Alabama football coach Nick Saban shares insight on key 3-letter word ahead of Iron Bowl | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer
USA TODAY NETWORK

Nick Saban started to compliment an aspect of his team’s performance when the Alabama football coach reached a pesky three-letter word.

But …

“What comes after ‘but’ usually isn't good,” Saban said Monday.

In this case, Saban had been praising how the No. 2 Crimson Tide (10-1, 6-1 SEC) controlled the tempo in a 42-35 victory over Arkansas last week. Then he hit that contraction, which caused him to pivot from praise to critique.

“There’s always a little ‘but,’ I guess,” Saban explained. “We made some critical mistakes in the game, whether it was on special teams, offense, defense, that never allowed us to really put the game away.”

Alabama will play at Auburn (6-5, 3-4) on Saturday in the Iron Bowl (2:30 p.m., CBS), and the meeting of these rivals always creates the chance for a big "but."

“If you don't have success in this game, I don't care what else you accomplish in the season, there's always a 'but,’” Saban said.

As in … Alabama was positioned to play for the BCS national championship game, but Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field goal came up short, Chris Davis returned the kick for a touchdown, and Auburn won the SEC and the right to play Florida State for the national title.

Or … Alabama led 24-0, but Cam Newton rallied Auburn to a 28-27 victory amid an undefeated season.

Or … Auburn led 21-20 midway through the fourth quarter, but Greg McElroy completed seven consecutive passes, the last of which gave Alabama a 26-21 victory, en route to Saban’s first national championship as Alabama’s coach.

“I think the big thing is being positive about how you're going to execute and stay focused and not be distracted by all the external factors or the noise surrounding the game,” Saban said. “But, when the game starts, be able to get in there and play one play at a time and do your job well. That's the challenge.”

The Alabama and Auburn seasons have been filled with "buts" already.

The Crimson Tide lost to Texas A&M but remain in control of their path to the College Football Playoff. Auburn’s season has unfolded in roller-coaster fashion, but what happens in the Iron Bowl and a subsequent bowl game could reshape how the season is remembered.

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Alabama possesses a Heisman Trophy frontrunner quarterback in Bryce Young, but it uncharacteristically has a mediocre offensive line. Alabama’s defensive line and linebackers are improving, but its secondary remains susceptible to big plays. Brian Robinson Jr. is one of the SEC’s best running backs, but injuries stripped Alabama of its running back depth behind him.

Auburn nearly lost to Georgia State, but backup quarterback T.J. Finley’s fourth-down touchdown completion saved the day. Running back Tank Bigsby is a dependable workhorse, but Auburn doesn’t have enough support around him. First-year coach Bryan Harsin profiled as a candidate for SEC coach of the year as recently as Halloween, but three straight November losses tarnished his debut on the Plains. Auburn led Mississippi State 28-3 in the second quarter two Saturdays ago, but quarterback Bo Nix broke his ankle after halftime and Auburn’s defense collapsed in a 43-34 defeat.

As Saban alluded to, though, there’s what comes before the Iron Bowl, and there’s what happens after the rivalry game kicks off.

Auburn fans had begun souring on Harsin’s first season, but then he won the Iron Bowl in a stunning upset, and the Tigers salvaged the season. Or, alternatively: Alabama had shown more vulnerability than usual throughout the season, but a blowout Iron Bowl triumph sparked the Crimson Tide to a fantastic finish.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.