College Football’s Oldest Rivalry and Oldest Teams
Football has been played at the college level for more than 150 years, with the oldest rivalry and teams playing each other since just after the Civil War. The sport has evolved considerably since its rough-and-tumble early days when just a handful of colleges and universities fielded athletic teams. Today, there are 130 teams just in the NCAA’s premier Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and hundreds more in smaller divisions, making for plenty of gridiron action.
The Longest Running Rivalry in College Football
Several universities can boast long-lived football rivalries, including Harvard vs. Yale, Ohio State vs. Michigan, and Army vs. Navy. But the oldest annual matchup is between two small institutions in Pennsylvania. Lehigh University in Bethlehem and Lafayette College in Easton have met every year but one since 1884, making it the oldest rivalry in any division of college football.
The Mountain Hawks of Lehigh and the Leopards of Lafayette both play in the Patriot League conference of the NCAA’s Division I Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). At the conclusion of the 2021- 2021 season, Lafayette led the series 78-70-5. “The Rivalry,” as it is known, is so old that it predates the tradition of giving out trophies for important college football victories. Instead, the winning team gets to keep the game ball, writing the final score on it to preserve the memory of the win.
Other Long-Standing Matchups
Just a few years after Lehigh and Lafayette began playing, Ivy League universities Princeton and Yale met for the first time in 1873. Princeton, then known as the College of New Jersey, beat Yale 3-0 in that game. As of the 2021-18 season, Yale has a slight edge in the series, 77-53-10. Yale’s rivalry with Harvard University is nearly as old; those two schools faced off for the first time in 1875. The Harvard Crimson beat the Yale Bulldogs 4-0 in that game, but as of the 2021-18 season, Yale holds the winning edge, as the score is 67-59-8.
Among major public universities, the oldest college football rivalry belongs to the University of Minnesota Gophers and the University of Wisconsin Badgers. These two Big 10 football powerhouses have met every year since 1890, with the winner taking home a trophy dubbed “Paul Bunyan’s Axe.” As of the 2021-18 football season, Wisconsin holds the series edge, 60-59-8, and they have won every matchup since 2004.
Division II and III Rivalries
As Lehigh and Lafayette prove, you don’t need to be a powerhouse college football program in order to have an old rivalry. In Division II football, Emporia State and Washburn Universities hold bragging rights to the oldest college rivalry. The Hornets of Emporia State and the Washburn Ichabods first met in 1899, with Emporia winning 11-0. After the 2021-18 season, the Hornets enjoy a 52-52-6 advantage since the “Turnpike Tussle” (as it is now called) began.
In Division III, the rivalry between Williams and Amherst colleges is considered the oldest. The two teams first played one another in 1881. At that game, the Williams Ephs defeated the Amherst Lord Jeffs (now called the Mammoths) 15-2. Since then, the “biggest little game in America,” as fans call it, Williams has held a slight edge in this rivalry, 72-55-5.
The Oldest College Teams
The 1869 game between Rutgers and Princeton marked more than the start of the oldest rivalry in college football. It also was the first time a college or university in the United States fielded a football team. Back then, each team had 25 players, points were scored by kicking or batting the ball into the opponent’s goal, and you couldn’t carry or throw the ball.
By the late 1800s, college football’s rules had been codified and the sport was quickly becoming popular at major public and private institutions. The University of Michigan is often cited as the first major state university to have a football team; the Wolverines first took the field in 1879. In 1882, the University of Minnesota became the second.
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Guardian staff. “College Football Explained.” TheGuardian, October 10, 2012.
Lopresti, Mike. “7 of the Most-Played College Football Rivalries of All Time.” Turner Sports Interactive, Inc., September 19, 2021.