Since the beginning of the college football season, debate has raged as to which is the best conference in the nation. During rivalry weeks, however, there is no debate. The Pac-10 rules.
At this time of the year, some of the most passionate gridiron action in the nation is conducted on five West Coast hot spots, all between natural geographic rivals, with four of the five series dating before the turn of the 20th century.
The way a college football rivalry should be.
“These rivalries, most of them go back more than 100 years, they have catchy nicknames or play for some really interesting trophies,” said Jim Muldoon, the Pac-10’s associate director for communications and football administration. “We look at that as a very good thing for our conference.”
Washington State got things started last week, beating Washington in an Apple Cup thriller.
This week features Oregon and Oregon State in the Civil War, California and Stanford in the Big Game, UCLA and Southern California for the Victory Bell and Arizona and Arizona State for the Territorial Cup.
“It’s an accident of geography, but we like it,” Muldoon said.
The biggest benefit for the Pac-10 is logistics. With each school having a rival nearby, scheduling and travel is much easier.
The rivalries are a fringe benefit.
“When you play them makes a big difference,” ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. “The real rivalry games are the last game of the season, which I experienced at Washington State and Oregon State.”
Erickson, now involved in a third Pac-10 rivalry, is versed in the knowledge that, during November-December rivalry time, no conference compares.
The SEC? The Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl is compelling, but the next-biggest rivalry — Georgia-Florida — is held in October between schools who end the year against out-of-conference in-state rivals. Tennessee-Alabama is a good one, but Tennessee-Vanderbilt? Please.
The Big 12? Texas-Texas A&M is one of the best, and Missouri-Kansas has started to heat up. But this league is disqualified because the 1996 expansion with four former Southwest Conference schools ended the annual renewal of one of the best rivalries in the sport’s history: Nebraska-Oklahoma.
The Big Ten has Michigan-Ohio State, which is considered the best rivalry going, and in-state matchups Indiana-Purdue and Illinois-Northwestern. But Iowa, Penn State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan State are without a rival within their state’s borders at the end of the season.
“I think any time you have two schools in the state playing Division I-A football, there isn’t anything in between,” Erickson said. “You’re a Sun Devil or a Wildcat, a Husky or a Cougar, a Beaver or a Duck. It’s all about bragging rights for the next 365 days.
“To me, those are the best, most entertaining football games there are.”
Erickson has no trouble conveying the importance of this week’s Arizona game to his players. The message is the same one he delivered at Washington State and Oregon State.
“It was really surprising to hear how strongly Coach Erickson feels about it, considering that he’s only been here a few months,” defensive tackle Michael Marquardt said. “This is his first game against UA, and he feels so strongly about it. That’s rubbing off on the team.”
Asked if the Pac-10 could promote its rivalries more, Muldoon said that task is left primarily to the schools themselves. Perhaps the conference could create a “Rivalry Week” logo, similar to what the NFL does for its kickoff weekend.
“A lot of the individual games have their own logos,” Muldoon said. “But a conference logo might not be a bad idea.”
Certainly for the Pac-10 at rivalry time, there is not much else missing.
Pac-10 rivalry games
A look at each of the five football rivalries in the Pac-10:
Schools: Arizona and Arizona State
First game: 1899
Series: Arizona leads 44-35-1
At stake: The Territorial Cup, which was presumed gone forever until a few years ago, when it was found in the basement of a Tempe church that was about to be demolished. The Cup is registered with the NCAA as the oldest rivalry trophy in college football.
Greatest moment: In a 1975 contest with the Western Athletic Conference title at stake, John Jefferson made “The Catch” late in the second quarter, helping the Sun Devils to a 24-21 victory. ASU later beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl to finish 12-0 and No. 2 in the country.
The Big Game
Schools: California and Stanford
First game: 1892
Series: Stanford leads 54-44-11
At stake: The Stanford Axe, which was stolen by Cal fans after a baseball game in 1899 and kept in a safe at a Berkeley, Calif., bank until 1933. Then, both schools decided that it would make an ideal trophy for the winner of the annual football game between the schools.
Greatest moment: This is not exactly a brainteaser. Think 1982, a kickoff, five laterals and California’s Kevin Moen crashing into two Stanford band members in the end zone, and you have what has been immortalized as “The Play.”
The Civil War
Schools: Oregon and Oregon State
First game: 1899
Series: Oregon leads 55-45-10
At stake: There currently is no traveling trophy. The Platypus Trophy, which was awarded to the winner in the 1950s and ’60s, was recently rediscovered in a closet at Oregon’s McArthur Court, and there has been a movement to have the schools reinstate it as the game’s prize.
Greatest moment: The Oregon schools were the class of the Pacific Coast Conference in 1957, both finishing with 6-2 conference records. Oregon State won the meeting between the schools, 10-7, but Oregon went to the Rose Bowl because the PCC had a “no-repeat” clause for Pasadena, and the Beavers had been there the season before.
The Victory Bell
Schools: Southern California and UCLA
First game: 1929
Series: USC leads 41-28-7
At stake: The Victory Bell, whose story is similar to that of the Stanford Axe. It belonged to UCLA — and was rung after each Bruins score — until USC students stole it in 1941. It was in hiding for more than a year until both schools agreed to award it to the football game winner.
Greatest moment: UCLA was ranked first and USC fourth when they met in 1967 with a conference — and possibly national — title at stake. O.J. Simpson’s electrifying 64-yard TD run in the fourth quarter was the deciding score in a 21-20 Trojans victory. USC finished No. 1, and UCLA quarterback Gary Beban, who threw for 301 yards against the Trojans despite badly bruised ribs, won the Heisman Trophy.
The Apple Cup
Schools: Washington and Washington State
First game: 1900
Series: Washington leads 64-30-6
At stake: The teams played for the Governor’s Trophy until 1962, when the schools decided that their rivalry should honor perhaps the state’s most famous export — apples.
Greatest moment: Before the Mike Price years at WSU, Washington dominated its in-state rival for national recognition. There was a rare aberration in 1981, when a berth in the Rose Bowl went to the Apple Cup winner. UW again got the best of the Cougars on that day, capitalizing on six turnovers to post a 23-10 victory.