52F Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, AL
Alabama was able to sleepwalk through a victory at Mississippi State last weekend without dire consequences.
Opponents in the near future probably won't be as forgiving.
The two-week hype begins for one of the most anticipated Iron Bowls in years, but No. 1 Alabama has one more game in the interim - against FCS-level Chattanooga on Saturday - and it will give the Crimson Tide a chance to clean up their performance in advance of the Nov. 30 showdown with No. 6 Auburn.
The Crimson Tide (10-0) had a tepid offensive showing against the Bulldogs, with 383 total yards and an uncharacteristic four turnovers. Alabama still escaped with a relatively easy 20-7 victory, but coach Nick Saban said the game was a reminder that his team isn't invincible.
"We won the game, but we really didn't beat the other team," Saban said. "That's really not how we usually try and do it. But there's a lot our players can learn from this in terms of how prepared they were and what their mental energy and intensity was going into the game."
Alabama's offense looked lethargic from the start, leaning on the defense while taking a 10-0 halftime lead. A.J. McCarron threw his first two interceptions since September and T.J. Yeldon had a costly fumble in the third quarter that led to Mississippi State's only touchdown.
It wasn't all bad for the Tide. McCarron threw for 187 yards and two touchdowns while Yeldon rushed for a career-high 160 yards. And the defense was suffocating, allowing 197 total yards and coming up with two huge stops after turnovers in the second half.
"It's a turning point in the game to get those stops," Saban said. "The defense showed a lot of character."
But considering Alabama had won seven straight by at least three touchdowns before last Saturday, the relative success for a mediocre Mississippi State team was unexpected.
"It was a battle up front," Alabama offensive lineman Anthony Steen said. "It was the most difficult game I have played so far this season."
In the end, it was a victory. And even though it was ugly, it might have been the splash of cold water Alabama needed to make sure its focus is complete heading into the most crucial games of the season.
The winner of the Iron Bowl will clinch the SEC Western Division and play for the league championship Dec. 7. Alabama will almost certainly be the favorite, even though the game is at Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium.
But the Tide's immortality has taken a hit, and Saban is on full alert.
"It takes a lot of discipline," Saban said. "It takes a lot of character. We have to have those things if we want to separate from those other teams. That's something we have to prove that we can do. I think there's a lot to be learned from this."
Chattanooga is 8-3, ranked 18th in the FCS and has won a share of the Southern Conference title. However, it had a six-game win streak snapped with a 17-14 overtime loss at Samford last Saturday that prevented it from winning the conference outright.
The Mocs rallied from a 14-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to extend the game, but after Samford took the lead on a field goal, Chattanooga's 31-yard attempt missed.
"I told the guys, I know you are disappointed," coach Russ Huesman said. "We all are, but you are conference champions. You have won a conference championship. You have won one, and we are probably going to the playoffs. Everybody would have signed up for that before the season started, no question."
Alabama has won all 11 meetings against Chattanooga, taking the last matchup 45-0 at home in 2009.
This will be the Mocs' fifth game since 2008 against an FBS team ranked in the top 10. They've been outscored 204-33 in dropping those four contests.