In the competitive spirit of college basketball's annual championship tournament, The Motley Fool brings you Stock Madness 2007! Our writers are making head-to-head arguments for their chosen stocks (but not necessarily investment recommendations -- this is, after all, a game), and you'll pick the winners with your article recommendations and Motley Fool CAPS ratings. Who will win the right to cut down the net? Let's tip things off and find out!

The Marlboro Man rode again as Altria (NYSE:MO) moved into the Sweet 16 with a narrow victory over soft-drink favorite Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO). As that battle showed, Big MO's share performance, sales expansion, and CAPS popularity helped it overcome the perception that it's somehow less moral to make money from selling cigarettes than from selling coffee, beer, or fast food. Now, though, the tobacco giant squares off against AT&T (NYSE:T) in the second round.

In weighing these two competitors, think about one thing: Which company will protect your investment better? While Ma Bell's no slouch, I'll take a gun-slinging cowboy on my side every time.

Playing good D
It's clear that Altria's got game. Since the mid-1980s, Altria shareholders have seen their shares increase in value by a factor of 30, not including dividends. That's about quadruple the growth you've seen in AT&T shares.

But what you may not appreciate is how well Big MO has handled downturns in the markets. As the long bull market finally shows signs of weakness, you'll want to know that you've got a stock that can play defense when times are tough. From 2000 to 2002, when the rest of the market was falling through the floor, Altria more than doubled in price.

Meanwhile, Ma Bell, the protector of widows and orphans? It dropped like a stone during the same period, losing half its value.

Knowing its business
But let's turn to fundamentals. With Altria, what you see is what you get, and that's a darn good business. The company has had a great model that's essentially stayed the same over the decades, yet it has produced consistently superior financial results for its shareholders. Company management has known when to leave a good thing alone, instead focusing its efforts on defending Altria against an endless stream of litigants.

AT&T, on the other hand, has struggled to find its niche in a changing world. Forced to give up its local phone services, it found itself in the dead-end long-distance phone industry. If regional powerhouse SBC, the former Southwestern Bell, hadn't bought out the old AT&T for a measly $16 billion -- peanuts in this big-cap competition -- and decided to keep the Ma Bell name alive, you probably wouldn't be seeing the company in this competition at all.

In basketball as in business, momentum is key. Altria has decades of great performance behind it and decades more ahead of it. In a world where this year's tech fad is next year's museum piece, Altria brings consumers products they can rely on throughout their lives.

Keep Big MO moving on to the next round by following this link to Motley Fool CAPS and ranking the stock "outperform." Or, if you think the Marlboro Man should fade away with the sunset, give it an "underperform." Later this week, we'll count up your votes to determine which stocks will advance one step closer to the title.

Read our opposing article on AT&T, or see all of the other entries in this tournament.

Think you could pitch your favorite stock -- or ditch your least favorite one -- in 27 seconds or less? That's what we're doing over at Motley Fool CAPS. Check out our new stock videos.

Coca-Cola is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation. AT&T is a former Stock Advisor recommendation. Fool contributor Dan Caplinger owns shares of Altria. The Fool's disclosure policy is never maddening.