Real rivalries

Holy Nick Saban. What a rivalry week.

The final regular season weekend of college football more than lived up to the hype on Saturday, with last-second, gasp-inducing endings galore and a last-minute shakeup of the Bowl Championship Series standings.

No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Auburn went down to the wire in a game decided by a 109-yard field goal return for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 34-28 upset in a tooth-and-nail battle that featured an MVP performance by a punter and a school-record 99-yard TD pass. Oh, and in addition to the pride of winning the Iron Bowl in a rivalry so fierce it has led (allegedly) grown men to poison 80-year-old oak trees, a trip to the SEC championship, and a likely spot in the national championship game, was also on the line.

Ohio State both won the game against Michigan, by a slim 42-41 margin, when the Wolverines went for two and came up in short in the final minutes, as well as the players-ejected battle (two to one) to bolster its chances of playing for it all.

Georgia erased a 20-7 lead against Georgia Tech in a game where the woofing began before kickoff, then won 41-34 in overtime.

Oh, and Duke will play for an ACC title. In football. The Blue Devils kicked off a barnburner of a Saturday with a 27-25 victory against rival North Carolina.

And that was just the afternoon craziness.

To break down two of its more memorable moments: Should Michigan have gone for two after a TD pulled the Wolverines within one with 32 seconds to play? The points in favor: Michigan was playing at home, and the Wolverines' defense hadn't exactly been world- (or run) stoppers. The points against: Neither had the Buckeyes', and if the two-point pass fails - or is intercepted, which is what happened - well, you lose, right there and there, no do-overs or questions asked.

I would've kicked the extra point. I'd say that even if the two-point try had been successful. But in that case, Ohio State's season and any claim to a national title shot - a claim bolstered by Auburn knocking off Alabama - would have been ruined, and Michigan coach Brady Hoke wouldn't have been able to hear me over the deafening cheers at the Big House.

Even more head-scratching was Alabama coach Saban's decision to try a 57-yard field goal when a booth review put one second back on the game clock after T.J. Yeldon's run appeared to set up overtime with the Tide and the Tigers tied at 28. Tide kicker Cade Foster had gone 0-for-3 - and an ugly 0-for-3 - on field goal attempts in the game, so Saban turned to redshirt freshman Adam Griffith - a confidence-inspiring 1-for-2, from 20 yards, in his career.

Odds of making the kick were, to put it mildly, not good. Alabama, the two-time defending national champions, would have been, on reputation alone, the odds-on favorite in overtime (assuming the Tide could have scored touchdowns and not relied on the kicking game). The risk-reward was too high to attempt such a kick. A block on a kick of such length was a real possibility. So was a return of a too-short boot, and Chris Davis clearly had visions of six points dancing in his head when he caught the ball nine yards deep in the end zone and took off, tight-roping the left sideline before being escorted into the end zone by a convey of teammates.

The evening's games produced more remarkable moments.

South Carolina won its unprecedented fifth straight game against Clemson, 31-17, in the first of the 111 meetings between the bitter in-state foes where both teams were ranked in the top 10 in the nation. Clemson came into game ranked No. 6 in The Associated Press poll, while the Gamecocks were No. 10. 

The Gamecocks were hoping to pull off a double dip and play for the SEC title if Texas A&M lost to Missouri, but Johnny Manziel ran out of magic in a 28-21 loss.

Yep, folks, it was rivalry week, with a full slate of games that turned out even nuttier than those Crayola-vomit unis in Friday night's 117th Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State - a game won 36-35 by Oregon on a TD pass with 29 seconds left.

The term rivalry is overused these days. Roger Federer vs. Andy Roddick (Fed 21, A-Rod 3) was not a rivalry. Jimmy Johnson vs. the NASCAR field is not a rivalry. Rivals.com is the name of a high-school recruiting website, and ESPN forces Rivalry Week into the national consciousness with some less-than-worthy hardcourt matchups every season.

Boston vs. L.A. (and Bird vs. Magic) was a rivalry. Dodgers/Giants, both New York and California versions, was/is a rivalry. Redskins/Cowboys is a rivalry.

Buckeyes/Wolverines, first contested in 1897, is a rivalry. Bama/Auburn, first played in 1893, is a rivalry. South Carolina/Clemson, which kicked off the in-state hate in 1896, is a rivalry.

Not all of the above rivalries are strictly based on results. Some teams hold sizable head-to-head leads. But for tradition, for hoopla, for emotional investment and bragging rights and personal satisfaction/heartbreak, you can't beat 'em.

The South Carolina/Clemson series now stands at 42-65-4 in the Tigers' favor. The rivalry has featured stars (1980 Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers), national championship teams (Clemson in 1981) and brawls (an ugly 2004 melee that led to self-imposed bowl bans for both teams).  

It's nearest and dearest to my Palmetto State heart, though my allegiance has shifted over time. Having grown up a Clemson fan who chose to study journalism at South Carolina, I root for the Tigers every Saturday but one, though I still have trouble summoning up the bone-deep hate that many fans on either side slurp like Thanksgiving gravy 365 days a year.

While the victory against Clemson gave South Carolina in-state bragging rights for another year, it had no bearing on the Gamecocks' darkhorse hopes to be the East candidate in the SEC championship game. That role got vastly more appealing when the Tide turned earlier in the day, but thanks to an inexplicable loss to Tennessee earlier this year, the Gamecocks had to wait and see if Johnny Football could lead Texas A&M past Missouri in the other Columbia - where South Carolina erased a 17-0 deficit to win 27-24 in double overtime on Oct. 26. 

Fittingly, that game was tied, 21-21, until Missouri took the lead on a touchdown with 3:34 left. That set the stage for reigning Heisman winner Manziel, but despite the block he threw on a short swing pass on third-and-7, the A&M QB watched as the Aggies had to punt with 2:13 remaining. Missouri picked up a game-clinching first down and ran out the clock with a rather ho-hum victory formation, setting up a tangle of Tigers for many, many marbles.

Wherever your loyalties lie, whatever opponent makes your blood boil, whatever game you've had circled on your calendar all season, I hope Rivalry Saturday stirred some emotion in your pigskin-papered heart.

And if things didn't go your way, you can always say, as Clemson fans have now for five consecutive seasons, "There's always next year."