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Ranking 23 great college football rivalries by how hard they are to predict

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For some rivalries, you really can throw out the record books.

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"Throw the record books out the window when these two teams meet!"

College football is a sport defined in no small part by its rivalries. One of the constants with rivalry games is that we read and hear this same sentence on an annual basis when old enemies are about to meet.

This is especially likely when two teams are not evenly matched. No broadcaster wants to admit, "Team A is a lot better than Team B and will probably crush its rival, but tune in anyway to see the blood splatter." Thus, the cliche gets trotted out to build interest.

But is it true? And if so, which rivalries tend to produce anomalous results?

Let's test the cliche. We'll start by compiling a list of the best rivalries in college football.

Rather than just accepting my subjective opinion, I'll aggregate a number of subjective opinions found on the first three pages of a Google search for "best rivalries in college football," then count each mention of a specific rivalry as a vote.

After suffering through a bevy of slide shows, I have a clean cut. The following 23 FBS rivalries, a few of which are on hiatus, get at least three votes each from the 13 articles on those three pages:


Votes
Army-Navy 13
Alabama-Auburn 13
Michigan-Ohio State 13
Oklahoma-Texas 12
Florida-Georgia 10
Notre Dame-USC 10
BYU-Utah 9
Cal-Stanford 8
Clemson-South Carolina 8
Florida-Florida State 8
Florida State-Miami 8
Oregon-Oregon State 8
UCLA-USC 7
Mississippi State-Ole Miss 6
Texas-Texas A&M 5
Georgia-Georgia Tech 4
Minnesota-Wisconsin 4
Pitt-West Virginia 4
Alabama-LSU 3
Auburn-Georgia 3
Kansas-Missouri 3
Michigan-Michigan State 3
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State 3


So, with our rough list of the 23 best rivalries (feel free to add Harvard-Yale or Lafayette-Lehigh or your personal choice in your mind to get to 25), we will take a look over the last 30 years (a big enough sample to get some interesting results, but not so big that we start dipping into the period before scholarship limits, when the sport was very different) for truly unpredictable results.

To measure unpredictability, we'll look for instances when the winning team was at least three points worse that year overall.

We'll use Bill Connelly's Estimated S&P+ ratings. In other words, these are years in which the losing team would've been favored by at least three points if the game had been played after bowl season:


Number of statistical upsets, 1986-2015 Upset years Record
Florida-Georgia 8 92, '97, '02, '03, '05, '07, '12, '14 Florida 5-3
Oklahoma-Texas 7 89, '91, '96, '01, '06, '08, '15 Texas 5-2
UCLA-USC 7 87, 92, 94, 95, 00, 06, 12 UCLA 5-2
Michigan-Michigan State 6 90, '93, '95, '01, '11, '15 MSU 6-0
Kansas-Missouri 6 92, '96, '97, '99, '03, '08, Kansas 4-2
Minnesota-Wisconsin 5 88, '93, '94, '01, '05 Minnesota 3-2
Michigan-Ohio State 4 94, 95, 96, 01, Tied 2-2
Texas-Texas A&M 4 98, 06, 07, 11 Tied 2-2
Cal-Stanford 4 86, 91, 07, 09 Tied 2-2
Pitt-West Virginia 4 97, '07, '09, '10 Tied 2-2
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State 4 01, '02, '13, '14 OSU 3-1
Alabama-LSU 4 87, '93, '95, '10 Tied 2-2
Auburn-Georgia 4 86, '96, '01, '06 UGA 3-1
Florida State-Miami 3 92, '05, '07 Miami 2-1
BYU-Utah 3 88, '93, '12 Utah 3-0
Oregon-Oregon State 3 98, 03, 07 OSU 2-1
Georgia-Georgia Tech 3 89, '06, '14 GT 2-1
Army-Navy 2 90, '05, Tied 1-1
Notre Dame-USC 2 96, '13 Tied 1-1
Florida-Florida State 2 96, '97 Tied 1-1
Mississippi State-Ole Miss 2 93, 00 Tied 1-1
Alabama-Auburn 1 02 Auburn 1-0
Clemson-South Carolina 1 08 Clemson 1-0

So, maybe the maxim should be "Throw the record books out the window, but only if the game is played at a neutral site."

