The Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn is always a huge game regardless of records, but it is extra special this year. The Crimson Tide enter the contest ranked No. 1 in every relevant poll, while the Tigers are No. 4 with just one loss on their record. With that in mind, the stakes can't possibly get much higher.
Although Alabama has been the dominant team in college football over the past few years, it must win this game in order to play in the National Championship Game. A loss would vault Florida State and Ohio State ahead of the Tide, and there is no question that Auburn would take great pleasure in ruining Bama's season.
The task is made even more difficult for Alabama based on the fact that it will be playing in a hostile environment at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Even so, here are the biggest keys to the Tide taking a must-win game on Saturday.
Force Nick Marshall to Pass
One of the biggest reasons for Auburn's success this season has been the play of quarterback Nick Marshall. The junior signal-caller has been a steadying presence for Gus Malzahn's squad, and he has run the offense to perfection. With that said, Marshall isn't an elite passer by any means. In fact, he has broken 200 yards through the air on just four occasions this year, so Alabama should do everything in its power to force him to pass.
Auburn's success this season is quite incredible when you consider the fact that its passing game has been virtually non-existent. Marshall has just 1,530 yards and nine touchdowns through air. Over the course of a three-game stretch from late October through early November, he completed just 11 passes. He has been a force as a runner, however, and he has gotten plenty of support from his running backs too, as evidenced by this stat courtesy of Auburn Gold Mine.
The Tigers are No. 2 in the nation with over 320 rushing yards per game, and there is no doubt that Alabama head coach Nick Saban is well aware of that. Alabama's defense is great, but it probably isn't realistic to expect it to shut down Auburn's running game completely. If the Tide can get on the board early and build a lead, though, it will be huge since Auburn isn't a team that is built to come from behind. Marshall has been a big-time factor for Auburn this season, but Malzahn knows that the Tigers are doomed if he is forced into slinging the ball all over the stadium.
Play Mistake-Free Football on Offense
Auburn may not be a team that is built to come from behind, but it is definitely built to capitalize on the mistakes of its opponent. Bama generally doesn't make many errors over the course of a game, but sometimes mistakes happen in bunches. Giving Auburn a short field is a death wish as far as the Tide are concerned because the Tigers' explosive running game is extremely difficult to stop no matter where the offense starts, let alone if they start in Alabama territory.
Auburn's defense has had its moments this season, but it isn't the team's strong suit. The Tigers are allowing 22 points per game, and they have been involved in plenty of shootouts. Auburn can force some turnovers, though, as evidenced by its 10 interceptions on the season. Luckily for Alabama, quarterback AJ McCarron protects the ball better than perhaps any signal-caller in the nation. McCarron isn't flashy, but he is garnering Heisman Trophy attention, according to CBSSports.com.
McCarron probably doesn't deserve to win the Heisman over someone like Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston since his numbers don't really compare, but that shouldn't take away from what McCarron has done in 2013. McCarron has 23 touchdowns passes to just five interceptions, and he is completing better than 68 percent of his passes to boot. As long as McCarron continues to play at this level when Bama faces Auburn, the Tide should make it to the SEC Championship Game.
Don't Look Ahead
For a team that has had as much success as Alabama in recent years, it's probably pretty easy to look ahead at the ultimate task at hand. Anything short of winning a national title would be considered a disappointment for the Crimson Tide, but they still have to win two games before they can play for all the marbles. With that in mind, Saban has a colossal challenge on his hands in terms of making sure that his team is focused on the here and now rather than the future.
Luckily, the Iron Bowl is an important game no matter what. Even if both teams were somehow winless, they would desperately want to win this one. That, of course, means that Alabama's competition will be stiff, but it also means that the Tide will be into the game in their own right. Saban is one of the best coaches in the country, and his ability to motivate his team may be his best attribute.
Even so, that doesn't guarantee that all of his players will be honed in. Many Tide players have been there and done that against Auburn, so it's possible that they'll place more emphasis on winning the SEC Championship Game and the national title. Once Auburn comes out and punches Alabama in the mouth to start the game, however, the Tide should be engaged.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter