The NFL has its share of heated rivalries. Saints vs. Falcons. Vikings vs. Packers. Browns vs. themselves. But they can’t compare to another kind of hate, one that many were born into: the visceral, tribal, and sometimes a little (OK, a lot) unhealthy world of college football rivalries.
Not every NFL fan has pledged their undying loyalty to a college football team, which includes but is not limited to the following actions: getting a tasteful tattoo of the school’s logo on your hip, naming a pet after the mascot, naming a child after one of the school’s colors, requesting the alma mater be sung at your funeral, and treating your rival’s name like it’s Voldemort.
You can still join in the fun/anxiety, even if you’re not a diehard whose entire year is made or destroyed in the span of three hours in November. Let’s help you decide which college football team to cheer for in its upcoming rivalry game based on your NFL fandom.
First, a few notes on the methodology:
- This is a rooting guide for rivalry games yet to be played. Many happened earlier in the season — like Texas-Oklahoma, Michigan-Michigan State, Harvard-Yale, Montana-Montana State — so they were excluded.
- There are more upcoming rivalry games than just these 16 listed here, but I wanted to limit it to 32 schools, one for each NFL team.
- It’s not a perfect science, but for the most part, the more alumni from one college on an NFL team, the more likely they’ll be matched up.
- Because the college football schedule changes every year, and NFL rosters much more often than that, this is for 2018 only.
Thursday, Nov. 22
It’s true: Thanksgiving football is not just for the NFL!
Ole Miss vs. Mississippi State
This one isn’t a friendly intrastate rivalry, that’s for sure. They’ve been playing for the Golden Egg for almost a century. Their first meeting ended in fisticuffs, and the rage-filled battle for the soul of Mississippi hasn’t stopped since. Their last meeting was a beautiful four-hour exchange of gesticulation and trolling.
Cheer for the Rebels if you’re a fan of the: New York Giants
Say what you will about the Eli Manning’s play the last few seasons. Debate about his level of washedness, if you must. Laugh at Eli Face, always. But he’s still a two-time Super Bowl champion and one of the greatest players in Ole Miss history. So between Manning and tight end Evan Engram — a target Manning sometimes remembers exists — there’s a good bit of Rebels blood in the Giants’ starting offense.
Cheer for the Bulldogs if you’re a fan of the: Green Bay Packers
The most Mississippi State-heavy roster belongs to the Texans, but there are even more Clemson players, as well as one Ole Miss alum (A.J. Moore), in Houston. The Packers are home to two Bulldogs and no Rebels: cornerback Will Redmond and Hunter Bradley, who was the only long snapper drafted in 2018. And we should all celebrate long snappers. MSU also has the support of one Brett Favre — unless they’re playing his alma mater, Southern Miss.
Friday, Nov. 23
There’s no better cure for a turkey hangover than spending the day parked on the couch watching football.
Iowa vs. Nebraska
They might seem like two of the nicest (read: most Midwestern) states in the U.S., but they’ve long been enemies, even before Nebraska joined the Big Ten. Like, 100 years before that. For decades, the football rivalry went mostly dormant. Now, the two neighbors, and division mates, battle every year.
Cheer for the Hawkeyes if you’re fan of the: Buffalo Bills
The Packers and 49ers have more Hawkeye players than the Bills do, but this pairing seemed like more of a fit (tbh, the Bills were kinda like the kid who is always picked last at dodgeball — someone had to take them). One of the team’s Hawkeyes is Micah Hyde, who was a solid defensive back for the Packers before signing with the Bills in 2017. He then became a Pro Bowler — and one of Buffalo’s top defenders. Offensive tackle Ike Boettger is the other Iowa alum on the roster. Plus, the Bills have looked stereotypically Iowa-like this year, featuring an impressive defense, lots of punting, and sometimes, and seemingly randomly, an offensive explosion.
Cheer for the Cornhuskers if you’re fan of the: New York Jets
Both Nebraska and the Jets came into the season with a renewed sense of hope — and a roster that didn’t have quite the talent to match. They’re both still pretty young, so the future isn’t bleak, even if the rest of their seasons are mostly about building toward that future. The Jets also have three Cornhuskers on the ol’ 53: receiver Quincy Enunwa, and offensive linemen Spencer Long and Brent Qvale.
