National championships have long been the Alabama football measurement of a successful season. Last season, an Iron Bowl loss did not really matter.
The Iron Bowl; Alabama football taking on the Auburn Tigers might be the most intense rivalry in college football. There are other rivalries between teams from the same state. Some of them incite levels of passion equivalent to the Iron Bowl. Probably nowhere except in the state of Alabama are the annual bragging rights so cherished for the year after a victory.
Last season was different. An injury-depleted Alabama football team limped into Jordan-Hare. Though ranked No. 1 and favored by 4.5 points, the 2017 Alabama Crimson Tide was no match for the Auburn Tigers. For Alabama football fans, it was a disappointing loss. But, it soon became irrelevant in the bigger quest of another national championship.
The Iron Bowl has changed – for now at least. For so long the Iron Bowl was about more than winning a game, it was about making the statement of which school had the most dominant football program. For most of the Bryant years, the Alabama Crimson Tide had the upper-hand over the Tigers. Nick Saban regained that distinction. But with Auburn’s 2010 national championship, the Auburn nation held on to claims of being nearly equal to the Tide in status.
The week leading up to the 2013 Iron Bowl, a New York Times reporter visited Auburn and talked to Auburn fans. One fan’s comment epitomizes the attitude of Auburn faithful.
Everyone’s version of reality is on the line here. Whoever wins doesn’t just win the argument of who is the better team, but they win a grander argument about who deserves to be viewed as the predominant power. It’s more than just who is the better team this year. It’s whose story is right.
A couple of days after the above comment, the ‘Kick Six’ gave Auburn a victory. The improbable play led to a crescendo of claims Gus Malzahn had Nick Saban’s number. Since that November 2013 loss in Auburn, the Crimson Tide has lost six games. Auburn has lost 25, including the 2013 season BCS Championship. The Iron Bowl record since the ‘Kick Six’ is 3-1 in favor of the Crimson Tide.
The “Gus has Nick’s number” delusion became tarnished and quickly discarded. Last fall, Gus had such a shaky future in Auburn, he came close to taking the Arkansas job. The 2017 upset drove some collective insanity among the Auburn power-brokers. Gus was rewarded with a seven season, 49M dollar contract extension. In less than a year, the Auburn AD was having to voice a ‘vote of confidence’ Gus will return in 2019.
Why just a reversal of fortune for Gus? Because Auburn won the Iron Bowl and the Alabama Crimson Tide won the National Championship. Which explains why, for now at least, the Iron Bowl no longer matters so much. Alabama football could lose to Auburn and probably still make this season’s College Football Playoff.
The Times story gave a good description of how the Iron Bowl was long viewed.
The normal course of civil society in this state is transformed every year when Auburn University and the University of Alabama meet for what some believe is just a football game and what others see as a test of moral virtue.
Admit it, Alabama football fans – many of us have seen the Iron Bowl as the classic confrontation of good vs. evil. What we have recently learned is that even when evil wins, there is redemption. We can thank Nick Saban for that.
Down on the Plains this week there is some optimism. It is not about football though. Some Auburn fans think Bruce Pearl’s team can upset Duke in basketball.