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Sports Illustrated

Jimbo-Saban War of Words Up the Ante in College Football’s Biggest Rivalries

Now that Jimbo Fisher has used a live microphone as proxy for a therapist’s couch to unload every ounce of resentment and hostility he has felt toward Nick Saban, there is a new rivalry hierarchy in college football: Texas A&M vs. Alabama is first, and everything else lines up thereafter.

In a sport fueled by spite, we have reached new heights. Or perhaps depths. At the very least, depth of feeling.

With the Great May Meltdown in the SEC West serving as a launching pad, here is an updated-for-2022 college football Bad Blood Power Rankings List.

1. Despicable Nick vs. Jimbo

Happier times for Fisher and Saban? The two coaches took things up a notch last week in separate media appearances.

Mickey Welsh/USA TODAY Network

When the greatest coach in college football history declared the Aggies “bought every player on their team,” he set into motion some primal forces. Codes were broken, alarms were raised and the delicate detente of the sport was smashed. Fisher’s retaliatory strike of unrestrained fury shredded the charade wherein everyone is probably cheating but proclaiming not to be. So, we have the ultimate ratcheting up of what should already be a very compelling game on Oct. 8, when A&M visits Alabama. Because now it’s not just about who is better on the field, but who has the greater (specious) claim to the incongruous college sports buzzwords of “class” and “integrity.”

2. Jim Harbaugh vs. Ryan “Third Base” Day

The Ohio StateMichigan rivalry had been hammer vs. nail in recent years, but that changed in thunderous fashion last season when the Wolverines pounded the Buckeyes in the snow in Ann Arbor for the Big Ten East Division title. Harbaugh then added insult to injury with his postgame declaration that, “Sometimes people that are standing on third base think they hit a triple, but they didn’t.” The assumed allusion to Day inheriting one of the five best jobs in the sport from Urban Meyer at a young age shortchanges Day’s resume (he’s 34–4, for the love of Woody), but Michigan fans love the return of Coach Swaggy Khaki. This came a year after a reported Day-Harbaugh disagreement on a conference Zoom call prompted Day to tell his team, “We are going to hang 100 on them.” The 2020 game was canceled due to Michigan COVID-19 issues, so Day’s prediction in The Horseshoe didn’t happen. This season’s game is scheduled for Nov. 26 in Columbus.

3. Oklahoma fans vs. Lincoln Riley

Football coaches don’t leave Oklahoma for other college jobs … until Riley did. Abruptly. To USC and the Pac-12. Hours after a disappointing loss against rival Oklahoma State. Sooner Nation didn’t handle the rejection well, and the vitriol only increased when A-list talent began following Riley out west. Five-star 2023 quarterback Malachi Nelson switched his commitment from Oklahoma to USC, and star Sooners QB Caleb Williams and receiver Mario Williams joined the Norman exodus. (Riley’s subsequent semantics added a layer of fury when he declared he didn’t take those players from his former school, he took them from the transfer portal.) Oklahoma fans have been strenuously convincing themselves they will be better off without the coach they used to adore. We’ll see how that goes.

4. Notre Dame fans vs. Brian Kelly

Kelly agreed to a 10-year, $95 million deal with LSU in December 2021. 

Stephen Lew/USA TODAY Sports

Just about everything Oklahoma fans feel about Riley is transferable to how the Fighting Irish faithful feel about Kelly—shock, betrayal and the bruised ego that comes with being the rare jilted blueblood. The additional aggravating factor for Notre Dame: Kelly bolted while his team was still in contention for a College Football Playoff berth, which remains hard to justify. The mitigating factor: Kelly did not raid his old roster for any star transfers. When BK trotted out that laughable Southern accent upon his arrival in Baton Rouge, it reminded Irish fans that they never really liked their longtime coach’s personality and no longer had to pretend otherwise like they did when he was winning big.

5. SMU vs. TCU

The Battle for the Iron Skillet is a front-burner sizzler this year. There is a longstanding, natural rivalry between the private schools located 40 miles apart in the DFW Metroplex, but it’s cranked up now that the Horned Frogs swiped Mustangs coach Sonny Dykes. SMU’s bid to flee the American Athletic Conference for the Big 12 was also rebuffed last year, which only adds to the smugness in Fort Worth and the angst in Dallas. Last year’s game, won by the Mustangs, ended with an attempted SMU flag planting at midfield that erupted into a skirmish. That led then-TCU coach Gary Patterson to rip SMU, which led to administrative statements and umbrage taken, and everything that comes with one rival alleging that another has demonstrated poor sportsmanship. This year’s game is on Sept. 24 in Dallas.

6. Pat Narduzzi vs. Lincoln Riley

The Pittsburgh coach and Oklahoma fans are not natural allies, but they have united around a common cause: despising Riley. For Narduzzi, the anger stems from the transfer of Biletnikoff Award–winning receiver Jordan Addison to USC after he was a late addition to the transfer portal. His loss is a huge blow to the Panthers as they try to stack another special season after winning the ACC championship in 2021. The Pitt coaching staff let it be known that it believed USC tampered with Addison, kicking up considerable dust around the player’s departure before he even entered the portal. If you want to see Narduzzi and Riley go nose-to-nose this season, you’ll need to hope for a Pitt-USC matchup in either the Holiday Bowl or Sun Bowl.

