BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The road to college football's national championship has taken several detours this season -- through Florida, Penn State and Nebraska.
But it all could end in a familiar spot -- in the green flatlands of Tuscaloosa, Ala., a small college town surrounded by barbecue stands and small shopping centers, and overshadowed by a legend named Bear Bryant.
"I don't know if anybody picked us to be in this position at this point in the season," said Alabama coach Gene Stallings. "I think we've come from behind four or five times this year, so we're just sort of winning some close games. I guess you could say we've come back and climbed back real slow, you know."
No. 4 Alabama's title hopes will be at stake today when the Crimson Tide meets No. 6 Auburn (9-0-1) at Birmingham's Legion Field.
The Tigers had been in the title hunt, but tumbled from the picture after last week's 23-23 tie with Georgia, ending Auburn's game winning streak.
But this game hasn't lost all its luster.
It's still Auburn vs. Alabama.
"The fans have a lot of hate for each other," said Alabama defensive lineman Shannon Brown. "If your team loses, people at work are going to rub your face in it every day, every hour, every minute. I've heard of people changing jobs because of it."
Said Auburn free safety Brian Robinson: "It's just like a national championship game for us. People will remember and talk about who won the state championship for a long time. Someone put a damper on our season. We want to do it to somebody else. Fortunately, we have a chance against Alabama."
The Crimson Tide (10-0) has thrust itself into the race for No. 1 by surviving, showing a form far from that of the 1992 national championship team that out-muscled and outclassed its opponents.
Alabama seems to do just enough to win, which is why this team still is ranked behind 8-1 Florida. The Crimson Tide has trailed or was tied with an opponent five times going into the final quarter. In summary:
* Alabama edged Vanderbilt, 17-7, by scoring 10 points in the last six minutes.
* The Crimson Tide beat Georgia, 29-28, on a Michael Proctor field goal with 1 minute and 12 seconds left.
* Running back Sherman Williams scored on a 7-yard run in the last four minutes and the Crimson Tide had to hold on fourth-and-goal at the 1 as time expired to beat Tennessee, 17-13.
* Alabama scored 14 points in the last quarter, on 2-yard touchdown runs by Williams and quarterback Jay Barker, to defeat Mississippi, 21-10.
* The Tide scored two touchdowns in the final seven minutes to beat Mississippi State, 29-25, last week.
All of the big finishes have left Alabama one of only three unbeaten, untied teams left in the country.
"If you had told me before the '92 season that we were going to win the national championship, I probably would have laughed at you," said Alabama senior defensive back Willie Gaston. "And the way we started out this year, if you had told me we would be sitting here 10-0, I would have laughed at you for real."
They have won in vintage Alabama style, with a punishing defense and a conservative offense. Alabama is ranked third in the Southeastern Conference in total defense, allowing 105 yards passing and 141 rushing yards. It has averaged only 319.9 yards of total offense.
"If it takes 39 points to win, they get it. If it takes nine points to win, they get it," said Auburn coach Terry Bowden. "Defensively, they're always the best team we face.
"This game was heading into a great showdown of unbeaten teams. We're still unbeaten, but it's Alabama that is carrying that magical banner. They've found the formula for remaining unbeaten."
Until last Saturday, Auburn had that winning mystique, coming from behind in six of the 20 victories. The streak served as motivation and burden for the Tigers and Bowden, who has yet to taste defeat in his second year as coach.
Bowden had talked optimistically about the Tigers finishing No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll -- they are banned from the coaches' poll -- if they could to 11-0 again.
"Our goal this season was to go undefeated," receiver Thomas Bailey said. "We didn't anticipate tying. . . . but we've got to accept that and put it behind us."
Said Bowden: "Even if we went 11-0, there was never a guarantee that we would win the national championship. Our goal was to go undefeated and let the chips fall where they may. We can't do that now, but we've still got plenty of motivation."
So does Alabama. Its senior class is one victory short of tying the 1980 class as the winningest in school history. A victory would give the present group a four-year record of 44-4-1.
MA And of course, there's the run for the national championship.