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The insider's guide to 'rivalry season'

By Justin Gest for CNN
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(CNN) -- This weekend marks the beginning of Rivalry Season in American college football -- a time when the games are played with bragging rights, trophies, jobs, and even marriages at stake. Here's your playbook of questions and answers.

College football? Those guys are amateurs, aren't they?

Unlike young athletes in other countries, most of America's young sports stars play for universities (often thanks to generous scholarships) before entering the professional ranks. So the quality of intercollegiate athletics in the U.S. is relatively high and attracts large bases of loyal (read: obsessed) student, alumni, and local non-affiliated supporters. While professional American football boasts a higher level of talent, college football can claim the better game day atmosphere, the most intense rivalries and the most eccentric traditions.

So what makes a rivalry a rivalry?

Rivalries are normally born from two colleges' geographical proximity and their membership in the same athletic conference -- mandating a meeting once every season. Indeed, familiarity breeds disdain. So after decades of heated competition and the occasional on-field brouhaha, many schools place significantly more weight on defeating their most hated rival. For instance, after a lackluster season for the University of Alabama Crimson Tide (two wins and five losses in their conference), head coach Mike Shula is expected to be on the "hot seat" at season's end. But a victory over Alabama's abhorred in-state rival Auburn on Saturday will easily earn the coach another year -- no questions asked.

OK, but for the rest of us, it's just a game, right?

Just a game? In Alabama, for example, one marriage between an Auburn husband and a 'Bama wife ended, not only because of the rivalry, but "it was a factor." My own cousin in Alabama wanted to study physiotherapy, but the only university in the state to offer the appropriate course was Auburn. Her Crimson-Tide-loving father refused to send her to the rival college and so sent her to Tennessee instead.

I still don't understand what the big deal is

This is a once-a-year deal. If your team loses, you will hear about it for the next 364 days from neighbors, friends, co-workers, and strangers supporting the other side. Alabama's legendary head coach Paul "Bear" Bryant once remarked to a group of supporters, "Sure I'd like to beat Notre Dame, don't get me wrong. But nothing matters more than beating that cow college on the other side of the state."

The fans have followed suit. Games are commonly accompanied by mean-spirited pranks, mascot kidnappings, profane T-shirts, and just a little drinking. Suffice to say that the game between the Universities of Georgia and Florida is known as "The World's Largest Cocktail Party."

So when does a game reach rivalry classification?

Well, a trophy helps. Many rivalries are christened with the casting of some ceremonial piece of tin. The range of prizes is as wide as the American countryside.

The University of Minnesota and the University of Wisconsin have met in the oldest rivalry in college football history every year since 1907. Since 1948, the prize was Paul Bunyan's Axe. Before that, however, the teams played for the "Slab of Bacon" -- a board of wood with the word "BACON" etched and a figure that represents an "M" or a "W" depending which way the slab was inverted.

The University of Arizona and Arizona State University vie for the oldest prize in any rivalry series -- The Territorial Cup. The cup was recently found after a 50-year disappearance. During its absence, the teams played for "The Big Game Trophy" -- an abstract sculpture that many people thought was horribly ugly. One coach once remarked that the trophy ought to be awarded to the loser of the "The Duel in the Desert."

The Duel in the Desert?

Nothing baptizes a rivalry like a name for the game. Just calling it a "rivalry" sounds way too innocuous. And over the years, the names have gotten increasingly belligerent.

Each autumn, the University of Oregon and Oregon State meet in what is now called, "The Civil War." Similarly, the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia clash in "The Backyard Brawl." And when the largely Mormon student bodies of the University of Utah and Brigham Young University play, the game is pleasantly referred to as "Holy War."

Until 2004, the game between the Universities of Kansas and Missouri was called the "Border War." However, out of sensitivity to U.S. soldiers sent abroad after the events of September 11, 2001, the schools changed the official name to the "Border Showdown." The University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have inspired no such concessions. Author Bill Cromartie dubbed their rivalry, "Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate."

Harvard University and their rivals at Yale have taken the high ground. Their meeting tomorrow is simply referred to as "The Game." As if there is no other.

University of Arizona vs. Arizona State University: The 'Duel in the Desert' is one of college football's fiercest rivalries.



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