November 04, 2014

(AP) - Alabama sees a clearly defined path to all of its big-picture goals, starting with LSU as the first of several big obstacles.

The Tigers' season is once again full of promise after looking like it was on the brink of spiraling out of control just a few weeks ago.

Both teams have had an extra week to prepare for Saturday night's always hard-hitting matchup between the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide and No. 14 LSU at Tiger Stadium.

Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) got a boost on its open date when rival Auburn beat Mississippi, the only team to top the Tide this season. That means this game is the first since that loss where Alabama is in charge of its own fate.

"We're so excited now, especially since we control our own destiny,'' defensive end Jonathan Allen said.

Alabama, off since beating Tennessee 34-20 on Oct. 25, climbed one spot to fifth in the second College Football Playoff rankings released Tuesday.

The Ole Miss loss also cleared the way to an SEC West title if Alabama can win out. That's a big challenge even if the Tide can win Saturday, with home games against No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 3 Auburn remaining.

The rivalry with LSU has routinely had huge stakes in recent years. The Tide have won the last three meetings starting with the 2011 season's national championship game rematch, but both teams are riding three-game winning streaks.

''These games are traditionally very tough, physical games between two ranked teams,'' Alabama coach Nick Saban said. ''It's certainly not going to be any different this year.''

LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said the rivalry has only gotten bigger in recent years, creating a different feel around campus on game week.

''Not only the team and around the football facility, but everywhere you go, everybody's got this intensity about them,'' Collins said. "Everybody wants us to win. ... The intensity is so much more than any other game.''

The Tigers (7-2, 3-2) stumbled against Mississippi State on Sept. 20. Two weeks later, LSU was run out of Auburn, 41-7, dropping the Tigers to 0-2 in league play for the first time in 13 years.

LSU responded with victories against Florida and Kentucky, and then defeated then-No. 3 Ole Miss 10-7 in its last game Oct. 25.

''I didn't think our season was in trouble,'' senior tailback Kenny Hilliard said. ''We had a meeting and we told ourselves not to worry. ... We had to try to end up at 10-2 and see where we would be. Since then everything has been clicking."

The Tigers, up three spots to 16th in the latest playoff rankings, prefer to keep the ball on the ground as much as possible - rushing 50 or more times in six games. LSU is averaging 225.7 yards rushing but has been at its best recently, rushing for 567 yards in the past two games, including 264 against Mississippi's highly regarded run-stoppers.

Alabama's ability to stop the run is arguably second to none, considering the exceptional running backs playing in the SEC. Alabama is giving up 78.1 yards per game on the ground and has not allowed a running back to gain 100 yards.

Something will have to give, and players on each side sound rather eager to see how this clash of muscle and grit pans out.

''They're definitely a physical group,'' Allen said. ''We're really going to have to go out there and try to dominate up front.''

After a slow start to his freshman season, 6-foot-1, 230-pound running back Leonard Fournette has emerged as the Tigers' leading rusher with 657 yards and seven touchdowns, including 293 yards and three TDs in the last three.

''They have a very physical team, and they're playing physical football right now,'' Saban said. ''There's not a lot of trick 'em to it. You've just got to match and be the same kind of physical team to be able to have a chance.''

Alabama also relies on a power running game featuring T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry. Yeldon sustained a lower leg injury against the Volunteers but has returned to his starting role in practice.

A ground game that averages 218.6 yards has taken some of the pressure off first-year starting quarterback Blake Sims, who struggled at times in hostile environments at Ole Miss and Arkansas.

He'll face another raucous atmosphere at Tiger Stadium, where LSU is 46-4 in night games under Les Miles.

"They have a very good team, who's playing their best football of the year," Saban said. "We play these games one game at a time and this is the most important game, because it is a game we play this week against a very good team on the road in a difficult place to play."

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