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Rivalry Renewed: Why the Houston Cougars are Playing the Rice Owls

Houston faces a familiar foe this weekend, and it has been well received by its fans.

Rice v Houston Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

We live in a college football world where new rivalries come and go thanks to realignment and money. It seems like we’re always trying to create new rivalries and, while some of them work, most don’t really make sense. You can have a rival with a team who is your equal on the field, but what makes a rivalry special is a storied history. When Houston returns to TDECU Stadium on Saturday, they welcome back on old rival who they haven’t faced in four years: Rice.

When you have two Division I teams whose campuses are just five miles away, the rivalry is going to naturally happen. Houston does, however, lead the series 29-11, which begs the question: is it really a rivalry? The answer is yes, and it doesn’t matter the skill of the opponent. Just ask Houston fans.

Playing their “little brother”, if you will, is something that’s important to these fans, and seem to be welcoming the Owls back with open arms. A four year hiatus might have something to do with it, but you simply cannot recreate a genuine rivalry.

Fans enjoy nostalgia. When something sparks a memory of the past, it unites people together by creating conversation and recreating the feelings they have from those memories. You simply don’t get that with other opponents. Rivalries can also connect generations of fans and players alike. They can relive their favorite sports moments with each other because they have the same feelings towards a certain team. What’s not to like about that?

Even when you look at the AAC right now, you would be hard pressed to find a rival that Houston fans can agree on. SMU would be the only logical choice due to distance, but fans still might rank Rice ahead of any of those teams as a rival. Again, nostalgia.

Look at some of the best rivalries in college football and you will find that the feelings people get from those games are what make those rivalries special. It doesn’t matter to the fans how good the team is, because they know that they’re in for a battle. College football is stuck in a win-now culture, and teams are always looking at ways to get to the College Football Playoff or a New Year’s bowl game. That focus shifts the attention away from rivalries if they don’t benefit those goals. Houston-Rice shakes that norm.

Houston certainly can play anyone else they choose, and have shown that they can play (and beat) Power 5 opponents. Part of scheduling is finding games that will attract fans, and that doesn’t always mean the team you choose is better than the other. You can bet more fans will show up for this Rice game than for the ECU contest later this season, and that says a lot. In 2012 and 2013 the Rice games recorded the highest attendance of any home game in those seasons.

Whatever the reason may be, Cougars fans enjoy having Rice on the schedule. It may not be the biggest rivalry, but it is still special. Winning games gets you in the record books, but making memories records so much more.