Last weekend, the USC Trojans (5-5) took on the UCLA Bruins (2-8) in what many consider the worst of the 88 showdowns between the crosstown rivals. Just the seventh time since 1929 that neither team entered the game with a winning record, their 13 combined losses were also the most ever. That the game ended with UCLA winning and USC sliding to the brink of bowl eligibility only reinforced its stinkiness.
It also got us thinking about college football’s great rivalries. We hold them up as the gold standard of everything great about the game and each season we look forward to these games in hope that they’ll add another classic to the history books. But sometimes…these rivalry games suck. Sometimes the stars align (or un-align) and what’s supposed to be a battle for the record books becomes the kind of game that makes you throw that record book at the TV.
Let’s take a look at some of the very worst games in the history of college football’s best rivalries.
The Apple Cup (2008)
In recent years, The Apple Cup has been a hugely important game in determining the Pac-12 North champion and it looks like that’s going to be the case again this year. However, it wasn’t that long ago when the game between the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars was so distasteful that the media dubbed it The Crapple Cup. The 0-10 Huskies, led by lame duck coach Ty Willingham, went to Pullman to face the 1-10 Cougars in a battle of who could care less. Turns out, it was actually a pretty good game (WSU won in overtime on a field goal), proving that even when everything else is lost, these two schools still really want to beat each other.
The Civil War (1983)
Staying in the Pacific Northwest, we return to a time when the Pac-12 was known as the Pac-10. Long before Phil Knight turned Oregon into a national power, the Ducks were pretty lame. In 1983, the 4-6 Ducks hosted the 2-8 Oregon State Beavers in a Civil War showdown that seemed destined to be forgotten as soon as it was over. However, the game, which was played in miserable conditions, became memorable for just how bad it was. The two teams combined for eleven turnovers and four missed field goals en route to a 0-0 tie. There’s a good reason this game came to be known as The Toilet Bowl.
The Big Game (1960)
When you think of The Big Game between the Cal Bears and Stanford Cardinal, you probably think of 1982 and “The Play.” The two schools have traded plenty of ups and downs and while the game rarely has national implications, it almost always has big implications for the Pac-12. Except for years like 1960, when the Pac-12 precursor was called the Athletic Association of Western Universities. Cal (1-7-1) and Stanford (0-9) battled to a to a 21-10 finish in favor of the Bears. Stanford finished the season winless for only the second time in their history. The two teams finished next-to-last and last in the conference.
The Battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe (1988)
This weekend, Minnesota hopes to break a 14-season losing streak to Wisconsin and win back Paul Bunyan’s Axe. This series is the most-played rivalry in all of FBS with 127 meetings, but not all of them have been very enjoyable. Take 1988 for instance. The Badgers came into the game at 0-9 while the Gophers weren’t much better with a record of 2-5-2. In spite of their putridity, Wisky won the game 14-7, their only victory in a 1-10 season.
The Game (1962)
To its credit, it’s pretty hard to find a game between the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes in which both teams came in pretty bad. More often than not, even if one program was having an off-year, the other was near the top of the rankings. It’s also a pretty even series, even with all of Ohio State’s recent domination (49–46–4 in favor of OSU). The “worst” matchup we could locate, discounting some of the very early meetings of a different era, took place in 1962. That’s when 2-6 Michigan traveled to Ohio to lose 28-0 to the 5-3 Buckeyes. Even then, OSU was ranked. See, we told you it was hard to find a bad one.
Notre Dame vs. USC (1960)
Notre Dame and USC have combined for 22 national championships and 14 Heisman Trophies, so chances are it’s either going to be an important game or at least feature one nationally relevant squad. That’ll be what happens when Notre Dame looks to clinch a spot in the College Football Playoff with a win this weekend. If you want to go back to a time when this game pretty much sucked, you’ll have to travel all the way back to 1960 when Notre Dame came in 1-8 (on an eight-game losing streak). Somehow, they blanked the 4-6 Trojans, 17-0. It was John McKay’s first season at the helm for the Trojans, so things got better pretty quickly.
Bedlam Series (1965)
Bedlam between the Oklahoma Sooners and Oklahoma State Cowboys is another long-running series that makes it hard to find a “bad” matchup. Most of that is Oklahoma’s fault since they’re spent much of the last few decades among the nation’s top rankings. So even when OSU was down, they were still going up against a quality opponent. To find a boring Bedlam showdown, we had to look to 1965. The Sooners came in at 3-6 while the Cowboys entered the contest at 2-7. OSU won the game 17-16 which means both teams finish with a 3-7 record. At the end of his second season as head coach, OU fired Gomer Jones after the game.
Florida State vs. Miami (1975)
Since the 1980s, the showdown between Florida State and Miami has routinely had implications for conference crowns and national titles. You probably know it for Wide Right I, Wide Right II, Wide Right III, and Wide Right IV, but not every game between the two Florida rivals are memorable. This year’s matchup certainly looks pretty rough (5-6 vs. 6-5) but it’s still not as bad as the game in 1975. That year, Miami finished 2-8 and Florida State finished 3-8. Their game actually wasn’t too shabby (24-22, FSU) but it certainly exists in a time before both schools were the powerhouses they would become.
The Iron Bowl (1951)
Like with OSU – Michigan, it’s tough to find too many “bad” match-ups between Alabama and Auburn. Even if one of them was having a down year, the other one was probably ranked in the top ten and competing for at the very least the SEC Championship. So in order to find a bad contest between the two, we have to travel back in time all the way to 1951. The 3-6 Crimson Tide traveled to Legion Field to take on the 5-4 Tigers, who were themselves riding a three-game losing streak. That would become a four-game losing streak as the Tide won 25-7. Lucky for Auburn, first-year coach Ralph Jordan got better.
Army – Navy (2000)
One of the most enduring rivalries in college football, and American sports, the yearly battle between the Black Knights and Midshipmen often decides the winner of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. For many decades, it was the Ohio State – Michigan of its day. But those days are long gone and more often than not it’s a game between two programs fighting and scraping for bowl eligibility. However, it’s also sometimes a match-up between two football teams without a whole lot of numbers in their win column. That was certainly the case in 2000 when Navy stumbled into the game with a 0-10 record while Army wasn’t faring much better with a record of 1-9. However, it was Navy who came away the winner (30-28) in an error-filled contest full of questionable referee decisions. It was ugly and messy and just perfect all things considered.