Saban: No. 1 Alabama focusing on fundamental work vs. Mercer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Coming off a close SEC road win, No. 1 Alabama takes its usual late-season, nonconference breather before the Iron Bowl.

That regular-season finale on Nov. 25 against rival Auburn will be packed with College Football Playoff implications, with the winner taking the SEC West crown and playing Georgia in the conference title game.

But, first, Mercer.

The Crimson Tide (10-0) will tune up for the Tigers on Saturday against the visiting Bears from the Football Championship Subdivision.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said his team can learn and grow from last week's tough win, as the Tide edged Mississippi State 31-24 on the road.

"I think you should always be looking forward, looking ahead to what you need to do to continue to improve, to develop team chemistry, togetherness," Saban said.

"People's roles change. Guys change what they have to do. It's sort of a work in progress all the time to try to continue to grow and develop as a team. That's certainly what our focus needs to be if we want to finish the way we'd like to finish."

This week, Saban wants the players to work on personal improvement as the season builds to a potentially gripping finish.

"We need to focus on a lot of fundamental, technical execution at every position," Saban said.

"Whether it's offensive line, defensive backs, it doesn't really matter what position it is. I think there's a lot of things that we can fundamentally execute with a little more consistency. And that's certainly going to be the focus in terms of what we try to get accomplished this week."

Mercer heads to Tuscaloosa coming off a thrilling 35-33 win over No. 25 Western Carolina on Saturday. The Bears (5-5, 4-4 Southern Conference) used four rushing touchdowns and a fake field goal that went for a 25-yard touchdown pass to pull off the road upset.

"Our guys went up there and probably played the best, most complete game we've played all year long," Mercer coach Bobby Lamb told reporters.

Lamb said it was very rewarding to see his players celebrate in the locker room following the game.

As for the opportunity to play Alabama ... well, that's special, too.

Lamb, who has been in coaching for 31 years, said he has never faced the No. 1 team in the country. He called Alabama the "most storied" program in college football history.

Lamb said it will be a "tremendous challenge" for his players and the Bears' coaching staff.

"If you look at the numbers, they're off the charts with how much they don't give up in the rushing game and the passing game," Lamb said.

"Offensively, they got big offensive linemen. They try to run it right down your throat, then they pop up and throw it down the field to No. 3 (Calvin Ridley). They're just a complete team, but it'll be a great challenge for our team to go in there and compete against the No. 1 team in the country."

Alabama is first nationally in scoring defense (11.2 points per game), second in total defense (252.4 yards per game) and third in rushing defense (85.4 yards per game).

But injuries are mounting.

With four linebackers still out, Alabama also will be without starting left guard Ross Pierschbacher (ankle) on Saturday. Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick (hamstring) is questionable for Saturday -- and it makes all the sense in the world to be cautious with that kind of injury in order to have him as healthy as possible for the Iron Bowl.

"I think Ross will be out for sure for this game and then probably a medical decision after that as to where he is," Saban said.

On offense, Alabama leads the SEC in rushing (270.8 yards per game), yards per carry (6.0) and rushing touchdowns (33). Damien Harris leads the way with a team-best 823 rushing yards. Efficient quarterback Jalen Hurts (11 touchdowns, one interception) is second with 656 yards on the ground.

While it's easy to look past the Bears, Saban understands the challenges a program like Mercer can present.

"The team that we play, Mercer, is a very well coached team," Saban said. "They do a good job. They know what they want to do, they know how to do it, they do a good job of executing. And they've done a pretty good job all year long."

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