By now, there can’t be a single college football fan in this whole nation who doesn’t know about the University of Alabama’s current stature. Though the Crimson Tide lost the big game last week, we can’t ignore four national championships in the last eight years: in 2009, 2011, and 2012 under the BCS system, and in 2015 under the new FBS system. We certainly all knew that ‘Bama would beat #4 Washington, and move on to play Clemson in the title game this year (though I doubt if as many of us foresaw a Clemson victory). But there’s more to college football in the state of Alabama than just the Crimson Tide and Nick Saban’s “process.”
Did you know that the University of North Alabama’s football team went 11-2 this year – 7-0 in their conference – which took them to the Division II national championship? Unfortunately, they also got beat in the big game, by a Northwest Missouri State team that ended the season with a 15-0 record. UNA’s only other loss was in their season-opener against another small college in Alabama, Jacksonville State— more on them in a moment. So, in addition to having the FBS runner-up, the state of Alabama also has the #2 team in Division II.
About Jacksonville State, who are an FCS team, they ended their season in early December with a 10-2 overall record, and their 7-0 record in the Ohio Valley Conference made them the conference champs. During the regular season, Jax State’s only loss was to LSU, a team that stood up to the Crimson Tide, though they were defeated by Youngstown State in the first round of the FCS playoffs. They had gone into the playoffs ranked #2 in the FCS, and ended as #6.
In Division II with UNA, the Tuskegee Golden Tigers racked up a good record too, with 9 wins and 3 losses, and finished #20 in the rankings. The team went 6-1 in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC), and were ranked in the top-ten in both HBCU college football polls. The Golden Tigers also went to the Div. II playoffs, where they beat Newberry in the first round, then got beat by North Greenville in the second round.
In Division III, the Huntingdon Hawks, whose Charles Lee Field is a few blocks from my house, went 9-2 this year. The team was 6-1 in the USA South Conference, making them conference champs. After going undefeated at home, the Hawks went to the Div. III playoffs but lost in the first round. Though most people don’t follow these small schools’ seasons, to show how tough it is, that 9-2 record left Huntingdon at #25 in the rankings. (There were nine undefeated teams in the Div. III Top 25.)
Because we don’t need anyone else writing another single word about the Crimson Tide for now, I’ll ignore them and go on to other FBS teams in Alabama that had good seasons. My Auburn Tigers started off rough with losses to now-national champs Clemson and Texas A&M, then picked up for a time, but ended by losing to our two biggest rivals, Georgia and Alabama. The Tigers ended the regular season at 8-4, ranked #14 in the FBS, and played the #7 Oklahoma Sooners in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn lost that game after quarterback Sean White broke his forearm in the first half.
Then there’s the Troy University Trojans, who finished 10-3, with 6-2 record in the Sunbelt Conference, putting them in 3rd place. Troy had their best start ever as an FBS team and achieved their first ten-win season in the big leagues by beating Ohio in the Dollar General Bowl by a score of 28-23.
Among the other smaller schools in the state, the results were mixed. The University of South Alabama Jaguars’ 6-6 record sent them to their first-ever bowl game, where they got beat by Air Force 45-21. The Samford University football team finished with a respectable 7-5 record but were also defeated in the FCS playoffs by Youngstown State. Samford ended the season ranked #23 in the FCS. The Faulkner Eagles had a winning record of 6 wins and 4 losses, with a Mid-South Conference record of 3-2. They finished 3rd in Mid-South’s West Division. The University of West Alabama Tigers also did well with a 7-4 record, 6-2 in the Gulf South Conference, putting them in 3rd behind conference champs University of North Alabama. Miles College broke even at 5-5.
Despite all those teams doing so well in 2016, the state of Alabama did have teams with losing records. Alabama State and Alabama A&M both went 4-7, and then there’s Birmingham-Southern College with a dismal 1-9 record. (The University of Alabama-Birmingham did not field a team this year, but will re-start its football program next season.)
Football is a legendary thing in the state of Alabama – and all around the South – and most folks say that the mythic status has its starting point at Alabama’s Rose Bowl victory in 1926, in which the Crimson Tide traveled all the way across the country to beat the Washington Huskies. The Encyclopedia of Alabama‘s entry on the game explains:
Many southerners saw the Rose Bowl game as an opportunity to bring prestige and honor back to their region that had been ravaged by the Civil War. Even 60 years after the conflict, many older southerners remembered the war, and many more remembered Reconstruction. The South also was motivated by a national press that was critical of almost anything associated with the South, from the size of the southern brain cavity to the quality of its football.
It has been ninety years since that trip to Pasadena, and we’ve definitely shown the rest of the country that our football programs have quality. The two things that I’m not so sure about are: what beating a team from Washington state had to do with the Civil War, and whether we’ve yet to discredit that brain-cavity controversy. You don’t have to look very hard to see that the state of Alabama lands near the bottom of most national rankings in quality-of-life categories. You also don’t have to look very hard to see that our football teams often land near the top of their rankings.
I have heard people lament, “If we put the resources and energy into education that we put into football, we wouldn’t have the problems we have.” True enough, but we don’t put our best energy into things that could actually improve people’s lives. Alabamians will flood into game day, pay $25 for a team t-shirt, $50 (or more) for a ticket, and $4 for a hot dog, but those same people will vehemently oppose raising their taxes to improve state services. I say that not to endorse it, but to acknowledge the bitter pill that all would-be reformers have to swallow eventually: our culture, which values football more than almost anything, isn’t going change. We’ll keep failing at public administration, but we’ll keep winning on the gridiron.