Are college football rivalries still important?

For TCU and Baylor fans, the rivalry is at its peak. But their coaches say it's just another game. USA TODAY Sports

WACO, Texas -- The people at Baylor talk about college football rivalries the way they talk about Oldsmobiles. Or BlackBerrys.

"Well, I don't want to use the words 'not necessary,'" Bears head coach Art Briles said. "I just think the game's OK without 'em."

Fans who like to spice up their fall Saturdays with good, clean, old-fashioned hate are not going to like this message.

"Just having that one or two traditional rival games?" Briles asked. "To traditionalists, you might put on your favorite socks for that game or something. Shoot, they're all important now, the way the system is put up."

Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw is the guy who hitched the Bears to his tractor and pulled them out of the athletic ditch, where just about every sport had signed a long-term lease. He lured Briles away from Houston, and all Briles has done in seven seasons is create a national power.

McCaw is a thin, almost spectral figure, and there is something of the soothsayer about his presence. McCaw saw a future when Baylor could compete and win championships. He saw a future with a new, modern stadium. On this morning, he sees one-year-old McLane Stadium, on the banks of the Brazos, sitting outside his office window.

In other words, McCaw is good at what he does. And he, like Briles, believes that rivalries, the lifeblood of college football, the passion that fuels the sport, are obsolete.

"I think in our case," McCaw said, "people are looking at, who are the teams that we are going to need to beat to win a championship? That's going to define the rivalries. If the No. 1-ranked team in the nation right now was Iowa State, our fans would be clamoring to get tickets for the Iowa State game."

The Big 12 is lacking rivalries these days. There is Texas-Oklahoma. There is Oklahoma-Oklahoma State. And there isn't much else. Kansas-Missouri is gone, as well as Oklahoma-Nebraska. Texas, sniffle, Texas A&M.

In their place is, well, maybe, could be, TCU and Baylor. They are co-champions who will begin this season at or near the top of the rankings. They are more alike than different: small, private schools, 90 miles apart. They have played 110 times. Baylor leads 52-51, with seven ties. That's right. They've been playing so long that they have seven ties, and no one has a tied a game in 20 years.

Last year's game, in which Baylor came back from a 21-point deficit in the final 10:39 to win, 61-58, cost TCU and the Big 12 a playoff berth. The teams will play this season on Thanksgiving Friday, a prime slot on the television schedule. The move from midseason is proof of the game's import.

College football is missing a few grudge matches. Realignment cleaned up old rivalries the way that urban renewal cleared out the glorious architecture of a distant time. Realignment took down a Beaux Arts building and erected the cold steel of rivalries based on success. McCaw acknowledged that there is a hole there.

"I think we have lost something, in that sense," McCaw said. "I think we've lost some of the passion for the rivalries and maybe conference realignment has been a part of that."

We are entering Year 24 of the Realignment Era, and the list of dead rivalries isn't limited to the Big 12: Arkansas-Texas, Utah-BYU, Pitt-West Virginia, Pitt-Penn State, Notre Dame-Michigan.

"One thing is for certain," TCU athletic director Chris Del Conte said in his office in Fort Worth, "we're always going to have conference realignments." He began listing them from 1978, when Arizona and Arizona State left the WAC for the Pac-10. "When you make decisions at the time that are right for your school, sometimes what's going to suffer is those natural rivalries."

Del Conte, who could sell a tuxedo to a pig, has built at TCU what McCaw built at Baylor, but without the benefit of conference stability. The Horned Frogs' realignment odyssey took them from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West to the Big East, and, finally, to the Big 12, where they rejoined the programs that left them behind two decades ago.

TCU came back to its history. The condemned building can be retrofitted, upgraded, a desirable address again.

"It's kind of like a marriage," TCU head coach Gary Patterson said. "You just have it, whether they like you or dislike you."

You wake up and they're there. Actually, what Patterson described sounded like a remarriage. The rivalries need time to meld.

"I think we're just growing into that," Patterson said. "I think if we were still in the SWC, and we played all the people we're playing now for the last 18 years, I think you'd have a lot more to say about it. But we've been back in it three years."

Here's the problem: when the rivalry is based on success, the passion flows with high rankings and ebbs without them. For instance, the college football nation no longer schedules its mid-September life around Florida and Tennessee.

TCU and Baylor may not like each other now. TCU fans may still hold a grudge that Baylor got into the original Big 12 and TCU did not. But if it's a real rivalry, then, as the cliché goes, the records don't matter.

That may be a hard sell at Baylor these days, and given the Bears' recent success, who is to tell McCaw, Briles or anyone else that they are wrong? Those of us fond of good, clean, old-fashioned hate will just sit behind the wheels of our Oldsmobiles, engines idling, checking our BlackBerrys.