All sports thrive on rivalries.
I mean, what would the Yankees be without the Red Sox, or Muhammad Ali without Joe Frazier?
We love bitter opponents going after one another year after year, claiming bragging rights for 364 days until the next match-up arrives.
And no "sport" is more dependent on rivalries than college athletics.
The reason is simple: The playing field in college athletics is inherently skewed. Sure, in professional sports you have your have's and have not's, but that's usually determined by shoddy ownership and incompetent front office management. Put the right people in place and even the Tampa Bay Rays or L.A. Clippers can be championship-caliber.
In college sports, not so much.
You could give Yale the best coach and smartest athletic director on the planet and they aren't coming close to winning a championship in the "big money" sports (football and basketball). Give Troy University 100 years and there's little chance they ever make you forget about Alabama.
So, for many teams (most who play top-tier football), rivalries are the lifeblood of the program. Army and Navy know they ain't bringing home any national trophies in the near or distant futures, but whichever one of them wins the Army/Navy game at the end of the year can consider it a successful season.
That's true for a lot of programs. Ohio State and Michigan might be two of the most storied football programs in CFB history but, ask one of their fans whether they'd rather beat their arch rival or win a National Championship, there's a good chance the answer will be the former.
It might not be that dramatic when it comes to North Carolina and Duke in CBB, but the two regular season match ups and (usually) one conference tournament game are treated like the Super Bowl and World Series all rolled into one. It's a benchmark for the entire season.
Rivalries are also one of the great victims of conference realignment. This isn't anything new. Once upon a time, the Pittsburgh/Penn State game was one of the best in college football. It's been more than a decade since they last met on the field.
Same goes for Virginia Tech and West Virginia, another great matchup that's been dead for years.
UConn isn't immune to this. When Boston College left a decade ago, it took one of UConn's best rivalries with it. That stung...so much so that UConn basketball, under Jim Calhoun, vowed not to play the Eagles ever again.
But while losing Boston College may have stung like a bee, losing the Big East has felt like a shotgun blast to the face. UConn didn't just lose a few rivalries....they lost them all.
St. John's? Done.
Even less-intense match ups against the likes of Notre Dame and Louisville are either dead or dying, and any chance of Rutgers becoming a "real" rivalry in football, rather than something that always felt somewhat fake or forced, became impossible once they signed on to play in the Big 10 next year.
So that leaves UConn with...no one.
Part of the problem is stability. Is UConn staying in the new American for an extended period of time (likely) or getting an invitation to either the ACC or Big 10 in the not-so-distant future (unlikely)? Even if UConn does end up a long-time member of the American, will everyone else stay as well? Remember, the Big 12 only has 10 teams right now and no conference championship game. If they find that cracking the "Final Four" of college football in the future is made more difficult because of the lack of that extra game, they'll jump to 12 before you can bat an eye...and some teams in the American will be on the short list for expansion.
However, let's assume just for a moment, that everything stays quiet for a long time: Conferences stay together, schedules shake out, and everyone stays content.
Who, then, becomes UConn's biggest rivals?
Well, there are a couple of factors that come into play when talking about how rivalries are established:
Nothing trumps history. If two schools have been playing since before Moses parted the Red Sea, chances are they've had enough big games to create enough bad blood to produce a rivalry. Usually, rivalries offer a lineage where fathers and grandfathers can talk whimsically of getting into crazy bar fights against such-and-such team's fans...passing down that penchant for sports-related violence to another generation. Without that, there is no such thing as a rivalry.
Unfortunately for UConn, the most important ingredient is the one they don't have. There is no real history with any of their new American foes, and it's impossible to tell which program will provide those moments in the future.
A lot of that history stems from geography. For years, you played schools close to you because they were the only ones you could reach. There weren't any chartered planes or big, comfy buses to travel on. You played whoever was closest, which meant your rivals were pretty much right down the road.
That's obviously changed a lot, but it still plays a factor. The biggest reason why UConn and Boston College fans loath one another is because we all pretty much live a stones-throw away from each other. We're both battling for northeast supremacy.
Yet, with the breakup of the Big East, UConn's left without any real northeast partner, besides Temple. Whereas in the former Big East there were a bunch of schools in New York, Rhode Island, even New Jersey, now, when the Huskies look for a dancing partner from the American that's in the same neighborhood, besides Temple no one fits the bill.
