No. 7 Alabama grasps the slimmest of College Football Playoff hopes with clenched fists at the ready for the annual rivalry game with Auburn on Saturday in Tuscaloosa.
The Iron Bowl has been owned by the Crimson Tide in recent vintage with Alabama claiming six of the last eight meetings. But things are different for both sides this week.
Alabama (9-2) is ranked outside the Top 5 entering the Thanksgiving Weekend game for the first time since 2010 -- then No. 9, the Crimson Tide lost 28-27 to No. 2 Auburn -- but the Tigers are something more than an underdog at 5-6 and in sixth place in the SEC West.
"We're excited to have this challenge in front of us," Tigers interim coach Carnell Williams said. "We are fired up."
Williams said the physical defensive front of Alabama, including the Tide's LB corps, is as impressive as any he can recall.
"Ooh, they're are physical bunch, big, long," Williams said. "Will Anderson, he's a handful. (Linebackers) get downhill and can run. We ... have a challenge. But we are going down there to fight and compete."
Alabama coach Nick Saban attempts to steer the Crimson Tide away from a third SEC loss to remain in position for a prime bowl.
"We've got to keep coaching our team to get it right on a consistent basis. This is one of the greatest rivalry games in college football. Most every team and rivalry games, this is part of their legacy in terms of how did they do in the rivalry games. This is one of the biggest ones. It means a lot to a lot of people in our state. It means a lot to us."
Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young can move to second all-time on the Alabama passing yards list with 233 yards, which would pass John Parker Wilson and settle the 2021 Heisman Trophy winner behind AJ McCarron despite starting just 25 career games to date. Young has a TD pass in every game he has started, including a pair in last year's four-overtime win over the Tigers.
Young said he's delaying a decision about playing in any postseason games and the NFL draft until next week.
"Obviously this is huge. This is a huge game," Young said. "This means a lot to me, to people in the entire state. To us as a team. This is a huge game. All I think about is today. How can I be the best version of myself today? To get ready to put myself in the best circumstances. How we as a team can do that. That's all my head is focused on."
Alabama has two losses by a total of four points: 52-49 at Tennessee and 32-21 at LSU in overtime. With Alabama, Saban is 6-1 all-time against Auburn at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
On the Alabama list of goals, beating Auburn is a constant but falls below the championship standard Saban established. He said that this week the focus and preparation need to be at a championship level even if the usual trophies aren't on the table for the perennial contenders.
It could be the final SEC game for several Alabama stars who could choose to be recognized on Senior Day, including Young and Anderson, projected as the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft.
"Will has done great for us. He helps other players play better. He does his job extremely well, and if they're focusing on him a little bit more it gives others an opportunity to make plays," Saban said. "He helps our team as much as any player on our team."
Auburn beat Texas A&M (13-10) and Western Kentucky (41-17) to build momentum. The Tigers are leaning into the typical drumbeat of "Beat 'Bama" this week and are also motivated to help make Williams' position permanent.
But Saban said players didn't have to publicly endorse Williams as their choice as head coach -- it's obvious in their play on the field.
"The energy, the enthusiasm, the way they compete to win -- and he was the same way as a player, a great competitor," Saban said of Williams.
--Field Level Media