While a lot of the country has been captivated by a presidential election cycle that’s been underway since the beginning of 2015, we’re a little more than a month into football season and, for the most part, things have gone as expected. While there have been a few upsets, the teams at the top of the rankings are the same the experts predicted — Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson and Michigan.
Nowhere on that list is Auburn. In fact, it’s been a couple of years since the odds makers have mentioned the Auburn Tigers in the same breath as their cross-state rival.
Historically, more often than not that has been the case. Both Alabama and Auburn launched football programs in 1892. Alabama, however, was able to achieve a significant victory earlier in its program.
The Crimson Tide beat the University of Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl and that win has established Alabama as the state’s dominant football institution. Many considered that 20-19 win to be one of the first major victories for the South since the Civil War.
It also helped to create a phenomenon that, in the 90 years since, Auburn has yet to overcome: that Alabama residents who have no connection with the university tout it as a source of pride and, in some cases, even an identity.
Parents have passed along the importance of cheering for the Tide on Saturdays in the fall as if it is a birthright of being born in Alabama.
Although the Alabama-Auburn rivalry is one the greatest in all of sports, there is hardly a 50-50 split. The state is very lopsided in favor of Alabama. There are a number indicators to back this up — television ratings, collegiate logo merchandise sales, polling conducted over the years. No matter what, Alabama always seems to come out ahead.
The New York Times offered one of the more interesting efforts to gauge fan support in 2014, when it published a series of maps to show the territorial concentrations of sports allegiances by ZIP code based on Facebook “likes.”
With the exception of a 50-mile radius around the city of Auburn, Alabama is very “crimson.” In other words, there are a lot more Alabama fans than Auburn fans. In Mobile and Baldwin counties, most of the ZIP codes show a 2-to-1 advantage for Alabama over Auburn.
More striking, this data was generated after what was arguably one of Auburn’s greatest seasons. In 2014, the Tigers played for the national championship and defeated Alabama at the end of a game in one of the most memorable plays in college football history.
Yet Alabama remained dominant and has likely added to that dominance with another national championship last year, its 15th to date.
Alabama didn’t get to where it is by happenstance. It wasn’t luck. Certainly the university’s football program had some tough years here and there, especially after head coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s retirement in 1982.
For the next 25 years, it looked as if there might be some balance in the state because Auburn was catching up.
In 2007, Alabama did the smartest thing since bringing Bryant on in 1958: it backed up the Brinks truck full of cash and did whatever it took to bring a heavy-duty big name to the state in the form of Nick Saban. Saban had previous success at LSU and Michigan State, but was struggling in the NFL at the Miami Dolphins.
The University of Alabama and Saban inked an eight-year package worth $32 million. The salary set records.
At the time, a lot of people cried foul. Questions were raised about the university’s priorities and betting the farm on a coach who had been struggling a year earlier seemed way too risky.
However, after a couple of rocky years the bet paid off. Alabama football turned a profit of more than $38 million for the 2008-09 academic year, even in the midst of the recessions. And that was before Saban won a national championship for Alabama.
After a two-and-a-half decade hiatus, Alabama was back in the upper echelon of college football along with other traditional powerhouses such as Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Florida State, and it hasn’t looked back since.
That brings us to Auburn.
Sure, the Tigers had some good years here and there. They won a national championship in 2010. But it has been inconsistent. In fact, it’s arguably been inconsistent for Auburn since football came to the Plains in 1892.
A handful of good years, a handful of bad years. One really exceptional year and then a really abysmal year. Can Auburn ever overcome this and put together a year-in, year-out powerhouse like Alabama has? Is it even possible to do so with Alabama as dominant as it is within the state?
For the last few decades, Duke University and the University of North Carolina have co-existed as basketball powerhouses, and they’re only separated by 10 miles. An Alabama-Auburn balance should not be impossible to achieve.
As beloved as current Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was just two years ago, if he struggles to win football games this year he could be out of a job.
Should that happen, this is really where Auburn can show it wants to be in the upper echelon. Instead of hiring the up-and-comer, as Auburn has done with all its hires in the post-Shug Jordan era — Doug Barfield (Auburn coordinator), Pat Dye (East Carolina), Terry Bowden (Samford), Tommy Tuberville (Ole Miss), Gene Chizik (Iowa State) and Malzahn (Arkansas State) — the school has to think bigger.
Auburn needs to hire a proven commodity that raises eyebrows, like an Urban Meyer or a Chip Kelly. But it remains to be seen whether there’s the desire and money to do make such a move.
Even if Alabama lost to Auburn 10 times in a row, Alabama will probably still remain the state’s team. They have history and a national fanbase on their side. People who have absolutely no ties to the state love the Crimson Tide. They like the Republican politics of the state. They admire the culture.
The Alabama Crimson Tide football program is something people rally around for those reasons.
If you’re Auburn, you’ve got to start somewhere. Maybe the opportunity lies ahead, or is already underway.
For now, the state is the University of Alabama’s turf.