Oregon State vs. Oregon
No Pac-12 rivalry has been played more times than the Civil War, which is set for its 122nd meeting Friday in Corvallis. Fun fact: the 1983 edition of the game, which predated the implementation of overtime, ended in a 0-0 tie (shoutout, Frank Beamer). The teams combined for 11 turnovers and four field goal misses, and it was fittingly dubbed “the Toilet Bowl.”
Cheer for the Beavers if you’re fan of the: Los Angeles Rams
Cheering for a two-win team might give Rams fans bad flashbacks to pre-Sean McVay times, but there are only 13 Oregon State alums in the NFL right now and three of them play for the Rams. That includes two of their best players: wide receiver Brandin Cooks and punter Johnny Hekker. The third is backup quarterback Sean Mannion, who owns most of Oregon State’s passing records and should get his moment to shine in Week 17 when the Rams sit all their starters.
Cheer for the Ducks if you’re fan of the: Seattle Seahawks
Remember the Seahawks’ “Action Green” Color Rush jerseys? Nike can say otherwise, but don’t tell me they weren’t just recycled bits of some of the many, maaaany Oregon uniforms pieced together. So the two teams already have a little, sartorially speaking, in common. They’re also not far off geographically. Seattle fans could just head on I-5 S for a few hours and cheer for the program that produced Ed Dickson and Dion Jordan.
Washington State vs. Washington
It’s not that hard figuring out the origins of the Apple Cup’s name. I mean, apples = Washington, right? [Googles just to make sure] Right. It’s more than that, though. It’s a post-Thanksgiving tradition that divides friends and family and represents not just a culture clash of a state pocketed away in the Northwest corner of the country, but of America herself. The “Crapple Cup” no more, there’s been a lot riding on the game in recent years. Washington has owned the rivalry for the past decade, but Washington State is as hot as any team right now.
Cheer for the Cougars if you’re fan of the: Arizona Cardinals
The Cougs are, undeniably, a damn delight this year. Gardner Minshew II (real name, I promise) and his surprising Heisman campaign has all of Pullman wearing fake mustaches, and his legend grows with every new jockstrap story we hear. And what NFL team could use a heaping of fun more than the Cardinals, who average 14.5 points per game and just lost to the Raiders? So take a few hours Friday night to enjoy Deone Bucannon’s alma mater, a team that can put up points and have a blast doing it.
Cheer for the Huskies if you’re fan of the: Atlanta Falcons
Two years ago, both the Huskies and Falcons were dealt bitter disappointments in the postseason, in vastly different ways, to their sport’s most recent dynasty. Alabama swatted Washington away like a pesky gnat in the College Football Playoff semifinals, a 24-7 yawner that wasn’t even as close as that score indicates. The Falcons, as no one will ever let them forget, blew a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl and lost in overtime to the Patriots. That kinship, plus UW alumni Desmond Trufant and Marvin Hall on the roster, makes this a match.
Saturday, Nov. 24
To put it simply, this is the best day in college football every year.
Ohio State vs. Michigan
Maybe you’ve heard of it? It’s only one of the greatest rivalry is sports. Michigan holds an all-time lead in the series, but Ohio State has dominated The Game since the start of the new millennium. This year, the stakes are high like usual. The winner goes to the Big Ten Championship and preserves its College Football Playoff hopes. The loser, as all losers nowadays, becomes a meme. The difference this year is that Michigan is favored — in Columbus.
Cheer for the Buckeyes if you’re a fan of the: New Orleans Saints
There is no NFL/college football bromance quite like the Saints and Buckeyes. Currently there are six Ohio State grads on the Saints roster, including almost the entire secondary. Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, Kurt Coleman, Ted Ginn Jr., Marshon Lattimore, and Michael Thomas all went from scarlet and gray to black and gold. Then throw in J.T. “the spot was good” Barrett on the practice squad — and zero Wolverines on the roster — and Ohio State really is the Saints’ Triple-AAA team. Oscar winner J.K. Simmons would agree.
Cheer for the Wolverines if you’re a fan of the: Baltimore Ravens
There aren’t many NFL rosters that are completely devoid of an Ohio State presence, but the Ravens are one of them. They also have two Wolverines (Willie Henry, Chris Wormley), and a Harbaugh for a coach. Both teams boast the No. 1 defense in their respective sport and have an above-average running game. And if anyone would appreciate a mascot named after one of the most famous writers in American history, it’s probably a Michigan Man or Woman.
