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Alabama can finally focus on Auburn

Winner of Iron Bowl will represent Western Division in SEC Championship Game

Alabama defensive lineman Brandon Ivory (99) and linebacker Jonathan Allen (93) tackle Chattanooga’s Kendrix Huitt (27) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. The top-ranked Crimson Tide will try to slow down Auburn in the Iron Bowl. (Reuters)

Alabama defensive lineman Brandon Ivory (99) and linebacker Jonathan Allen (93) tackle Chattanooga’s Kendrix Huitt (27) during the first quarter at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday. The top-ranked Crimson Tide will try to slow down Auburn in the Iron Bowl. (Reuters)

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama football players have been waiting all season to turn their attention to the Iron Bowl.

Now it’s finally game week, and it happens to be a matchup of top-four teams.

The top-ranked Crimson Tide mostly talked about No. 4-ranked Auburn during the postgame interviews after Saturday’s win over Tennessee-Chattanooga. The potent defense, efficient offense and big plays on special teams in the game were an afterthought.

Coach Nick Saban forces a one-week-at-a-time mentality. So by getting past the Mocs, they were able to open the floodgates of feelings about the Tigers.

“They have had a great year this year,” receiver Christion Jones said. “They are a great team. They always play us effective. They play us with passion. They know what it means, and we know what it means.”

For the first time since the SEC split into divisions, Alabama and Auburn will play each other for the West Division title. The Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0) hopes to win the championship outright, and the Tigers (10-1, 6-1) plan to claim a share of the title and the West’s berth in the SEC title game.

At the same time, they hope to ruin their in-state rival’s dreams of a third straight national championship and place themselves in the national championship conversation.

The winner of this game advances to the Dec. 2 SEC Championship Game in Atlanta against the East Division winner, either Missouri or South Carolina.

“I don’t care what their record is,” quarterback AJ McCarron said. “They are the next team in the way trying to take what we’ve worked for.”

Saban usually likes to take a breath for a day after a game before turning his attention to his next opponent. However, he addressed Auburn right after Saturday’s game, in his opening statement to the media. He knows it’s going to take his players playing at their best to overcome a talented Auburn team with momentum. So he wants all his players’ energy focused on Auburn as soon as possible.

“They have a great team and had a great season,” Saban said. “It’s important for everyone in our organization to make a commitment to do their very best job and play their best football. That’s what it’s going to take to have success against a very good team.”

The Tigers are on a seven-game winning streak, with wins against three ranked teams. Auburn is also coming off a dramatic last-minute victory over Georgia thanks to Hail Mary pass.

Even good teams need help, or maybe this is just Auburn’s season, given the Tigers’ turnaround under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.

So the early line, with Alabama favored by 11 on the road, may be misleading.

“Auburn is a good unit,” Jones said. “They have a good team. No matter what their record is, they are going to play us tough. No matter how long it has been since they’ve beaten Alabama. They have some momentum coming into the game.”

The Tigers last beat Alabama in 2010, when they went on to the win the national title. They slumped last year, and Alabama handled them 49-0.

Auburn had to start over after it went winless in the SEC last season. The turnaround has been dramatic, so the Crimson Tide couldn’t help but notice.

“No I’m not surprised by them,” receiver Kenny Bell said. “I’m just worried about this game for us and getting us better.”