The Backyard Brawl – How did it compare to other rivalries?

If there is one thing that distinguishes college football from professional football, in addition to the pageantry and tradition, it is the long-standing rivalries. There are many well-known rivalries, such as Army-Navy, Auburn-Alabama, Michigan-Ohio State, and USC-Notre Dame to name a few. In Western Pennsylvania and in West Virginia, the Backyard Brawl was a rivalry that caught the attention of Pitt and West Virginia fans.

I believe there are nine factors that constitute the very best of college football rivalries. On this, the 10th anniversary of the most memorable game in Backyard Brawl history, let’s compare how the Backyard Brawl compares to other well-known rivalries using those nine factors.

1. A long history of playing each other with continuance of play.

Harvard and Yale have met 134 times. Army and Navy have played each other 117 times.  Michigan and Ohio State have faced one another 114 times and Oklahoma and Texas have squared off 111 times.

Pitt played West Virginia 104 times which certainly qualifies as a long history of playing each other.  To put that in some perspective, Miami versus Florida State have met 62 times and Florida State versus Florida have played one another 62 times. USC has played Notre Dame 86 times and Auburn and Alabama have met 82 times.

As for continuance of play, just like Nebraska-Oklahoma, discontinuing the Backyard Brawl was a loss for college football and particularly Eastern football.

2. Near equality of series record.

In the very best of rivalries it only makes sense that the series record should be equal or close to it.  If one team constantly beats the other that’s not a rivalry, that’s Alabama versus Vanderbilt.

Yale leads Harvard 66-59-8, Navy leads Army 60-50-7, in “The Game” it’s Michigan 58 Ohio State 48 with six ties, Miami 32 Florida State 30.

In the Backyard Brawl, Pitt leads the series 61-40-3 which is a sizeable series record advantage. However, since 1954 the rivalry won-loss record is:  West Virginia 29, Pitt 27 and two ties.  That’s indicative of a close rivalry.

3. The rivalry isn’t one sided for long periods of time.

In the famed Iron Bowl, from 1959 to 1981, Alabama won 19 of the 23 games over Auburn and nine in a row from 1973 through 1981. UCLA had an eight-game winning streak over USC in the ‘90s. From 1999-2009, USC won 10 of 11 against the Bruins.

There are those that believe USC and Notre Dame is the greatest college football rivalry, I point out that USC was 12-2-2 against the Fighting Irish from 1967 to 1982.  Notre Dame then went 12-0-1 from 1983 to 1996 against USC defeating the Trojans 11 straight times. USC turned the tables beginning in 2002 winning eight straight against the Fighting Irish.

It can’t get much more one-sided than that for those periods of time.  Compare that to Michigan and Ohio State. From 1979 to 1987, Michigan and Ohio State alternated winning every year.  However, Ohio State has won the past six games against Michigan and 15 of the last 17 meetings.

From 1924 through 1946, Pitt won 19 of the 20 meetings against West Virginia. Within that stretch Pitt won 15 straight from 1929 through 1946. Pitt cumulatively outscored West Virginia in those games 391-39.  That’s not a rivalry that’s akin to a hammer versus a nail.

Pitt has also had a seven-game winning streak from 1976-1982 and a six-game winning streak from 1910 through 1921 as the series had some years where the two schools didn’t play one another.

West Virginia’s longest winning streak was five games in a row from 1992 through 1996 in the midst of winning eight of nine games beginning in 1988 and 10 of 12 through 1999. West Virginia has won the last three contests between the two schools.

4. The games are close.

Sounds simple enough. Seven of the last 11 meetings between Pitt and West Virginia were decided by seven points or less. In the 30 games prior, only nine of them were decided by seven points or less.  As time, has gone by, the games and the rivalry has become more competitive.

5. The games are of significance – there’s more at stake than just bragging rights.

It’s a good feeling being able to claim superiority over your rival till the next time you meet but

when there is more at stake, such as a conference title and/or a major bowl bid, and if the game carries national championship implications, that’s when the game becomes truly a big game.