3. Dichotomy of the markets
This is a tricky one, and the least important of all the rivalry ingredients, but it's there. I remember when Notre Dame had that great rivalry with Miami in the 1980s, and it was dubbed the Catholics vs. the Convicts. As with everything Notre Dame, it cast them in the best possible light and their opponent in the worst, but the point was taken. These were two very different fan bases who looked at the world through opposite lenses.
That's the way it goes sometimes. In the NBA, the Celtics and Lakers have built their bitter tradition on the idea that it's always showtime versus blue collar New England. The Cubs and Cardinals were about hard-nosed Chicago vs. easy-going St. Louis.
With UConn, it's unclear who offers that stark contrast in personality, only because Connecticut as a whole is somewhat of an enigma. Is it the quaint New England state or cynical tri-state member? Is it more like Boston, New York, or Bangor, Maine?Is it blue or white collar?
So, obviously, the normal ways in which a rivalry is established aren't readily available to UConn. They have little to no history with anyone, no "neighbors" to pick a fight with, and no obvious culture clashes.
Yet, rivalries will emerge. It's just natural. It happened in the Big East and, if they stay (gulp) in the American for a long while, it will happen here as well.
Believing that, who are the best candidates?
In football, South Florida would make a lot of sense.
The Huskies and Bulls have had some fun games against each other the past few years and the kick that sent UConn to the Fiesta Bowl happened against USF.
The geography matches up just enough to make sense (both are east coast teams), each of them is a Big East castoff, and USF always has the opportunity to be good.
USF already has a built-in rival—in fact, USF/UCF (Central Florida) is probably the closest to a legit rivalry within the American. They started up the "War for I-4" a few years back and will re-establish it this year.
Now, nothing says you can't have multiple rivals, it just makes it more difficult when one program is already focused on some other matchup.
No, my money if on UConn and Temple establishing a rivalry in football.
Geography is on their side, as is the fact that, after last year's debacle where UConn lost to the Owls, it seems like a healthy back-and-forth between the fans began. Never underestimate the power of a delusional fan base to stir the pot.
Plus, I think Temple has the chance to grow as a program. They were on their way under Steve Addazio and while it will be a long road ahead I think they have a shot to be solid in the American. Hopefully, UConn establishes itself as one of the better football programs in the conference, but couldn't you see Temple being that team that "spoils" a few seasons?
Yep, I'd vote Temple for football.
Basketball is a little more wide open. As we saw in the Big East, geography wasn't a major factor. It's not like Storrs is right around the corner from Syracuse or anything.
Temple will be in the mix here as well, since their basketball is light years ahead of the football program and should continue to strengthen given better competition and more national exposure. Cincinnati is also a player in this as well, since UConn and the Bearcats have already battled in the Big East and had a matchup in the second round of the NCAA Tournament three years ago during the Kemba run.
Yet my vote goes to Memphis.
The Tigers were by far the best basketball program in Conference USA for years. They continue to be a team capable of making runs in the Tournament (whether they do or not is a different question). The American is certainly counting on them to be a major factor on the court, having granted Memphis the first AAC Tournament in March of next year.
I'm going to assume that Kevin Ollie can coach and recruit the way he coached and recruited the last 11 months, meaning UConn has every opportunity to remain a national powerhouse when it comes to basketball. Memphis, I believe, is the most likely to challenge for control of the American each year. That should mean some high-stress regular season and conference tournament games. That should mean some battles for titles and trophies. Plus, it's dogs vs. cats, right? That's about as elemental as a rivalry can be.
In terms of the American as a whole, it will be interesting to see if any other rivalries spring up that can capture some interest nationally. Houston vs. SMU has a really good chance of taking off, however it's worth noting the schools have been playing each other for a long, long time and yet a blood feud has seemingly never developed. Maybe that changes.
Also, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco mentioned East Carolina vs. Navy as one to watch in upcoming years. Does he know something we don't?
Maybe Tulsa and Cincinnati? I'm just spitballing here, but it seems like maybe Ohio and Oklahoma would produce people not exactly on the same page.
All I know is, it's a brave new world we enter beginning in just a week. Hopefully, someone (sports) hate-worthy emerges quickly. If my team isn't going to win, I need someone to root against.