yards from scrimmage, and finding the endzone 6 times. If you still doubt he’s the most versatile player in CFB, look for him to break 1000 return yards against OSU.
Michigan is no longer a sleeping giant, which makes this year’s grudge match the most exciting in the series since 2006. With the loser likely out of the College Football Playoff, expect both teams to fight a little bit harder than in even their normal rivalry games.
The Golden Shillelagh: Notre Dame (4-7) at No. 12 University of Southern California (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12)
Chris Dunn: Take a look through the games on this list, and you’ll probably notice a pattern: all the teams are geographically close. It’s easy to understand why teams like Oregon and Oregon St. hate each other, but it’s a little harder to see why a Catholic school from middle-of-nowhere Indiana and a team from Los Angeles share so much vitriol for each other. Hint: like most things in college football, it’s about the history.
These two teams have played each other every year since 1926 (missing three games during World War II), making this year’s game the 87th regular season match between Notre Dame and USC. Given the incredible program histories that each squad can claim, with a combined 22 national championships, 13 Heisman Trophy winners, and 197 All Americans, it is considered one of the greatest rivalries in the sport.
As even as the two programs might be in history, this year there is a clear favorite. The home squad, 8-3 USC, comes into the game ranked No. 12 in the country, with recent impressive wins over No. 9 Colorado (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) and No. 5 Washington (10-1, 7-1 Pac-12). The Trojans have been on a tear, coming into the game on a seven game win streak after they started the year 1-3. A win over Notre Dame doesn’t do anything to affect USC’s chances in the Pac-12 South; if Colorado wins against Utah, the Trojans will finish second, and if the Utes win, the Trojans will move on to the conference championship game. However, the game’s outcome will certainly affect USC’s national ranking, and means so much to the program given its history.
Notre Dame has had a quite different season than USC. They also started out 1-3, but they went 3-4 in their next seven to make them 4-7 on the year. With the recent announcement that the university will be forced to vacate their wins from the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, 2016 will go down as the worst year in recent memory for Irish fans. And yes, I am an Irish fan. With an upset win on Saturday, the 5-7 Irish could enter the realm of bowl game possibility, since most games will open up to five-win teams if there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill up the slot. A loss would knock the Irish out of any possible postseason chance, and lead to a long, cold winter in South Bend. No matter the outcome, coach Brian Kelly’s seat is flaming hot, and calls to end his tenure for the Blue and Gold will be heard this offseason.
While USC is an obvious favorite, anything can happen in the battle for the Golden Shillelagh, and the game may prove to be an enjoyable afternoon matchup in what is the biggest day of the year so far for college football.
The Iron Bowl: No. 13 Auburn (8-3, 5-2 SEC) at No. 1 Alabama (11-0, 7-0 SEC)
Parker Houston: This is going to be a very biased essay. As a lifelong Bama fan, I hate Auburn’s football team more than just about any other collection of 100 people that has ever existed. College football has always been a sport with an uncharacteristic amount of vitriol, but there is no matchup that more encapsulates this feeling of unbridled nastiness than the Iron Bowl.
In fact, the rivalry was almost permanently cancelled because of how much the two teams hated each other. After the 1906 matchup, then-Auburn coach Mike Donahue complained about Alabama coach Doc Pollard’s constantly shifting formations, stating that he would refuse to play future games should Alabama continue with using those tactics. Coach Pollard famously opened the 1907 game with a flurry of defensive shifts, and even though the game ended in a tie, Donahue refused to schedule Alabama again the next year, causing a rift between the two schools that would prevent the two from playing each other for the next four decades. Throughout the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, Auburn came under attack by Alabama alumni in the state legislature as they tried, and sometimes succeeded, to cut funds from the school in an attempt to starve it to death. By 1945, this led Auburn’s president to compare Alabama’s actions to those of the Germans in the recently concluded World War II, claiming their alumni’s actions in the state legislature were literally, “just like the doctrine of Hitler.” In 1947, newly elected members of the legislature threatened to pull funding from both schools should they not play against each other the following year, bringing back the rivalry in 1948 with a 55-0 drubbing by Alabama at Legion Field and proving that the state of Alabama is absolutely crazy about its college football.
Alabama has led the last eight games going into the final quarter, which somehow doesn’t mean much in this series as the Crimson Tide have lost two of the past six matchups, including the infamous game where Auburn returned Alabama’s game winning field goal attempt for a touchdown in 2013 in what was infamously dubbed the “Kick Six.” The Tide this year have been on a tear – winning all eleven games by an average of 29 points. Some have said this is the best Alabama team of the decade, which shouldn’t bode well for Auburn.
