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November 28, 2013

Top Rivalries in the PAC 12

Passionate, traditional rivalries dominate the college football landscape, especially in late November on the final weekend of the regular season. Not only is the Pac-12 not immune from rivalry mania, some of the best matchups in the nation take place on the West Coast. Here are the top five Pac-12 rivalries:

1. The Civil War: Besides being blessed with perhaps the coolest colloquial nickname of any rivalry in the Pac-12, the Civil War sits atop the pedestal because of its annual importance in terms of the conference and national championship pictures. The rivalry apexed, of course, in 2009 with the "War for the Roses" when the winner earned a spot in the Rose Bowl. It was the first (and with the current two-divisional format) the only time the Civil War winner was guaranteed a coveted Rose Bowl berth.

With 117 games, the Civil War is not the most contested rivalry in the nation, but it's certainly one of the most heated and most underrated. The rivalry has been undeniably one-sided in the last five years and both schools come into this year's game disappointed after suffering lopsided losses last weekend. Oregon State has lost four straight and Oregon has lost two of three since ascending to No. 2 in the BCS standings. As a result, some of the drama has been drained from the game.

Yet the rivalry still matters, especially since both head coaches grew up in the state of Oregon.

"Our game has been so dynamic for many years in a row and it still is, for sure," Mike Riley said this week. "The team that handles wherever they are right now the best has the best chance to look good and play well. We're going to have to be so drastically different than last Saturday night. For us, how we handle that and fight back will be the key deal."

2. The Battle for Los Angeles: The rivalry between UCLA and USC is unique because both schools are located about 12 miles apart within the city of Los Angeles. With no NFL franchise in LA, the close proximity of both alumni and students, and the likelihood of interacting with each other on a daily basis guarantees this rivalry will remain one of the most intense in the Pac-12 for a long time. Any older college football fan with a TV 20 or 30 years ago recalls turning on the set in late November and watching the Bruins and Trojans battle in the LA sunshine for conference supremacy.

However, in terms of the game's importance, this rivalry peaked from the late 1960's until the early 1990's when one or both teams were seemingly battling for the Rose Bowl bid on an annual basis. As a result, the game attracted massive national media attention. Not anymore.

USC's ongoing probation and UCLA's downturn in fortune in recent years (coach Jim Mora Jr. is leading the comeback), together with the rise of Oregon and Stanford in the Pac-12 North, has caused interest in the rivalry to wane from a national, and perhaps local, perspective. This year's game is strictly for bowl positioning since Arizona State has already clinched the Pac-12 South title.

3. The Big Game: How many college football rivalries in the nation are essentially defined by one signature moment? 'The Play' concluding the 85th Big Game on November 20, 1982, when four Cal players lateraled the ball five times on a kickoff return with four seconds left on the clock, remains perhaps the most remarkable play in college football history.

Unfortunately, the "most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heartrending, exciting, thrilling finish in the history of college football" (the words of KGO announcer Joe Starkey that you've heard a billion times) occurred 31 years ago. How many memorable Cal-Stanford highlights have occurred since then? Exactly.

The latest edition of the Big Game last weekend produced a predictable 63-13 victory for Stanford and until California rights the ship under first-year head coach Sonny Dykes (the project could take a few years), the Big Game will remain a rivalry to be enjoyed purely by fans in the Bay Area.

4. The Apple Cup: According to the official stat sheet, a crowd of 32,211 hardcore college football fans watched 1-10 Washington State battle winless Washington in the forgettable 'Crapple Cup' game in 2008. Unluckily, the two teams battled through regulation and two overtimes before the Cougars prevailed, 16-13. Sadly, that game symbolizes the direction this rivalry has taken in the past decade or so as both programs have struggled to regain past glory. In fact, neither program has won more than seven games in a single season since 2004, the best explanation for why few fans east of the Rockies have paid attention to the rivalry.

This year's Apple Cup features seven-win Washington against six-win Washington State, the most combined wins for the two schools since a decade ago when the Cougars went 10-3 and the Huskies broken even at 6-6. Mike Leach added some spice to rivalry when a) he took over the downtrodden WSU program before the 2012 season; 2) the Cougars somehow rallied for an overtime win at Pullman in the Apple Cup last year. It's fair to say both programs are finally headed in the right direction. When they become nationally relevant again, the Apple Cup could move up the ladder.

5. The Territorial Cup: Does anybody outside the state of Arizona actually pay attention to this rivalry? Probably not, since the game has rarely influenced the Pac-12 or national championship picture. Truly, the history behind the Cup itself might be more interesting than the rivalry itself, even though the last four contests have admittedly been tight contests (41-34, 31-27, 30-29, 20-17), something you can't say about the Civil War.

The Cup was first awarded in 1899 and was lost for 81 years, its whereabouts unknown, until being rediscovered in the basement of a church located near the Arizona State campus in 1980. It was later authenticated as the original cup by the NCAA, making it the oldest trophy in college football. So, the rivalry has that going for it.

Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez are finishing their second seasons at Arizona State and Arizona, respectively, and both will post winning records for the second year in a row. The Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South and will face Stanford in the conference championship game on Dec. 7. This year's Territorial Cup has some significance for Arizona State since a victory guarantees they would host Stanford in Tempe for the title game.

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