Chapple-Perkins is indisputably right about that last part. While the Tide claim more national championships than any other major program and Auburn has its own illustrious history, only in the past decade have both occupied the sport’s heights at the same time. In the past eight seasons, the winner of the Iron Bowl has won the SEC championship seven times, and the national title five; every year, the game’s victor has qualified for the national postseason.
The winner of Saturday’s game between No. 1 Alabama (11-0) and No. 6 Auburn (9-2) will play No. 7 Georgia (10-1), whom Auburn walloped here earlier this month, in the SEC championship game on Dec. 2.
It would be easy to see the contrast between the state’s disrespected stature in several areas and its impressive one in football as quirkily arbitrary; writing a place off as a “land of contradictions” is the oldest trick in the correspondent’s book. But this paradox is the product of a specific history.
It began with the 1926 Rose Bowl, which was the culmination of decades of failed Southern attempts to compete in the quintessentially Northern elite pastime of football. In the first Rose Bowl to feature a Southern team, Alabama upset Washington, 20-19.
It was the same year, noted Wayne Flynt, an emeritus history professor at Auburn, that candidates backed by the Ku Klux Klan won several statewide elections. By the next Rose Bowl, in which Alabama was to play Stanford, the governor invoked the Confederacy in urging Tide players to “fight like hell as did your sires in bygone days.”
“Alabama had borne the brunt of jokes by H.L. Mencken,” Flynt said, referring to the caustic writer who ridiculed Southerners. “Obviously the South got sick of this, and kicking Yankee butt got to be a habit.”
A few decades later, in 1958, Bryant became the coach at his alma mater, and the quarter-century that followed witnessed not only the reign of Wallace, the Selma-to-Montgomery marches and the end of formal desegregation, but also six Tide national championships.
“With Bryant, for the first time Alabama had a legacy of winning — and winning on hardscrabble Southern-agrarian terms,” McWhorter wrote in a New York Times essay when Bryant retired in 1982.
She added, “For hapless Alabamians, Bryant’s winners were proof of the rewards of hard work and determination.”
John Killian, a conservative pastor in Fayette County, echoed this point.
“We’ve never been the insiders,” he said. “George Wallace used to go up and down the state saying, ‘We’re just as cultured and refined as anyone else in this country.’”
Referring to college football, he added, “It’s an expression of Alabama pride when the state does well.”
This dynamic persists to the present day, said Jared Hunter, an Alabama student from Wetumpka who is only the third black person to serve as president of the University of Alabama Student Government Association.
“It seems like the only thing coming from Alabama is corruption or negativity; that is something I think people do internalize,” Hunter said. “And so it is nice when your football team is as dominant as we are, and you have such a great head coach, and you can look to that as being what our reality is, rather than also facing our politics and our budget and things like that.”
Or, for that matter, facing Roy Moore. Although Moore’s Democratic opponent, Doug Jones, has purchased commercial time during Saturday’s television broadcast, many Alabamians will look at Saturday’s game as a respite from a divisive campaign.
“It gives me something to think about other than this Roy Moore situation, because personally I find it embarrassing,” said David Alsobrook, who hails from Eufaula and is the former director of the presidential libraries for George Bush and Bill Clinton.
This is true, added the historian Leah Atkins, across all demographics. Atkins, who has lived in Alabama nearly all her life and who married an Auburn football player, noted that when she led the Alabama Historical Association, she never scheduled meetings on fall Saturdays.
Football, she said, “serves as a guideline for all social and political and educational things across the state.”