7. LSU vs. Florida

Since winning the 2019 national championship, the Tigers have done one thing well: torture the Gators. They dealt a blow to Florida’s College Football Playoff hopes in ’20 in the infamous Thrown Cleat Game and stunned the Gators again last year 49–42 as 12 1/2-point underdogs. This was a feisty rivalry before the past two seasons, with the acrimonious hurricane postponement of ’16 notably stirring the pot. The rivalry might have to regenerate some of its animosity now that there is coaching turnover at both schools, but Billy Napier never getting a sniff of the LSU job before signing on at Florida is a nice added dynamic. The Gators and Tigers meet Oct. 15 in Gainesville.

8. Lane Kiffin vs. Jimbo

Kiffin was the first to Go There in regard to Fisher’s recruiting class, just not quite as memorably as Saban did. “I joked I didn’t know if Texas A&M incurred a luxury tax with how much they paid for their signing class,” the Mississippi coach said before the February signing day. Fisher’s response: “Clown acts. Irresponsible as hell. … It does piss me off.” The clown act comes to College Station on Oct. 29. Ole Miss beat the Aggies last year, one of four SEC West losses for A&M in 2021.

9. Washington vs. Washington State

Washington State fans stormed the opposing field at Husky Stadium in Seattle after winning last season’s Apple Cup. 

Joe Nicholso/USA TODAY Sports

A field storming after a big rivalry victory isn’t unusual—but what if the visiting fans are the ones doing the storming? That’s what happened in Seattle last season, when the Cougars crushed the Huskies 40–13. It was Wazzu’s largest margin of victory in Apple Cup history, putting Washington out of its misery in a 4–8 debacle of a season. It capped a pretty good day for Jake Dickert, who was officially elevated from interim to full-time head coach of the Cougars. The two teams meet on the Palouse on Nov. 26.

10. The Alliance vs. Playoff Expansion

The Big Ten, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference leadership banded together to effectively halt an expansion of the College Football Playoff from four to 12 teams, and that has indeed engendered some ill will at the commissioner level. The best snapshot of the chill between power brokers was at the NCAA men’s basketball West Region championship game in San Francisco, where Pac-12 boss George Kliavkoff and ACC commish Jim Phillips sat together and jovially interacted, while Greg Sankey of the SEC sat on the opposite side of the scorer’s table with his associate commissioner, Dan Leibovitz. There wasn’t a lot of happy banter between them.

11. The Rose Bowl vs. Playoff Expansion

One of the other major expansion obstructionists is the Granddaddy of Them All, which remains doggedly wedded to playing its game at the same time on the same date. (An asteroid could be headed for the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 at 5 p.m. ET, and game organizers still would insist on kickoff as usual.) Expanding the playoff and still including all six current CFP bowl partners would mean something has to give in terms of the Rose Bowl’s participation, and the powers that be in Pasadena seem willing to take their third-quarter sunset and go home if necessary.

12. Auburn boosters vs. Bryan Harsin

Auburn trustee Jimmy Rane last week disputed the widely held notion that he and other boosters attempted to undercut, and ultimately oust, Harsin after one season on the job. Believe him if you wish, but don’t blame Harsin if he believes his own people are out to get him. There almost certainly was booster involvement in the firing of Harsin’s predecessor, Gus Malzahn, and in a concurrent attempt to elevate defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to head coach. Harsin barely held onto his job after an internal investigation of his first season, a 6–7 finish that included an agonizing overtime loss against Alabama. The schedule gives Harsin a chance this season, with the first five games at home, but some prominent people could be quick to turn on him if Auburn doesn’t get off to a fast start.

13. Michigan State vs. Michigan

This would be better if Mel Tucker was remotely unlikeable, but Harbaugh makes up for a lot of that by himself. The 2021 game between the Spartans and Wolverines was a high-stakes, high-drama affair marked by multiple controversial calls, all of which went in favor of Michigan State. The nature of that lone ’21 regular-season defeat has stuck with the Michigan faithful, who will be ready when their in-state rival comes to the Big House on Oct. 29.

14. Texas vs. TCU

One of the well-chronicled byproducts of the Longhorns’ decade-long malaise was losing six out of seven against the Horned Frogs from 2014 to ’20. Texas beat TCU last season, then hired the Frogs’ freshly deposed coach, Gary Patterson, as a special assistant to Steve Sarkisian. Patterson’s salary for that gig—a healthy $150,000. The Horns may find that a worthwhile investment to get the best possible scouting report on TCU personnel ahead of their Nov. 12 meeting in Austin.

15. TV vs. Everybody

A growing number of fans distrust ESPN, believing it has bestowed Most Favored Nation status on the SEC. Meanwhile, plenty of Texas fans are fuming at FOX over the Longhorns’ Sept. 10 home showdown against Alabama kicking off at 11 a.m. CT. Then, there are the eyebrows raised by FOX’s advisory presence in the Big Ten negotiations with other potential broadcast partners. Every athletic department likes it when those big media-rights checks are distributed, but there is considerable complaining the rest of the year.