Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Greatest Rivalry?

Saturday afternoon, Auburn and Georgia will face off before a crowd of more than 87,000 partisans, each of whom will be loud and proud -- and a few of television's talking heads will make passing reference to this game being "The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry."

I say: Why limit the designation to the Deep South, and why limit it to the category of oldest? I know this sounds like sacrilege coming from an Auburn grad who should probably think that no rivalry on Earth compares to Auburn-Alabama, but a very strong case can be made that Auburn-Georgia is the greatest rivalry, period, in all of college football.

On February 20, 1892, teams from the two schools battled in Atlanta's Piedmont Park, with Auburn prevailing by a score of 10-0. It was the first football game ever played south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and with the exception of the very next year, plus 1897, plus three seasons during which world wars interrupted the series (1917, 1918, and 1943), the schools have not missed a game since.

Auburn has played Georgia 39 more times than it has played Alabama. Georgia has played Auburn 25 more times than it has played Florida, and 9 more times than it has faced in-state rival Georgia Tech. You are starting to get the picture.

If you look at all of the major college rivalries in America, trying to find one that supersedes this one in terms of age and frequency, your search will be in vain. Auburn-Georgia began 5 years before Michigan-Ohio State and has been staged 8 times more. It is 8 years and 8 games longer than Texas-Oklahoma; 4 years and 6 games longer than Clemson-South Carolina; 37 years and 34 games longer than USC-UCLA; 66 years and 59 games longer than Florida-Florida State. Again, you are starting to get the picture.

Technically speaking, Michigan-Notre Dame is older, but the Wolverines and Irish have faced each other 75 fewer times than the Tigers and Dawgs. Admittedly, Texas and Texas A&M have played each other two times more than Auburn and Georgia, but the latter series is eight years older and the only reason the former claims more games is that the 'Horns and Aggies used to play each other twice per season.

Indiana-Purdue is one year older than AU-UGA, yet has one fewer game to show for it. Ditto for Army-Navy, a storied contest that has been played less times than AU-UGA despite getting a head start.

There is only one major-division rivalry that bests this one both in terms of how old it is and how many times it has been staged, and that is the annual clash between Wisconsin and Minnesota for the Paul Bunyan Axe. Those schools began locking horns two years prior to the first showdown between Auburn and Georgia, and they have battled one another six times more than Auburn and Georgia. But without meaning any disrespect to those schools, their rivalry just doesn't have the same impact.

Yes, Minnesota was a powerhouse back when FDR was president, and everyone knows Wisconsin has been racking up Rose Bowl appearances over the past twenty years. But it is unheard-of for those programs to be good at the same time. On the other hand, Auburn and Georgia have been fielding powerful teams for generations on end, and more often than not both of them are nationally ranked. You get the picture.

Then there is this: Despite the longevity of the series and frequency of its games, it is dead freakin' even. Auburn has won 54, Georgia has won 54, and there have been 8 ties. How you like them apples?

But what about passion and intensity? you ask.

Are you kidding me? I respond.

The enmity between Auburn and Alabama can not be understated, nor can the enmity between Georgia and Florida, but there is equally world class intensity (and yes, enmity) on display when these teams face each other. Auburn is a half-hour from the Georgia line and the schools are not much more than two hours apart, and therefore huge numbers of their students and recruits know one another. Say the word "Bulldogs" to every one of the Georgia natives I know from my Auburn days, and the tick they get in their eye and edge they get in their voice are every bit as pronounced as what they get when you say "Tide."

Sandee Foster is a great friend of mine and perhaps the most intense Auburn fan of all time. Her intensity has not lessened one iota in the years since we hung out and guzzled beer as students in the Loveliest Village on the Plains. She graduated from Springwood School in Lanett, Alabama, which is within Auburn's shadow but even closer to the Georgia line than Auburn is. She grew up in Chickamauga, Georgia before her family moved to Lanett, and has relatives who went to Georgia...Last Saturday, as Auburn's impressive win over Tennessee was entering its waning minutes, we got to discussing the coming Auburn-Georgia contest via text. Amongst our rambling, she sent me the following text: "U know that's my game I hate them"...She didn't say she hates Georgia more than she hates Bama, but you get the picture.

I do not know what will happen Saturday afternoon. I do know that my beloved Tigers need to get their mojo back in this series, since the Bulldogs have won six of the last seven and have pulled even in the lifetime count...I also know that I am extremely nervous about the fact that Vegas oddsmakers have defied conventional wisdom by making Auburn a slim favorite and seeming to invite people to bet their mortgage on them...And I know that you absolutely should watch. You will love it even if you have no rooting interest whatsoever.

But most importantly, I know that this very-evenly-matched, extremely-well-played rivalry represents everything that is good about college sports. Other rivalries might equal it, but I dare you to name one that surpasses it.

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