Big Ten Bites

Non-conference rivalries are here to stay

Teams should search for non-conference rivals.


USC’s embarrassing loss to rival Notre Dame in South Bend this past weekend taught us multiple things.

First off, it showed that the Trojans (6-1, 4-0 Pac-12) might not be College Football Playoff contenders yet, as they look for consistency on both sides of the ball. USC’s struggles on the road are real, especially if it gets off to a slow start. The USC defense is not the only aspect of this Trojan team that has problems, as the offense has shown significant weakness the past two weeks.

But beyond the Trojans, it showed that intersectional and non-conference rivalries should become more common in college football. 

The battle for the jeweled shillelagh is often described as the best intersectional rivalry in college football, not only because of the caliber of the Trojans and the Fighting Irish (6-2), but because there are just not many of them. While high-caliber teams often schedule home-and-home series with other high-caliber opponents in different conferences, like USC has with the Ole Miss Rebels (5-1, 2-1 SEC) in 2025 and 2026, those rarely turn into long-standing rivalries.

But the entirety of college football has an opportunity here.

Part of the backlash around conference realignment was the ending of traditional rivalries, particularly regional ones. And while conference realignment will end some, likely including USC and Stanford’s rivalry, this is not necessarily the end for many rivalries.

We’ve seen regional rivalries take place out of conference play. The rivalry between Iowa (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) and Iowa State (4-3, 3-1 Big 12) is impressive, as the Hawkeyes and Cyclones have played each other 70 times despite never sharing a conference. The same goes for Georgia (7-0, 4-0 SEC) and Georgia Tech (3-3, 2-1 ACC), who have played each other 114 times despite being in different conferences.

And as Notre Dame and USC’s yearly matchup shows, if a rivalry truly means that much to a school and a fanbase, those schools can schedule each other as non-conference opponents every year. 

This idea does pose some issues, however, as teams often schedule inferior non-conference opponents to ease into a season or create a mini bye week in the middle of a season. But no fan wants to watch Alabama take on the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (5-2, 4-1 Southern Conference) in the middle of November when instead, Alabama could schedule a yearly game with a non-conference opponent like Ohio State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten), Clemson (4-2, 2-2 ACC) or even Colorado (4-3, 1-3 Pac-12).

There would need to be a reason for the creation of a rivalry, but if USC — a non-denominational school on the West Coast — and Notre Dame — a Catholic school in Indiana — can find a reason for a rivalry, any two schools can do it.

Although USC already had a non-conference rivalry, the Trojans could have made a yearly rivalry with the Texas Longhorns (5-1, 2-1 Big 12) solely based on the marquee matchups the two schools have had in the past, like the 2006 Rose Bowl.

While proximity to each other is certainly important in a rivalry and can add more fuel to a fire, particularly among each school’s respective fanbase — like in the Crosstown Showdown between USC and UCLA (4-2, 1-2 Pac-12) — the prominence of the two teams will add national interest to the game.

Take the Red River Rivalry, for example. The yearly matchup between Texas and Oklahoma (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) was particularly popular this year, not because the states of the schools border each other, but because both teams were ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll that week. This year’s edition averaged 8.1 million viewers, a 135% increase from last year’s game between the two schools when both teams were unranked.

Every school won’t want to add a game to its schedule where there is a high chance of the team losing, but other schools, like USC, don’t shy away from scheduling a program in Notre Dame every year that beats the Trojans more often than not.

Conference realignment is not a new phenomenon — although it is happening at a high rate now and could potentially lead to the dissolution of the Pac-12— and it will continue to wreak havoc on college sports in the upcoming years. But if schools created rivalries — particularly rivalries between two major programs in college football — outside of their own conference, those yearly matchups would be untouched by any future movement.

It seems like such a simple solution to a problem that people have complained about ever since USC announced it would be leaving for the Big Ten. It would make non-conference schedules much more interesting and provide some stability with all of the conference realignment chaos. 

Now the responsibility is on the schools to find other teams worthy of being a non-conference rival year in and year out.

Thomas Johnson is a junior writing about USC’s move to a new conference and all of the implications surrounding the transition in his column, “Big Ten Bites,” which typically runs every other Monday.

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