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It’s Going to Be Fine: An Honest (Really) Defense of Claimed National Titles

An honest defense of claimed titles in college football.

Here’s a thing we didn’t know about a favorite term, often deployed with derision, for the annual college football title: The term “mythical national championship” actually dates back to 1921, a linguistic remedy for an itch that wouldn’t hold a nation in thrall for decades to come. It’s a perfect descriptor for a title bestowed on the winner of a game that selects its combatants basically by magic, alongside a $30,000 football made of crystal. Anyway, enter Auburn, and a committee tasked with deciding whether the Tigers should claim an additional seven national titles on top of their currently recognized two. This is not a new practice — certainly not in the SEC — and is something of a pastime among Auburn’s chief rivals.

Most of 21st-century American society has been erected on foundations of hurt feelings, and Auburn, like any program with that long a history, armors itself to a certain extent in persecution complexes, with roots both real and understandable and less real but immensely entertaining. The Tigers are considering assuaging the ghosts of 2004 (and maybe some literal ghosts of 1910) with some words and stadium accessorizing, and here is where we venture out on what looks like a sturdy limb but is unsupported by anything resembling a stat line: Let them.

Remember how the BCS used to select the best teams? Did you ever really manage to attain anything other than a vague understanding that someday, your team would somehow be wronged by a cabal of wizards after reading through this? Have you seen the convolution that’s about to ensue? Is it not entirely understandable that in the face of such grim forebodings of future feeling-hurtiness, a natural desire follows to just let folks award titles to themselves and save on time and rented conference room snacks?

Let Auburn, specifically, do this, because there is the matter of Yellowhammer State supremacy to consider, and however fleetly they might have outpaced the Tide on the field in November, the big cats of the Plains lag in the murky distance when it comes to numbers of glory years embroidered on things.

But let any school, generally, do this, and in doing so maybe rein in the degree to which we allow a bunch of nylon pennants stuck on an enemy stadium wall to affect our emotional well-being. You, personally you, cannot stop Auburn from claiming any national title it wishes, and you shouldn’t try, not when the results are so obviously beneficial to both the claimants and the slighted, who either get desired revisions to school history pamphlets or get to vent spleens thereon. Show some … not gratitude, but maybe simple recognition, that this, like every mythical national championship, serves at least in part to pass the time between now and Labor Day weekend. There’s a separate Jesus for football, whom we made up, and the opportunity to blow off some steam with the guy two desks down who wears the wrong color branded polo on your bimonthly Team Spirit Thursdays is just one of his many, many gifts to you. The phantom claimed title is, like the mythical national championship itself, a deliverer to sports fans staring down an offseason that can stretch as long as eight months: It gives us something to fight over in the long months when there’s no actual football over which to fight.

Back to Auburn again: Let them call the 2004 title their own. Let them claim 1910, and any years in between. Let them grow overfond of banners with years on them and claim years they had no business winning six games. Let them take some of Alabama’s. We’re reminded, watching the World Cup, that besides math and science education, America also lags behind the rest of the developed world in another arena where we’re actually programmed to excel: institutionalized athletic spite. Snatching titles from the Tide would provide a catalytic spark to a rivalry that hasn’t actually needed it since the advent of Gus Malzahn, but we’re working with baking soda and vinegar here, and don’t you want to see what happens? Hell, we didn’t see Kermit Whitfield’s 100-yard kick return in the BCS National Championship, and most of the rest of the media were in the elevators heading down to field level; let them say that never happened and take 2013. Everyone who could try to stop them is, at best, a lawyer. We could just take matters into our own hands and start bestowing titles ourselves. It doesn’t sound hard. We could do math. We know a guy.

History is written not necessarily by the victors, but by the tenacious. Let Alabama claim victory in the 2013 Iron Bowl with straight faces. Let this touch off a rhetorical arms race the likes of which the sporting world has never seen, played on a Risk board that spans states where all the pieces are chicken wing bones. Let Bryant-Denny and Jordan-Hare be festooned with banners dating back to the dawn of recorded time. Let postapocalyptic nomads of the future, sifting through the rubble of both, find remnants and build competing religions around them. (Let our inbox now run over with angry retorts that neither football program could ever be laid low by an event as piddly as the sixth extinction.) And let talk radio ring, from whatever’s left of the coast-to-coast, with competing excoriations of those whose ragtag bands of survivors did not endure The Invasion/The Great Floods/The Ice Age/The Clown Flu with nearly the grit, heart, and guts of your own.