By Rob Ketcham
The Cullman Times
TUSCALOOSA — Following last year's Iron Bowl blowout in Auburn, Alabama could only sit back as voters and computers decided its fate in the BCS title landscape.
But this season, the second-ranked Tide are content with taking matters into their own hands. Their 49-0 walloping of Auburn on Saturday at Bryant-Denny Stadium sealed the SEC West and a coveted berth in next week's conference championship contest.
Now, the only obstacle standing in Bama's way of playing for its third title in four years is beast of the East Georgia. The top-three showdown will be next Saturday in Atlanta at 3 p.m.
“We must finish,” said defensive back Dee Milliner, who recovered a fumble and broke up two passes in this year's Iron Bowl. “We've been harping on that all the time. Going against Georgia for the SEC championship, it's going to be a great game, competitive on both sides of the ball.
“It's an honor, and I'm just looking forward to it. We've got to focus in and hopefully come out with the win.”
Following a 9-6 overtime loss to LSU in 2011, the Tide needed every ounce of help it could get to get back in the title hunt. All the pieces eventually fell into place in the third to last week of the regular season, as No. 2 Oregon fell to USC, and Iowa State shocked the nation by upsetting No. 4 Oklahoma State.
Alabama found itself in a frighteningly similar situation this year, appearing down and out after a disappointing loss to freshman phenom Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M on Nov. 10. Hope was restored only one week later, however, when the whole town of Tuscaloosa exploded at the sight of No. 1 Kansas State being clobbered by unranked Baylor and No. 2 Oregon dropping to Stanford in an overtime thriller.
Losing is rarely a positive, especially in the football-crazed state of Alabama, but Nico Johnson felt the Tide actually learned a valuable lesson from the one they were forced to swallow against the Aggies.
“After the Texas A&M game, it helped us and it hurt us,” said the senior linebacker, who forced a fumble and contributed two tackles on Saturday. “We took that and ran with it. We understand we've got to be consistent as a team. We've got to be our best at all times.”
Robert Lester, who picked off a pass in the first half in the Iron Bowl beatdown, was thinking along the same lines as Johnson. The senior defensive back knows it will take a strong effort from start to finish to bully the Bulldogs in their own backyard next week.
“Coming out, executing and playing almost a perfect game is what we need to do,” Lester said.
The NFL prospect's use of the word “perfect” wasn't much of a surprise considering that's generally what Nick Saban expects from his players.
Even after the conclusion of one of the most lopsided scores in Iron Bowl history, the coach still pinpointed areas he thought his team could improve on.
Despite allowing only four third-down conversions on 12 attempts, Saban found it “kind of disturbing” that two of those came consecutively early in the ballgame.
“I think we're going to have to do a better job on that,” he said. “We certainly don't want our players to be satisfied with where they are. They need to understand there's always a bigger challenge out there we need to get ready for.”
Saban has been lauding his team's ability to handle adversity since a nail-biting 21-17 triumph against LSU back in Week 9. The coach quickly had to change his tune after the ensuing loss to Texas A&M, but he's back to being proud of his players in that regard after the way they closed out the regular season.
“The last two games, I don't think you could really be critical of how our team competed, how they played, how they prepared,” Saban said. “I think that's a key to being successful. When we have good energy and good enthusiasm, we seem to play pretty well, but that's not something you just get at gametime. I think it's something you have to have throughout the week in preparation.”
Rob Ketcham can be reached at 256-734-2131, ext. 257 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.