AUBURN, Ala. — Rhett Lashlee smirked.
After towing the company line all season, he finally cracked. With only one contest left in Auburn’s regular season, the youthful offensive coordinator admitted he could address the game to come without reservations that he would be overlooking an opponent waiting in the wings. No more taking it “one game at a time.” No more of the focus being solely “improving each practice and each game.”
Alabama week is here.
“We don’t have to say, ‘Oh, we’re worried about the next game,’” Lashlee said. “We have been building week-to-week obviously for the next game. It has worked for our guys. They have done a great job of buying into that and focusing in. That’s easier said than done, but we play Alabama and they play us at the end of the year for a reason. It all builds up to this every year.”
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As important as the rivalry is for both sides, the importance has increased exponentially given the implications riding on Saturday's outcome: the SEC West division crown, a spot in the SEC Championship Game and possibly an appearance in the BCS national title game.
Not surprisingly, the Tigers were pleased their final open date of the season fell this past week.
And it’s not just because it gives them an extra week to prepare for the top-ranked Crimson Tide, either.
"This open date is very helpful,” said defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, whose unit has battled the injury bug all season. “We don't have what I'd say are serious injuries. We've got a lot of guys that are tired, beat up — typical (for the) 12th-13th week of the season. So this is really going to help us. I hope that 48 hours they get over the weekend will really regenerate us a little bit.”
Alabama played Saturday, although it was little more than a tune-up as the Crimson Tide manhandled UT-Chattanooga, 49-0.
Bama coach Nick Saban said their focus will turn quickly toward Auburn.
“Our focus needs to immediately shift to the opportunities that we have created for ourselves in the games that we have in the future,” Saban said. “Obviously, the one we have this week against Auburn is a very important game. They have a great team and have had a great season.
“It’s going to be important for everybody in our organization to make a commitment to doing their very best job and play our best football because that’s probably what it’s going to take to have success against a very good team.”
Though it may confound some, Auburn’s players and coaches said most of the time following last Saturday’s 43-38 victory over Georgia have been spent on self-introspection and correction.
What about planning for the Crimson Tide?
“We’ve gotten a little bit of work on Alabama, but at this point, we’ve had two good relatively short practices with intense good work, doing some situations of 'good against good,'” Johnson said. “We’ve probably gotten about 30 minutes of Alabama a day. (We’re) not really deeply into any kind of game-planning.”
That will change quite soon. The moment the Tigers hit the practice field for Sunday evening’s practice, it will be all Alabama, all week.
Jake Holland can’t wait.
“We put ourselves in this position,” said the senior linebacker, who hails from Pelham, Ala. “We've worked hard all year and it's something that we have to put on our shoulders, especially as upperclassmen that have been in the Iron Bowl before, kind of let these younger guys know, ‘Hey, this is a big game, but play it for us.”
Fellow Alabama native Jay Prosch tried to take a more restrained view of the matter, echoing the coach-speak of previous weeks. The preparation won't differ much than it would for another foe, the senior fullback noted.
But like Holland, the Mobile, Ala., native is thankful he's able to take part in his home state's biggest rivalry.
“It’s really exciting that I’m able to actually be a part of this — (it’s) kind of a dream come true,” he said. “It’s not something I ever fully expected until I transferred here (from Illinois). Now that I’m part of it, it’s in my face now and it’s hard for me to believe. It’s something that probably won’t really hit me until I’m done playing — like, ‘Wow, I was really part of something like that.’”
Saturday marks Dee Ford’s fourth tussle with the Crimson Tide. Of course, the previous three years never generated the media crush and hype that this one has garnered. Ford said the key for the Tigers this week is to block out all outside distractions and simply make it to the game itself. Once there, the senior defensive end acknowledged, the Tigers will have to overcome nervousness at the game’s outset.
Accomplish that, he said, and the rest of the Iron Bowl will seem tame by comparison.
“That first five minutes is going to be crazy,” he said. “But when the first five minutes are over, it’s time to play football, so that’s the time I’m preparing for — when all the hype is gone. That’s going to be the time to play and really execute.”