Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Bryce Young (9) throws the ball during the Iron Bowl at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Alabama Crimson Tide defeated Auburn Tigers 24-22 in 4OT.

Title a longshot, No. 7 Alabama digs in for Auburn

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

Nov 20, 2021; Columbia, South Carolina, USA; Auburn Tigers running back Tank Bigsby (4) rushes against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the third quarter at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn will try to run down No. 3 Alabama

With quarterback Bo Nix out for the year with a broken ankle, Auburn’s best offensive weapon is tailback Tank Bigsby.

Alabama’s defense is, as usual, strong against the run — ranked fifth in FBS at 85.9 yards per game, although Florida showed earlier in the year that it’s possible to gash that defense with a ground attack.

Something will have to give Saturday in the Iron Bowl at Auburn, where the third-ranked Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) will try to hold on to their spot in the College Football Playoff’s top four against a bitter rival that would love nothing more than to ruin their season.

Bigsby appears to be the Tigers’ best chance. Coming off a 164-yard game last week in a 21-17 loss at South Carolina, Bigsby is 60 yards away from 1,000. As Alabama coach Nick Saban noted earlier this week, Bigsby runs behind his pads and can make defenders miss.

“He has a big, strong lower body,” Tide linebacker Will Anderson said. “He’s able to extend plays to his legs, run through defenders and stuff like that, and be able to get more yards on his tackles and stuff like that. So I think that’s a big part of his game.”

As good as Bigsby has been at times this year — he has five 100-yard games — he’s still going to need a little help from quarterback TJ Finley. The LSU transfer led two touchdown drives in the first quarter at South Carolina but couldn’t get much done after that.

Finley was 17 of 32 for 188 yards and a touchdown.

“He did some good things,” Auburn coach Bryan Harsin said. “I thought he led on the sideline. I knew he worked hard leading into it, and we didn’t get the result we wanted.”

It’s going to be harder for the Tigers (6-5, 3-4) to get the result they want if they can’t back up Bigsby with some kind of passing attack. Auburn’s offense probably has to double what it scored last week to have a chance — and even that might not be enough.

Alabama is averaging 44.4 points, meaning a 42-35 victory over Arkansas last week that clinched another SEC West title actually checked in below its average. Of course, Bryce Young’s 559 yards and five touchdown passes still produced a few wows and might have swung some Heisman Trophy momentum his way.

Young’s first season as a starter has produced 3,584 yards, 38 touchdowns and just three interceptions in 367 passing attempts. And it’s not like he’s always been able to work from a clean pocket; he has absorbed 26 sacks and probably scrambled out of others with his ability to keep plays alive.

The Tide are 19 1/2-point road favorites, but Jordan-Hare Stadium hasn’t exactly been their favorite place to play. They’ve lost three of their last four trips to the eastern part of the state, including a 48-45 defeat in 2019 that saw the Tigers return two Mac Jones interceptions for touchdowns and seal the win when they picked up a first down after Alabama was flagged for 12 men on the field.

This will be the 86th meeting of the schools. The Tide own a 47-37-1 lead.

–Field Level Media