Alabama, 11-0 after a 49-0 tune-up against Chattanooga on Saturday, and Auburn (10-1) are ranked No. 1 and No. 4, respectively, in the Bowl Championship Series standings headed into an Iron Bowl that will decide the SEC West Division champion.
Jacksonville State (9-3), which finished its first regular season under Bill Clark with a 42-34 victory over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, received an at-large berth to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs and will play host to Samford on Saturday at 7 p.m.
College football fans around here can watch the most relevant Iron Bowl ever, which kicks off at 2:30 p.m., then go up the road to Burgess/Snow Field at JSU Stadium and see two more in-state rivals play for playoff survival.
In two more weeks, we could have one team in the BCS final, another in a BCS bowl and JSU in the FCS playoffs.
What a season it’s been, and make a point to soak it in. Seasons like this don’t happen often.
Alabama: Just win, baby
Here we go again, with Nick Saban-led Alabama having to carry its own weight in a big game.
Alabama is not just favored to win, which is all the Crimson Tide must to do, but is favored by 10.5 to 11 points, depending on the line, against its 10-1, fourth-ranked rival on the road.
What’s at stake? Just the right to play for another SEC and national championship … or play for nothing after spending this entire season ranked No. 1.
High-stakes games are nothing new to Alabama, and the Crimson Tide has three national titles in four years to prove it.
Then again, Alabama has November losses in the Saban years. The past two years, the Tide got the help it needed elsewhere to recover from those losses and play for national titles.
This time, a loss Nov. 30 means no chance to play for the SEC title and, likely, no chance to play for a national title. The expectation at Alabama is to win both.
Saban-led Alabama is built around the concept of playing to its own standard. Come Saturday, the Tide just needs to beat the opponent.
Auburn: What pressure?
Auburn has a lot of intangibles working in its favor before kickoff.
The Tigers will play at home, and expect Jordan-Hare Stadium to feel like 1989 all over again.
They’re also way ahead of schedule. No one outside of Auburn’s own locker room expected the Tigers to be in this position.
By all accounts, the internal goal for this season was to produce the nation’s top turnaround. Mission accomplished. Regardless of outcome, their season will go down as an astonishing turnaround from their 3-9 collapse of 2012.
Auburn’s players will go into this game expecting to win. The sense around their camp is that going into a big game less certain contributed to their only loss, at LSU in September. LSU led 21-0 at halftime and won 35-21, with Auburn threatening to come within a touchdown and set up an onsides kick scenario.
The pressure starts to mount on Auburn if the strength-on-strength battle between Auburn’s running game and Alabama’s defense goes Alabama’s way early.
If it goes Auburn’s way early, then watch Auburn’s confidence swell.
JSU: Buy-in from without
JSU’s selection to the FCS playoffs says that FCS watchers are buying into an improved OVC as well as JSU under Bill Clark, who is in his first season as a college head coach.
Think about it. JSU had three losses, and there was no throw-away loss in a guarantee game against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent. The Gamecocks had three OVC losses.
That wouldn’t have been good enough in previous years, short of an automatic bid, but the FCS playoffs have grown by eight teams since 2010. The field expanded from 20 to 24 this year.
Also, JSU and the OVC have opened minds.
The league got a record three teams in the playoffs, including Eastern Illinois and Tennessee State. EIU is the No. 2 overall seed and will get home field and home wind until the final.
JSU and Clark, meanwhile, have the eye of FCS watchers after tying Jim Fuller’s 36-year-old school record for wins under a first-year coach. They like what they’re seeing, enough that the Gamecocks finished a three-loss regular season at No. 20 in The Sports Network FCS poll.
It’s good news for the current season and promising news for seasons to come, as Clark becomes more established.
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.