(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.
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The 30-16 victory over the then-No. 4 Tigers, coupled with a Mississippi loss, left Alabama (8-1, 5-1 SEC) needing only to keep winning to make the league championship game with a shot at a return trip to the playoffs. The Crimson Tide jumped from fourth to second in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings, leapfrogging Ohio State.
One loss against the Bulldogs (7-2, 3-2) 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.
The Tide are 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. They intercepted three of his passes in last season’s win.
The senior only has one INT this year and has thrown for more than 300 yards in three straight games while totaling 10 touchdown passes. Prescott has added 198 yards and four TDs on the ground in that span.
Helping Prescott has been the resurgence of 2014 leading receiver De’Runnya Wilson, who has 360 yards and six touchdowns over the past four games.
The Bulldogs need Wilson to create some matchup problems against Alabama’s talented defense, which is giving up 16.3 points per game. Wilson ranks fourth in the SEC with 626 yards receiving and second with eight touchdowns.
Saban said Wilson was ”difficult to cover because of the mismatch he creates using his body and his size to help himself, and he has really good hands.”
Ragland said the presence of Wilson and Prescott – third in the league with 2,351 yards passing – is a major concern for the Tide defense.
”Any time you’ve got a quarterback like (Prescott) and you’ve got guys like Wilson who can go up and get it at any time they need a big play, you’ve got to do your job,” Ragland said.
Fred Ross leads the Bulldogs with 51 catches and has been so effective that opponents have started to pay more attention to him, helping open up some room for Wilson and re-establishing him as one of the best playmakers in the league.
Ross said the two will have to play well to snap Mississippi State’s seven-game losing streak against the Crimson Tide.
”We’re going to have to make plays we’re not necessarily supposed to make,” Ross said. ”Somebody’s going to have to make a catch in tight coverage or somebody’s going to have jump over the top of a defender and make a play.”
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.
Tide center Ryan Kelly felt it was ”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.”