Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee (25) celebrates after picking off the ball against LSU in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015, in Tuscaloosa , Ala. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
John Bazemore
November 09, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland has been around Nick Saban long enough to take some satisfaction when the coach is smiling after a game.

The challenge now is keeping Saban happy. The third-ranked Crimson Tide's celebration of a win over LSU is tempered by the reality of another tough game Saturday at No. 20 Mississippi State, but it did bring some joy even to the ever-intense coach.

''Y'all will never see coach smile or happy like that unless something good happens on the field,'' Ragland said Monday.

The 30-16 victory over the ninth-ranked Tigers, coupled with a Mississippi loss, left Alabama (8-1, 5-1 Southeastern Conference) needing only to keep winning to make the league championship game with a shot at a return trip to the playoffs.

One loss against the Bulldogs or Auburn - with a mismatch against Charleston Southern in between - takes all that away. And Saban's postgame smiles will be replaced by the scowl that's more familiar to fans watching games on TV.

''Any time you have an emotional win, you've got to get your team to respond the right way and make sure that they're focused on what they need to do to play just as well the next week or better,'' Saban said.

This figures to be the biggest remaining hurdle in between Alabama and the SEC title game against No. 11 Florida, though Auburn is coming off a solid road win over Texas A&M.

The Tide is trying to replicate last season's run to the playoffs - also after an early loss to Ole Miss - that included a 25-20 win over a top-ranked Mississippi State team.

''They don't give me a vote but they are the best team in America,'' Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen said.

The Tide's task now moves from defending LSU tailback Leonard Fournette to trying to contain Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott.

Alabama's riding a six-game winning streak that has already included lopsided road wins over teams ranked in the Top 10 at the time, Georgia and Texas A&M. Both times the follow-up game presented more of a challenge.

The Tide held on 27-14 over Arkansas following the Georgia win. Then a late touchdown drive and forced fumble preserved a 19-14 victory over Tennessee after Texas A&M.

So there is some cause to worry about avoiding a letdown.

''I don't think it will be that hard this week,'' linebacker Dillon Lee said. ''Since Ole Miss lost, we're kind of back in control of what happens from here on out and I think the guys will be more excited this week, going into the next game knowing that every game we win from here on out is taking us where we want to go.''

The performance against LSU came after some critics weren't enamored of Alabama's inclusion into the playoffs. Before the Ole Miss loss, though, the Tide could have been shut out of the SEC title game even after winning the rest of the way.

Then came a convincing performance when Derrick Henry plowed through the LSU defense for 210 rushing yards, and Alabama's defense held Fournette to 31 yards.

Tide center Ryan Kelly felt it ''the most overall complete game we've played as an offense,'' something that would have been easy to overlook considering the defensive performance.

Ragland said he'd be addressing with his teammates the importance of putting that much-talked about game in the past.

''Since you control your own destiny you have to keep getting better and worry about yourself,'' he said. ''You can't take anybody for granted. The teams (ahead) are good teams. We have to stay focused and just keep getting better.

''If we've got guys that don't want to get better and don't want to help us out, they can get on. Because a bunch of the older guys, we're ready to go. If you're not with us, we'll kick you out. It's time to go now.''

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jzenor and the AP's college football site at http://collegefootball.ap.org .

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