Football aside, Mississippi, Alabama still just fighting not to be last

Mark Hammontree

As the final seconds ticked off in Bryant-Denny Stadium Saturday night, Alabama fans cheered and yelled and let out a collective sigh of relief. The Crimson Tide’s 25-20 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs signaled a return to normalcy in what has been a strange season for football in the South.

See, Mississippi State just doesn’t beat Alabama, or many other teams for that matter – particularly SEC opponents. Against other SEC schools, the Bulldogs have an abysmal .349 winning percentage, and coming into Saturday’s game, State had only beaten Alabama twice in the last 10 meetings.

So it’s been a bit surreal to see Mississippi State go undefeated for most of the season, knocking off quality teams like LSU and Auburn, teams that typically share State with Alabama as a division punching bag. Along with Ole Miss’ early promise this season, many commentators and fans wondered if this was the year the state of Mississippi might overtake the state of Alabama as the football powerhouse.

Well, now that debate can be put to rest. Yes, our neighbors did put up a strong showing and each state’s powerhouse teams split the wins and losses, but as we head toward the end of the season, things seem to once again be leaning in Alabama’s favor – which is good, because there was a lot more on the line than just football or a 
playoff berth.

In the realm of football, it’s not wholly surprising that games between the teams of two states like Alabama and Mississippi would have big influence on the regional and national football landscape. Both states are known to be football crazy, and even if the two Mississippi teams do not regularly compare to the Crimson Tide and the Tigers, both states are known to host quality football teams.

But there’s another rivalry between our two states, and this one is more about not losing than it is about winning. Everybody in the country knows that Alabama and Mississippi tend to fall to the bottom of most lists when it comes to things like health, poverty, crime, obesity, etc. But in reality, the two states rarely share the 49th and 50th spots. Alabama and Mississippi regularly hold court in the bottom five, trading spots with those other familiar faces of state failures: West Virginia, Arkansas and Louisiana.

This competition to decide who’s not going to be the worst state plays itself out with less passion than on the football field, but it’s a 
competition we’re all aware of nonetheless. “Thank God for Mississippi,” we Alabamians tell ourselves when we hear statistics like 33 percent of adult Alabamians are obese, or that one in four Alabamians is functionally illiterate.

When it comes to things we’re not proud of, we’re happy to let Mississippi take the top (or bottom) spot; we’ll just focus on football. Don’t get me wrong. I love football, and I love being the best at it. I felt no shortage of satisfaction at ending Mississippi State’s dreams of a perfect season. But that made me worry that perhaps my anxiety at losing to the Bulldogs meant symbolically giving up that perfect distraction from Alabama’s 
many problems.

We shouldn’t let football be that kind of distraction. We should cheer and scream for our teams, and we should be proud to be at the top. But can’t we try to succeed at something else, too? Can’t we try and fix our issues rather than pretending they don’t exist, or even worse, patting ourselves on the back that “at least we’re not as bad as Mississippi”? When you’re fighting for last place, there isn’t any room for pride. And in this other Mississippi-Alabama rivalry, 
nobody wins.

Mark Hammontree is a junior majoring in secondary education – language arts. His column runs weekly.