Georgia vs. Georgia Tech
Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate — no really, that’s what the rivalry, one of college football’s most underrated, is called. No nickname can top that. Georgia Tech was once a member of the SEC, but it must have gotten tired of everything just meaning more, because the school bolted more than 50 years ago. But the rivalry, which goes back to 1893, has lived on.
Cheer for the Bulldogs if you’re fan of the: Cincinnati Bengals
Cats and dogs living together! Despite the mass hysteria that might yield, there’s something appropriate about bringing together two teams that gave their fans hope only to cruelly yank it away in their most recent playoff appearance. For Georgia, that was last year against Alabama in the national title game. For the Bengals, it was three seasons ago against who else but the Steelers. So that’s one reason. The other is that Cincy’s roster is littered with Dawgs: Geno Atkins, Clint Boling, Cordy Glenn, A.J. Green, and Shawn Williams.
Cheer for the Yellow Jackets if you’re fan of the: Indianapolis Colts
Some people are slow to wake up. They’re groggy, they’re grumpy, and dammit, don’t talk to them until they’ve had their coffee. That was Georgia Tech and Indianapolis at the start of the season. The Yellow Jackets fell to 1-3 after their third straight loss, while the Colts stumbled to an even worse 1-5 record. Since then, they’ve both shaken off their slumps and won four straight and could be a dangerous opponent for any team to face. The Colts have one GA Tech alum on their roster: cornerback/special teamer Chris Milton.
North Carolina vs. NC State
Most would think of this as a basketball rivalry first and foremost, but the football teams have been playing even longer. It’s been competitive lately, too. In their last 20 meetings, NC State holds a slight 11-9 lead.
Cheer for the Tar Heels if you’re fan of the: Chicago Bears
Not much is going right for UNC football this season. Bears fans probably understand that feeling after four straight losing seasons — and seven straight seasons of missing the playoffs. Things are looking up for the Bears this year, thanks in part to one-time UNC quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, even if we’re still trying to figure out how good he is.
Cheer for the Wolfpack if you’re fan of the: Los Angeles Chargers
If any NFL team knows what it’s like to be good but completely overshadowed, it’s the Chargers. If any quarterback knows what it’s like to be good but completely overshadowed, it’s Chargers QB — and former NC State QB — Philip Rivers. That chip-on-the-shoulder bond gives Chargers fans a good reason to support Rivers’ and defensive tackle Justin Jones’ alma mater.
Georgia State vs. Georgia Southern
It’s not the most prominent rivalry in the South, or even Georgia itself. But it’s fierce in its own right, even if it’s still in its infancy. The fight over who is the real GSU has powered what they call “Modern Day Hate” — a battle that was first won by Georgia Southern in 2014, but has since been all Georgia State.
Cheer for the Panthers if you’re fan of the: Philadelphia Eagles
It might seem incongruent for Philly fans to cheer for the Panthers and against the Eagles — but let’s face it, no one likes to boo Eagles fans more than Eagles fans. There aren’t many Georgia State players in the NFL, either, but one of them, Chandon Sullivan, might be Philadelphia’s last remaining healthy cornerback.
Cheer for the Eagles if you’re fan of the: San Francisco 49ers
Georgia Southern won two games all of last season. This year, the Eagles are 8-3. That’s the kind of turnaround a two-win team like the 49ers can get behind. Oh, there are only three Georgia Southern alumni in the NFL — and two of them, Matt Breida and Jerick McKinnon, play running back for the 49ers.
Florida State vs. Florida
This rivalry is the Beanie Babies of college football — it captivated the nation in the 90s and though it still exists, we’ve more or less forgotten about it. One or both teams are usually ranked for this game; this year, it’s Florida, but it’s Florida State that has won five in a row and seven of the last eight in this matchup.
Cheer for the Seminoles if you’re fan of the: Jacksonville Jaguars
If Florida Man were a singular entity rather than a concept, he would probably cheer for both of these teams. But it works on other levels, too. Both teams can wallow in the disappointment of the current season. Both are football’s biggest supplier of reaction memes. Both can claim the NFL’s best present-day trash talker, Jalen Ramsey — and Rashad Greene and Telvin Smith, too.
Cheer for the Gators if you’re fan of the: Oakland Raiders
There is something so utterly joyless about watching both teams that I don’t want to inflict them on any other fans. At least this way, Raiders fans can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be a good miserable team. Gators Reggie Nelson, David Sharpe, and Johnny Townsend are all on the Raiders’ active roster, while Eddy Piñeiro is one of two kickers on their injured reserve.
