No. 1 Alabama's treacherous path goes through No. 6 Auburn
By JOHN ZENOR
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) No. 1 Alabama's path to the Southeastern Conference championship and an assured spot in the playoffs is clear but awfully treacherous.
The Crimson Tide (11-0, 7-0 SEC, No. 1 CFP) can secure a spot in the league title game with a road win at No. 6 Auburn (9-2, 6-1) on Saturday.
Even coach Nick Saban, who has a noted distaste for hype-fueled distractions, had to admit that the Iron Bowl has "got lots of ramifications this year."
Lose and Alabama's run of three straight SEC titles comes to an end, and a fourth-consecutive playoff berth isn't a sure bet.
Win and the Tide gets another big task against No. 7 Georgia in Atlanta. It's a big change from the past three years when neither Auburn nor the SEC East champion was ranked in the top 10.
This is only the eighth Iron Bowl in which both in-state rivals were top 10 teams.
But Alabama is used to big games with high stakes and loads of national attention. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick boiled down the stakes to their most essential element.
"You go into the game trying to get a win. That's it," Fitzpatrick said Monday. "That's the only thing at stake is the win."
The Tide is a slender four-point favorite to do just that. Alabama is trying to extend its Iron Bowl winning streak to four. Alabama senior linebacker Rashaan Evans would like to end his career perfect against his hometown team but is trying not to dwell on it.
"It's something you really want to be able to kind of maintain, but at the same time, you can't pay too much attention to the record," said Evans, who is from Auburn. "Understand that any team can be beaten at any time, regardless of how good you are, so for us we're just going to go in there with a clear mind and really just play our game."
Alabama still has some injury question marks going into the game. That group includes Fitzpatrick, who sat out the Mercer game to rest an injured hamstring.
The Bednarik Award finalist upgraded his status after Saban's more cautious prognosis.
"I'm good. I'm going to go out there and practice," Fitzpatrick said. "Coach said I'm day to day, but I'm 100 percent right now."
Saban didn't rule out three injured linebackers, though he said they haven't been medically cleared to play so far: Mack Wilson (foot), Terrell Lewis (elbow) and Christian Miller (biceps). Lewis and Miller were hurt in the opener against Florida State and haven't played since.
If one or more of those players can return, it would be a big boost for a defense that has played virtually all season short-handed at linebacker.
"I'm not saying that those guys are out for the game, and I'm not able to say whether they'll be able to play in the game," Saban said.
The Tide will be facing an offense averaging league-bests 43 points and 503 total yards per game. Coach Gus Malzahn's Tigers have won their last four games, including knocking off previous playoff No. 1 Georgia 40-17.
"Gus has done a phenomenal job, in my opinion," Saban said. "His team has improved throughout the course of the year and is playing as well as probably anybody in the country right now."
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Updated November 20, 2017