TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The Southeastern Conference Western Division is getting a jumpstart on the playoff system.
No. 1 Alabama won the semifinal game convincingly, 38-7 over No. 17 Mississippi State, and now moves into the championship round against No. 5 LSU, of course. The winner moves a big step closer to the SEC championship game and perhaps another national title shot.
Not against each other this time, presumably.
"I think at this point in the season it's kind of like the playoffs in a way," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. "You've got a tough game the next week. You've got a good opponent the next week. You've got somebody in your division that's a really good team."
He never even had to mention LSU by name in the postgame news conference Saturday night.
The Bulldogs came in unbeaten but trailed 21-0 by the opening minutes of the second quarter. This certainly shapes up to be the Tide's biggest test so far.
Alabama (8-0, 4-0) marches into Baton Rouge Saturday night still having trailed all of 15 seconds in regulation in the past 13 games plus nearly 49 minutes, with few hiccups along the way this season.
Even Saban has to press a bit for issues to harp on. He had told his players and reporters last week they had played better on the road than at Bryant-Denny Stadium, where they've now outscored opponents 146-28.
The Tigers (7-1, 3-1) had an open date since a 24-19 win over No. 16 Texas A&M. The Aggies, who visit Alabama in two weeks, and Mississippi have two league losses each while the Bulldogs have only one and still play LSU.
LSU won 9-6 in overtime in Tuscaloosa last season but Alabama blanked the Tigers 21-0 in the national title game in New Orleans.
"We don't even have to talk about it," Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley said. "You already know what is set for next week's game, based off last year and based off the national championship.
"We just have to treat every game like it's another game. We've just got to be ready for what they bring."
Alabama has been awfully consistent in doing that to this point, but Mississippi State is its only opponent still in the Top 25.
Against that competition, things have looked easy.
Quarterback AJ McCarron still hasn't thrown an interception, a school-record streak currently at 262 passes dating back to last year's Mississippi State game.
Alabama has forced 23 turnovers and converted them into 17 touchdowns and two field goals. The Tide scored its only two second-half turnovers after a fumble and an interception.
And the defense continues to lead the nation in the major statistical categories despite losing last season's biggest stars to the NFL draft.
Even Saban is pleasantly surprised by that.
"Really for all of the young players we have, if you would have told me that we would be in the position statistically and scoring defense-wise that we are in right now, I would have said, probably, no way," he said. "These guys have really set out with an attitude that they want to prove something and we have had some guys that have really stepped up as playmakers."
That doesn't mean he wasn't a little steamed when the reserves gave up a late touchdown to prevent a shutout, just as it happened against Florida Atlantic. In that game, fired-up Alabama coaches drew an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for stepping too far onto the field before the late score in a 40-7 victory.
That's just part of coaching 'em up.
"I know everybody is probably going to say, 'Well, you got upset with the backup players,'" Saban said. "I got upset with the backup players because they are better than that. They can play better than that. They need to play with poise and confidence when they go in the game and compete just like everybody else competes.
"That's being able to execute and do your job. It's not about shutting anybody out. It's not about any of that. It's about them playing their best football."