Wisconsin vs. Minnesota
At stake every year in the Big Ten’s oldest rivalry is Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which is different from the Paul Bunyan Trophy that goes to the winner of Michigan vs. Michigan State. If Paul Bunyan wasn’t B1G enough for you, they used to play for a slab of bacon?!?
Cheer for the Badgers if you’re fan of the: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
On the surface, Wisconsin and Tampa don’t seem to have that much in common — until you think of all the snowbirds who probably migrate down to the Tampa area in the winter. Then consider Wisconsin’s mascot’s name, Bucky Badger, and the fact that the Bucs’ roster has more Wisconsin alumni than any other NFL team, and it’s kismet. Funnily enough, even though Wisconsin spits out offensive linemen, that doesn’t include any of the three Badgers — DT Beau Allen, LB Jack Cichy, and RB Dare Ogunbowale — in Tampa.
Cheer for the Gophers if you’re fan of the: Minnesota Vikings
This one is fairly easy: They’re both located in Minneapolis. They even shared a stadium for a couple seasons while the Vikings’ new digs were being built. They both last claimed a title in the 60s, well before their sport’s current championship format was introduced. There are only seven former Gophers on active NFL rosters right now and none of them play for the same team. But one of them, cornerback Marcus Sherels, suits up for the purple and gold.
Arizona vs. Arizona State
This rivalry usually falls under the radar — mostly because the two teams aren’t exactly elite football programs. It’s more passionate than you probably realize and spilts the state pretty 50-50. No trophy has been around longer than the Territorial Cup, either. Well, sorta.
Cheer for the Wildcats if you’re fan of the: Tennessee Titans
Sometimes it must feel a little lonely having an unusual name. It’s hard to find a keychain with “Sherwood” or “Bryannca” or whatever people are naming their children these days on it. Those kids probably have moments when they wish their name were something simpler, like Paul or Emily. That’s what it must be like to be the Titans. Unless you count the Remember the, there aren’t any many others with their name. Every other mascot, in any sport at any level, is the Wildcats, though. The one Arizona alum on Tennessee’s roster is the only person in the world with the name Dane Cruikshank. Rooting for the Wildcats gives him, and the Titans, a chance to live as a James or Elizabeth for a change.
Cheer for the Sun Devils if you’re fan of the: Miami Dolphins
You might think Da U is the school that most closely resembles the partying-that-borders-on-dangerous vibe of Miami, but nope, it’s Arizona State. And well, 25 percent of the Arizona State players in the NFL are with the Dolphins: Kalen Ballage, Matt Haack, and — the man, the myth, the legend — Brock Osweiler.
Alabama vs. Auburn
The Iron Bowl has a rich history dating back to 1893, but it’s the most recent matchups that have been without peer — and that’d be the case if we were ONLY talking about the Kick Six. Arguably no rivalry has mattered more in the past decade, because one of these teams has been ranked No. 1 or 2 entering this game since 2008 — and usually at the end of the season, too.
Cheer for the Crimson Tide if you’re fan of the: Washington NFL team
The Tuscaloosa-to-Landover pipeline can’t be matched right now. Washington is home to a whopping seven Bama players, including about 90 percent of its defense: Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson, Shaun Dion Hamilton, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Daron Payne, and the lone offensive player, guard Arie Kouandjio. Washington has had a rough go of it with injuries this season, but at least this way, its fans can enjoy a team that is the closest to being unbeatable as we’ve seen in years.
Cheer for the Tigers if you’re fan of the: Cleveland Browns
Remember when people were asking last year if Bama could beat the Browns? The answer was no of course, even though the Browns went 0-16 and the Tide won another national championship. But Auburn fans probably got tired of hearing it — especially considering the Tigers were the only team to beat the Crimson Tide last year. Plus, with three players from Auburn — Ricardo Louis, Greg Robinson, and Jermaine Whitehead — and no Bama guys (a rarity for an NFL roster), the chances of hearing “Roll Tide” in Cleveland aren’t high.
Clemson vs. South Carolina
The Palmetto Bowl is the South’s longest continuous rivalry. It began in 1896 and the intrastate battle has been held every year since 1909. Clemson has won a nice 69 of their 115 meetings. They’ve only once played on Thanksgiving, in 1963. It was moved back a few days following the assassination of JFK.
