Ragland, No. 2 Alabama feeling good entering finishing run
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) Linebacker Reggie Ragland says this Alabama team is different.
The second-ranked Crimson Tide is in a similar position now as the last two seasons, which ended short of the national title after rare defensive lapses. Alabama (10-1, 6-1 Southeastern Conference) once again enters Saturday's game against rival Auburn (6-5, 2-5) able to secure a spot in the league championship game with a victory.
The past two years, the team and the defense have stumbled at the ending. This time the Crimson Tide rides an eight-game winning streak into the Iron Bowl and was No. 2 in last week's playoff rankings.
''It's one of the best feelings I've had in a long time about a team, since my freshman year,'' said Ragland, a Butkus Award finalist. ''These guys, everybody's just communicating. Every time you walk into the locker room, you just feel at home and at peace. (There's) no animosity, anything like that. I just feel great about this team, man.
''If everybody keeps doing their job, we'll be where we want to be at the end of the year.''
Two years ago, the Tide finished with losses to Auburn and to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl while giving up a combined 79 points. Last season Alabama allowed 44 points and 630 yards in a win over Auburn and fell 42-35 to eventual national champion Ohio State in the semifinals with a win over Missouri for the SEC title in between.
Alabama has been rolling since a loss to No. 19 Mississippi, getting challenged only once against Tennessee. Meanwhile, other top teams, including Ohio State and Michigan, have fallen and SEC East champion No. 10 Florida was taken to overtime by Florida Atlantic.
The Tide is hoping to more closely resemble the 2012 finish in Ragland's freshman season. That group won the program's second national title in a row and third in four years.
''This team is way more focused than we were in 2013 when we were heading down there (to Auburn), and even last year at this point,'' Alabama cornerback Cyrus Jones said. ''I think it's a much more tight-knit locker room. Everybody has the same goals. No big egos on the team. Everybody is just focused on trying to complete our mission which is to be in the national championship and win it at the end of the year.
''I think we're doing a good job so far, but obviously the job is not done yet.''
The Tide has cleaned up its act, too. Alabama has lost four turnovers in the past five games after coughing it up five times against the Rebels. The Tide has also committed just six penalties over the past two games after drawing nine flags against LSU.
''We were on the wrong track for a while,'' center Ryan Kelly said. ''We were kind of increasing penalties week in, week out. Coach Saban came into the offensive room one day and was like `This is a big problem.' He kept adding up all the yards that we keep losing just based on shooting ourselves in the foot, penalties like offsides, wrong formations and it's stuff we do in practice.''
NOTES: Saban said backup tailback Kenyan Drake is returning to practice for individual drills Monday after missing the Charleston Southern game with a broken arm. ''It's day to day to see how he progresses and see how he regains the functional use of his hand and arm,'' Saban said. He said right tackle Dominick Jackson and cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick are back after also sitting out the game.