Navy versus Army has been devoid of national implications since the days of Roger Staubach

back in the early ‘60s.  Whereas, Michigan versus Ohio State often determines who is the Big 10 champion with a trip to the Rose Bowl at stake.

In 2006, when Ohio State and Michigan met, they were ranked #1 and 2 respectfully, both schools had undefeated seasons at stake with the Big 10 title on the line along with the right to play in the BCS National Championship game. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

It has been few and far between when either Pitt or West Virginia has been highly ranked and the Backyard Brawl had more than local significance. Prior to 1995, many of the games in the Backyard Brawl were played in September and October rather than a late season finale in November. Although emotions ran high on both squads, with both schools being independent for much of the time rather than in the same conference, the outcome in those early and mid-season games lacked the drama of a game that decided ultimately decided a conference title let alone any national implications.

6. Large upsets occur.

The phrase, “You can throw away the record book when these two teams play,” can be true.  For example, in 1969 when a two-loss Michigan team upset #1 ranked Ohio State. Oftentimes the phrase is over used. Usually the heavily-favored team pummels their rival but every now and then it happens.

If you were to look up the definition of a large upset, a picture of 13-9 and a 4-7 Pitt squad being a four-touchdown underdog to 10-1 and #2 ranked West Virginia would be in the dictionary.

7. Upsets of significant consequence occur.

Perhaps no rivalry illustrates this better than The Game. In 1993, Ohio State was 9-0-1 but lost 28-0 to a 6-4 Michigan team. In 1995, #2-ranked and 11-0 Ohio State lost 31-23 to an 8-3 Michigan squad. In 1996, it was déjà vu all over again, as #2 ranked 10-0 Ohio State lost 13-9 to a 7-3 Michigan team.

The 2007 Backyard Brawl had something that all the other Backyard Brawls did not. All the games in the series had local significance, perhaps even regional significance, but the 2007 Backyard Brawl differed in that it had national significance in that it knocked #2-ranked West Virginia out of the national championship game and playing for a national championship. That game provided the Backyard Brawl what it had been missing, an upset of significant consequence.

8. A history of excellence

From 1971 to 2001, 16 times when Nebraska played Oklahoma both schools were ranked in the top 10. Eight times both were ranked in the top five in the country. From 1971 through 1980, only once weren’t both teams ranked in the top 10 when they played one another.

In the ‘90s, every game of the Florida State-Florida series, both teams were ranked in the top 10.

This is the category that keeps the Backyard Brawl from being one recognized as one of the premier rivalries in college football.  Since 1960, only eight times has one of the schools been ranked in the top 10 when the two schools faced one another.

Only one time, in 1989, were both schools ranked in the top 10 when they met. Not surprisingly the contest in Morgantown between #9 West Virginia and #10 Pitt ended in a 31-31 tie.

9. Proximity

Michigan and Ohio State are bordering states.  Alabama and Auburn are both in the same state with no professional football team to challenge college football.  USC and UCLA are only 12 miles apart from one another.

With the distance from Pittsburgh to Morgantown separated by only 75 miles, a big checkmark for the Backyard Brawl on proximity.

Compared to some other college football rivalries, the Backyard Brawl falls short in some categories and fares better in others.

If you say 13-9 every Pitt and West Virginia fan knows immediately what you’re referring to. The 2007 game added to the Backyard Brawl’s reputation and stature amongst college football rivalries and with the series virtually even since 1954 and close games the norm rather than the exception of late, it was a loss to Eastern and college football that the series ended in 2011.

The good news is that The Backyard Brawl will renew with a four-game series with all the games scheduled in mid-September with the first game at Heinz Field in 2022.

John Baranowski is a sports historian and contributor to newspapers, sports publications and sports websites.  This and other articles written by him can be found on his blog:

Photo by Abdullah AL-Naser on / CC BY-NC