TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Alabama has just survived two big SEC West games with one more to go.
In between, the second-ranked Crimson Tide, which tops the College Football Playoff rankings, hosts FCS Western Carolina Saturday in a game that's a little harder to get fired up for.
Alabama coach Nick Saban takes a simple approach to keeping his players focused.
"We've created an opportunity for ourselves, so what do we have to do to see if we can take advantage of that opportunity?" Saban said. "When you look at it that way, it's more about what you have to do than other circumstances that people might look at relative to who you're playing."
The Tide (9-1) is playing a team that has never beaten an FBS opponent in 51 tries. It's a scheduling respite after wins over LSU and No. 4 Mississippi State and before the regular-season finale against No. 16 Auburn.
Tide players differ on the keys to staying focused for this type of game. Safety Nick Perry said the coaches take care of that and "put in the same amount of hours."
Tight end Brian Vogler figures the players keep each other motivated.
"Just as players, we know we're never going to overlook a team," Vogler said. "This is another team that's standing in between what we want as a team, our long-term goal."
Here are some things to watch in the Western Carolina-Alabama game:
ON THE MEND: Alabama tailback T.J. Yeldon (ankle), wide receiver DeAndrew White (hamstring) and placekicker Adam Griffith have all been battling injuries. Griffith's injury hasn't been specified. Saban said the status of all three opening the week was "day to day." Presumably Alabama could get by without them playing much, if at all, in this game if necessary.
COKER WATCH: Backup quarterback Jake Coker hasn't seen action in the last three games. He's 26-of-41 passing for 288 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Coker could be the leading candidate to replace senior Blake Sims next season, so if this game goes as expected it's a chance for him to get some more experience.
DEFENSIVE PREP: Western Carolina's spread offense and dual-threat quarterback Troy Mitchell give Alabama's defense a helpful look ahead of Auburn. If the Tide wins the Iron Bowl, it could also end up facing Missouri in the SEC championship game. "It gives us an opportunity to really try to execute against a team that does a lot of things very similar to some of the teams we're going to play here in the future," Saban said.
MITCHELL'S IMPROVEMENT: Mitchell has come a long way since facing the Tide as a freshman in a 49-0 defeat two years ago. He was 4-of-8 passing and had a fumble returned for a touchdown on a throwback toss to fellow quarterback Eddie Sullivan. Mitchell passed for a career-high five touchdowns and ran 55 yards for a sixth last week against VMI. Alabama's Sims also ran for a touchdown in a backup role in the last meeting.
CATAMOUNTS FINALE: Western Carolina has made big strides since the 2012 meeting, and enters its season finale one victory shy of its first eight-win season since 1984. Coach Mark Speir was in his first season for that game and said the difference in his team from then to now is "night and day. "We had seniors, junior college transfers and freshmen," Speir said. "It was a crazy mix of players the first time we went to Alabama. We've got a lot of players who have played a lot of football. It's a completely different team."