monday, december 02, 2013

The 2013 Iron Bowl

"The only way to get something to turn up when you need it is to need it to turn up." - Terry Prachett

As the arc of the football neared the goalpost it would never reach and met the awaiting arms of the kick returner it all seemed so... inevitable. Awful but absolutely inevitable. And that was the worst part.

The beauty of watching college football is the ineffable sense of possibility — that this will be the series the defense will make their stand, this will be the play that will turn the odds, this is where everything will be put right. Once that next play starts everything slides with a terrifying quickness from possible, into the probable and finally solidifies into the blunt incontrovertible fact.

Fortune's cruelest blows involve an awful sense of powerlessness. It's always there, of course, but these are the moments you can actually feel it and recognize its power. That poignancy isn't possible when the outcome is never in doubt. Blowouts lack drama. On the field anyway. It might get ugly at the airport on the way home.

Immediately after the thing transpires and before its existence has become indelible comes the hope of intercession. A whistle. A flag. Something. For some, who will never accept the finality of the moment, this is the limbo they are condemned to reside in forevermore. For the rest, it passes and the painful road to acceptance begins.

Obviously, all of this is reversed if you root for the other team but, last Saturday night, I was not rooting for the other team. And it sucked just as much as you might think it would.

Over the past half decade Alabama has won quite a bit more often than they have lost. It's been a great time to be a Crimson Tide fan. But there is an painful paradox successful college football teams must face; as your wins increase then so does the value placed in your losses. Very often great teams are defined not as much by their victories as their defeats.

Take the 1992 season, when Alabama was on the other side of the equation, as an example. Unless you are a die hard Hurricanes fan you probably can't tell me anything about a single game Miami won that year. George Teague you remember instantly.

The Iron Bowl rivalry demonstrates this as well. Much of college football is at least vaguely familiar with 1972's "Punt Bama Punt" game. The fact Auburn would not be able to defeat Alabama again for a full decade afterward is obscure trivia.

This makes sense though. It's tough to summarize an extended run of dominance, it's easy to show a clip of a pair of identical bad punts.

And so it is with Saturday's game. Chris Davis' run will be remembered far far longer than the 49-0 blowout of Auburn from the year prior. There was no need for a miracle play in 2012 and, thus, no miracle came to pass. And no moment is etched in our memory.

And sometimes it turns into a slugging match and the other team gets the miracle and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. Then the moment crystallizes around that play and it becomes a totem of the entire struggle. As yourself, what play do you most remember about Alabama's season last year? I'll bet it was this.

All of this affects the dynamics of the Iron Bowl rivalry itself. For Alabama fans Nick Saban's tenure has marked Alabama's return to what we believe is the program's rightful place in college football. The Crimson Tide's aspirations are for nothing less than the national championship. Which was the expectation for the quarter century Paul W. Bryant lead the program.

For the most part, Auburn's defining goal has been to defeat Alabama. Or to put it another way, a loss to Auburn can ruin Alabama's season but a victory over Alabama will make Auburn's. Alabama beating Auburn doesn't hold the same type of compelling drama for either team.

One interesting corollary of this is that if your target is the team that tends to be the best, well you are likely to be pretty damn good yourself. And Auburn 2013, like many other Auburn teams before them, is proof of that. But this sentiment not exclusive to Auburn.

If you ask a South Carolina fan what their greatest win is I'll bet the response will be the 2010 Alabama game. Mississippi State still reveres the day they beat The Bear three decades ago. Auburn's top five all time victories are all certainly Alabama games. It's just a question of what order.

That kind of interest in defeating Alabama is partially what fueled all those “We Want Bama” signs during the season. It's also why Coach Saban harps on consistency so much. When you are cutting like a scythe through the season, keeping that edge razor keen is tough. It's almost impossible when everyone else has circled you on the schedule and are trying to have their best game on that date.

And that applies double for Auburn for the reasons outlined above.

Which is one reason why the Iron Bowl rivalry is so important. A good Auburn team means Alabama must retain its focus all the way through November. It's the regular season test which cannot be overlooked. If history has taught us nothing about this rivalry it is that complacency will eventually bite you in the ass.

Then, once again, you get to look on aghast as the worst possible scenario unfolds before your eyes. The painful introspection and soul searching follows soon after.

The point here isn't about how life is so much important than football because I very much believe that football is about life. It is one more metaphor about the world and in that respect it has real lessons to teach us. At some point, as awful as it was to witness, you have to accept the finality of that last play on Saturday night. If you cannot that's a sign you need to work on a few things, not as a fan but as a human being.

Football is also like life in that it is a continuing cycle of repeated actions and events; plays, games, seasons, rivalries. As much as many may feel this particular game marks the end of something it really doesn't. It's certainly a milestone for all of us alive to experience it but we'll be back next year and do it again.

Somewhere down the line, there will be another difficult game and complete miracle to seal its outcome. Hopefully, it'll be one that helps my team this time.

posted by kleph @ 6:00 pm |

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