A few hours before kickoff, my wife and daughter and I went to Gladys Knight’s place in Atlanta for the chicken and waffles (can’t recommend the “Midnight Special” enough) and the room was full. It seemed like every third table was occupied by people wearing crimson or orange. When they caught the attention of someone in similar colors they would utter their war cry. “Roll Tide,” of course, or “War Eagle.”
This was just a very small sample of the prelude to the game. If you were to say, “Which game?” to any of the people wearing those colors and speaking those strange incantations, then the answer might have been, “You know … the game.” As in, the only one that really counts. The one they had been anticipating all year long.
It is also known as the “Iron Bowl,” or just Alabama/Auburn.
As rivalries go, it is college football’s best and fiercest (if that is not redundant) and has been written about exhaustively. (I wrote my own book on the subject, several years ago.) For many, many fans the old joke applies. It isn’t life or death … it’s a little more important than that. I keep expecting to be driving around the state of Alabama some day and catch sight of a bumper sticker that reads Center censer Auburn essen delendam.
The game, which was finally played at 7:45 p.m. (before television, college football games were played in the afternoon as the gods, and Cato, intended) and it was a thriller, though purists were doubtless appalled by the profligate scoring. According to legend, the game is supposed to be hard nosed, hard-hitting, and won or lost on defense. This one had more offense and scoring than any in history. Final score, 55-44, with Alabama winning.
For the Tide, could the season end any better than that?
Probably not. But the question is moot. The season has not ended. For either team.
Alabama will travel to Atlanta this weekend to play for the championship of the Southeastern Conference. Their opponent will be Missouri. Should they win, they will then await eagerly the Tuesday announcement from the temple where the high priests of college football gather to name the top four teams in the nation. These will then enter a playoff to determine which is number one.
It is a new system, devised to replace one that was determined to be insufficiently objective. That system led to arguments (heaven forfend) and complaints from schools that felt they had been unfairly denied the opportunity to settle things on the field rather than in the media and through the application of computer algorithms as had been the practice. This had led to injustices such as the one where Alabama and Louisiana State played one January to determine who would be number one when the two teams had played just a few weeks earlier. The rematch, it was said, denied worthier teams and cemented an unfair reputation for southern football superiority.
The wonder is that the Supreme Court wasn’t called in to settle the dispute. But, then, some of its decisions still get blood boiling years after.
Modern college football aficionados have craved, for years, a system equivalent to the one in college basketball that produces a national champion through head-to-head competition in a seeded tournament. A diminishing number of football traditionalists were okay with the old “system” and argued that the obsession over who is “number one” was diluting the character of the game which had once been less about rankings than rivalries. Army/Navy being the sine qua non of these. General MacArthur once quipped (hard to imagine him quipping, but still …) that he had stopped the war to celebrate the success of West Point over Annapolis in the 1944 game. And it has always been acknowledged that it didn’t make any difference what your record was, it was not a successful season unless you beat that other service academy.
But the modern football sensibility cries for a number one team and not one that has been named according the subjective criteria of sports writers, or digitally by computers. But on the field.
So we have this year a new system and it could have been devised in Washington depending, as it does, on a committee of “experts” following a bunch of “metrics.” We are becoming, it sometimes seems, a culture ruled by commissions, in thrall to metrics.