For all that’s being made of the implications of Saturday’s winner-take-all, SEC West deciding Iron Bowl, preparations are being made like any other matchup for Alabama’s Nick Saban.
“Do you think that any player on our team doesn’t know that’s what’s happening?” Saban asked during Wednesday morning’s SEC Coaches Teleconference. “The most important thing is that the players don’t focus on what’s at stake.”
There’s a bit at stake.
No. 6 Auburn rides into Jordan-Hare Saturday with guns blazing, fresh off a 40-17 drubbing of then-top-ranked Georgia.
No. 1 Alabama has yet to flex its perennial muscles in a Top 10 matchup this season. The season opener vs. Florida State was a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup, however it has since proved irrelevant with the Seminoles’ 4-6 record.
The Tide were decimated with injuries during their 24-10 win over LSU in Bryant-Denny, followed by a tight finish in Starkville, 31-24 over Mississippi State. A 27-19 win at Texas A&M early in the season rounds out Alabama’s close finishes in 2017. Saturday will likely breed much of the same.
"I've talked before about when things are hard, that's important for the development of the team,” Saban said. “We didn’t execute well, but we responded fairly well. That's very important. When you get these tough games, players have to be at their best when it's needed."
Saban reiterated that Auburn will be an immense challenge for his group, harping on the recent offensive prowess of redshirt sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham and his weapons.
"Their QB has played better and better,” Saban said. “He has a tremendous amount of talent. He understands the offense better as the season has gone on. They’re giving him time to make plays with pass protection, and he’s been able to take advantage of it.
The Baylor transfer hasn’t been doing it alone, Saban recognized.
“They have really good skill guys,” Saban said. “[Darius Slayton] is a fantastic player, probably as good as we’ve played against all year. They do a good job utilizing their personnel; it’s a challenging group. [Kerryon Johnson] is a really good receiver too, you’ve got to always be aware of him.”
On the other end of the spectrum from the offense’s success, Kevin Steele’s defense has shown tremendous improvements from an already stellar 2016 output.
Buck linebacker Jeff Holland ties the SEC-lead in sacks with nine, while Auburn’s run defense as a whole ranks 16th nationally, with a brilliant Alabama backfield coming to its house.
"I think their front seven has been very physical. Their D-line is athletic, they try to knock you back. This a very good defensive front team, very good pass rushing group."
Auburn’s crowd played a pivotal role in the team’s shellacking of the Bulldogs, a trend that began early in the season, when the Jordan-Hare crazies caused seven false start penalties against Mississippi State.
However, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts has as much poise as any signal caller in the nation.
"The offense being able to function in those circumstances is very important to being successful,” Saban said. “Being able to keep your poise in games like this is very important."
Alabama has won seven of the last nine in the series, including three of the last four on The Plains. ESPN College Gameday will kickoff festivities Saturday morning before the 2:30 CT, SEC on CBS kick.