The Red River Shootout and the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party are played in split stadiums roughly in between the two campuses, and of the biggest rivalries, they have produced the most anomalous results in the past three decades.

And UCLA-USC ties for second. Its stadiums and campuses are just a few miles apart, meaning it's difficult to say either team will often have a truly dominant home field advantage in that rivalry.

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Florida-Georgia

Upsets in this series have been especially costly. The Dawgs kept superior Gators out of the SEC Championship in 1997, 2007 and 2012, but UGA fans might be entitled to feel even more aggrieved.

Mark Richt would almost certainly still be the head coach in Athens without a few of these losses to Florida, specifically because: (1) 2002 SEC champion Georgia likely would have played Miami for the national title without a loss to a Florida that was statistically eight points worse overall, and (2) Georgia would have won the East and been playing for a Playoff spot against Alabama in 2014 if not for the inexplicable loss to Will Muschamp's last Florida team and a strange loss to Georgia Tech.

Oklahoma-Texas

The Cotton Bowl has seen more than its share of suspect losses in the past three decades, with Oklahoma suffering five of the seven: 1989 and 1991 (both under Gary Gibbs, when the Shootout was a non-conference game), as well as 2006, 2008, and 2015 under Bob Stoops.

The latter three are interesting in that they did not prevent Oklahoma from winning the Big 12 in each season. While the 2006 loss kept the Sooners out of the running for the national title game, the '08 and '15 Sooners both made the title game/Playoff, each time losing in the Orange Bowl to a team with orange helmets quarterbacked by a dual-threat star (Florida's Tim Tebow and Clemson's Deshaun Watson).

Similarly, Texas won the Big 12 South in both seasons in which the Horns were upset by inferior Oklahoma teams in Dallas, so maybe it's a good omen for the superior team to lose this rivalry.

UCLA-USC

USC should really hate UCLA. On five separate occasions, demonstrably superior USC teams have lost to UCLA, often with a conference or national title on the line: 1992 (to a walk-on fifth string quarterback), 1994 (with the Rose Bowl possibly on the line), 1995, 2006 (with a national title shot on the line), and 2012 (with a spot in the first Pac-12 title game at stake).

In contrast, UCLA has only suffered two statistically bad losses in the recent series, and one of the two (2000) didn't have anything other than bragging rights riding on it.

Michigan-Michigan State

The six instances in which an inferior team has won the Paul Bunyan Trophy all have something in common: Michigan State was the lesser team each time. When Michigan State has had the superior team (seven times in the past 30 years), it's won. When numbers say Michigan has the superior team, the fun begins.

Lots of in-state rivalries are said to have a dynamic in which the "Little Brother's" players feel an extra oomph because they did not get offers from the bigger programs and therefore play their best to prove a point, but Michigan-Michigan State seems to be the rivalry where this dynamic most plays out most frequently.

In other listed rivalries between a state's big power and an in-state public rival, the rival is 13-7 in upset games. Little Brothers abound!

Southern chalk

Four of the six rivalries on the bottom of the unpredictability ranking involve SEC teams and are all played on the last weekend of the regular season, now after the annual SEC-SoCon Challenge. So when you hear "Throw the record books out the window for this one!" before any of those, you can ignore it as an empty cliche.

If you are looking to differentiate Michigan-Ohio State and Alabama-Auburn and you value unpredictability, this is where one would look.

In recent history, only the 2002 Iron Bowl (when an eventual 9-4 Auburn beat an eventual 10-3 Alabama) and 2008 Clemson-South Carolina (when the Tigers, who'd just replaced Tommy Bowden with Dabo Swinney midseason, beat the Gamecocks) stand as truly unexpected results among the two most predictable rivalries on this list.