Cheer for the Tigers if you’re fan of the: Houston Texans
Texans fans only need one reason to cheer for Clemson: Deshaun Watson. His run in the College Football Playoff, which culminated in a heroic performance against Alabama for the championship, is partly why the Texans traded up to draft Watson that following April. Now, Houston has the franchise quarterback it had been waiting for since, well, ever. It just so happens that Texans DeAndre Hopkins, D.J. Reader, and Carlos Watkins also went to Clemson.
Cheer for the Gamecocks if you’re fan of the: Carolina Panthers
The Panthers play in North Carolina, but the University of South Carolina is closer to Bank of America Stadium than Tobacco Road is. It’s a straight shot 90 miles down I-77 to get from Charlotte to Columbia. Besides, they’re the Carolina Panthers. South Carolina shouldn’t have to feel left out, especially with alumni Damiere Byrd and Captain Munnerlyn on the Panthers’ roster.
USC vs. Notre Dame
There isn’t any college rivalry quite like this one: two blue bloods, separated by 2,000 miles, who play annually despite not even being in the same conference — or, in Notre Dame’s case, not being in a conference at all. Combined, the two powerhouses can boast 22 national championships and 13 Heisman winners (14, if you count Reggie Bush’s vacated one). Speaking of, the Bush Push was one of the most indelible college football moments of the last 15 years, preserving USC’s chances of a threepeat — and thwarted later on by Vince Young and Texas.
Cheer for the Trojans if you’re fan of the: Dallas Cowboys
Gee, what could a five-win team whose fans want their coach gone have in common with ... a five-win team whose fans want their coach gone? Both the Cowboys and Trojans are still quite popular, even if their heyday of everyone becoming a bandwagon fan is over. There’s a healthy USC presence in Arlington too, thanks to Marcus Martin, Tyron Smith, and Antwaun Woods.
Cheer for the Irish if you’re fan of the: Detroit Lions
If you live in Michigan and don’t bleed maize and blue or green and white, then the easiest way to annoy both Wolverines and Spartans fans would be to cheer for ... well, probably Ohio State. But Notre Dame would be a close second. South Bend is only three hours away from Detroit, and the Lions’ roster includes TJ Jones, Romeo Okwara, Theo Riddick, and until recently, Golden Tate.
Utah vs. BYU
BYU really hates Utah, while Utah hates BYU just as much but sometimes likes to pretend it doesn’t. It’s a complicated rivalry, especially considering one is a religious school and the other is public. The so-called Holy War has been kind of naughty, complete with statue vandalism, back-to-back ejections, a failed two-point try for the win, a trip to Sin City, public name-calling, and a Utah cheerleader punching a BYU fan, repeatedly, in the face.
Cheer for the Utes if you’re fan of the: Denver Broncos
Salt Lake City is almost directly to Denver’s west (as is Provo, but it seemed obvious which one of those should be paired up with a place that has marijuana dispensaries). There are also a lot of Broncos fans in the Mountain states, including in Utah. The Broncos have the highest concentration of Utes on their roster, with Garett Bolles, Devontae Booker, and Tim Patrick all in Denver.
Cheer for the Cougars if you’re fan of the: Kansas City Chiefs
Not only does this match rival with rival, but Andy Reid is also BYU alum. It should be no surprise then that of the nine Cougars in the NFL, two of them — Tejan Koroma and Daniel Sorensen — play for the Chiefs.
Saturday, Dec. 8
Yes, this isn’t for another two weeks, but it felt wrong to leave it out.
Navy vs. Army
Every year, the college football regular season ends with the Army-Navy game. Philadelphia serves as its most frequent host, though sometimes the game has been played in other locations including Baltimore and East Rutherford, New Jersey. What truly sets it apart, though, is just how polite the rivalry is.
Cheer for the Knights if you’re fan of the: Pittsburgh Steelers
There is exactly one Army man in the NFL right now: Steelers starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who served three tours of duty three tours in Afghanistan before he started his NFL career. The Steelers organization has continually shown its support for the Army over the years, as well.
Cheer for the Midshipmen if you’re fan of the: New England Patriots
Just like with Army, there’s only one Navy veteran in the NFL currently and that’s Patriots long snapper Joe Cardona. Bill Belichick also has strong ties to Navy, where his father was a longtime assistant coach. Belichick grew up in Annapolis and has never stopped calling it home, despite not living there for decades. And well, the Patriots of all teams pretty much had to be partnered with a service academy.