Auburn has been missing senior starting quarterback Jeremy Johnson all year, relying on a more run-heavy approach, but with sophomore running back Kamryn Pettway dealing with a leg injury, the Tigers will have a tough time moving the ball on Alabama’s top ranked rushing defense. The Tigers are far from cupcakes though. No. 13 Auburn is sixth in the country in scoring defense, which, although four spots below Alabama, could still pose problems for the Tide’s offense.
The Tide are looking to be the first team to go wire-to-wire at No. 1 since USC in 2004 and only the fifth team all-time to accomplish the feat. Given Auburn’s offensive injuries, Alabama may expect an easy victory tomorrow in Bryant-Denny, but coach Nick Saban has been preparing this team like they are they underdogs Saturday, and his team has no intention of taking its foot off the gas before the biggest regular season game of the year for both schools. This game that has decided five out of the last seven national champions has always had this air of uncertainty surrounding it; it’s possible team chaos prevails this weekend. One thing is certain: Neither team will exhale until the final whistle.
The Civil War: Oregon (4-7, 2-6 Pac-12) at Oregon State (3-8, 2-6 Pac-12)
Alex Lewontin: This is perhaps the week’s most emotionally charged matchup in which neither team is ranked; no two schools hate each other more than the Ducks and the Beavers. However, aside from transforming the Willamette Valley into Antietam for the day, the game doesn’t have major implications for the rest of college football. Both teams have had atrocious seasons, and sit at the bottom of the Pac-12 North.
Oregon State is in its second season with head coach Gary Andersen, who was tasked with turning around a program that slipped severely leading up to his tenure. This season can firmly and fairly be considered a building year, and one marred by injury. The Beavers’ quarterback, sophomore Marcus McMaryion, who got his first college start against Oregon last year, began the season third on the depth chart; their leading rusher, sophomore Ryan Nall, has been plagued by a foot injury; and the defense has lost no fewer than six linebackers to various ailments throughout the season. It has not been fun to sit through, but two and maybe three in-conference wins represent a medial step in the staircase that leads from last season’s 0-9 Pac-12 finish to success. A win against their most bitter rival could be exactly the boost Oregon State needs to keep climbing.
On the other side, a chronically successful Oregon program has severely underperformed this year. For the first time since 2004, the Ducks will finish the season without bowl eligibility. Poor recruiting yield, a young team lacking star power, and an improved Pac-12 have led to wonderfully bad results. Oregon’s defense has allowed 42.1 points a game, the third worst in the FBS, and their front five have allowed 27 sacks so far on the season, 90th amongst the same set of teams. Oregon has momentum, coming off a win against No. 21 Utah (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) last week, but will be playing in front of a hostile crowd in Corvallis.
The Ducks have claimed victory for eight straight years now, but with both teams playing at a concerningly (or thrillingly!) low level, this is shaping up to be the most evenly matched contest in recent memory, so don’t make any antebellum assumptions.
The Florida Cup: No. 15 Florida (8-2, 6-2 SEC) at No. 14 Florida State (8-3, 5-3 ACC)
Jonny Amon: This year’s edition of the Florida-Florida State clash features two teams that are nearly identical in terms of quality. No. 15 Florida and No. 14 FSU have nearly identical records and are both coming off of big wins.
Florida was able to upset LSU (7-4, 5-3 SEC) in Baton Rouge during their make-up game in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. Strong defense and a big game from sophomore running back Jordan Scarlett were enough to take down the Tigers for the first time in four years. While senior quarterback Austin Appleby was able to connect with freshman wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland for a key touchdown early in the game, the Gators continue to struggle at quarterback, an issue that they have dealt with since Tim Tebow left in 2010.
Florida State is coming off of a blowout win against Syracuse in which junior running back Dalvin Cook became the Seminoles’ all-time rushing leader. Cook, who has already amassed 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns, will look to add to his tally but won’t find it easy; the Gators are giving up just 122 rushing yards per game and have only yielded nine touchdowns on the ground this year.
Both teams are looking to make a statement in their last regular season game. If Florida can contain Cook, they might be able to sneak out a win in Tallahassee. If the Gators can’t corral the ground game or control the time of possession, look for the Seminoles to take home their fourth straight win over the Gators.