No. 5 Alabama has climbed back into the national title race, now the challenge is staying there.
No other team faces three more ranked opponents in the stretch run, a hazardous road that begins Saturday at No. 12 LSU. Then come visits from No. 21 Mississippi State and No. 3 Auburn sandwiched around a Georgia State game that seems misplaced in that fairly elite company.
"This team has a great opportunity in the last one-third of the season," Tide coach Nick Saban said Monday. "We need everyone's best. We need their best attention to detail. We need their best energy and enthusiasm, the best focus on execution.
"The focus doesn't need to be on the finish line."
That's a long way off, anyway — for both teams. Both LSU and Alabama, each 7-1 and 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference, are aiming toward the league title game in Atlanta. Unlike Alabama, LSU can't get there without help.
Les Miles' Tigers need to win out in the SEC against Alabama, Mississippi and No. 17 Arkansas then hope unbeaten Auburn — the only team to beat LSU — loses to Georgia or 'Bama.
"All we can do is control our destiny," LSU running back Stevan Ridley said. "We are not going to fold our tent. We have a great team coming here with one loss. We are focusing on them this week. We are trying to go 11-1, which is as close to perfect as we can get. If we just drop one game, that's a pretty good season."
Both teams are coming off an open date after the Tide closed with one of its most impressive halves at Tennessee while LSU lost at Auburn in a game that was tied deep into the fourth quarter.
Alabama, the highest ranked one-loss team, had a fruitful weekend without even playing. Previously unbeaten Michigan State and Missouri lost to Iowa and Nebraska, respectively.
That cleared two potential hurdles between Alabama and a chance to play for a second straight SEC and national title, though plenty still remain. No. 1 Oregon did top Southern California.
"Obviously we're very pleased and happy with what happened Saturday," Tide quarterback Greg McElroy said. "I think I was screaming louder for Nebraska and USC and Iowa ... I was rooting for those teams as hard as ever."
LSU doesn't have quite so hard a road to Atlanta for the SEC championship — provided Georgia lends a hand.
"We just have to keep our position in the West," said Miles, who is 14-1 after a loss. "We want to finish as well as we can. We have ambition in the West. A lot will be decided at 2:30 Saturday. We look forward to big games and certainly Alabama is a big game."
Winning just keeps both teams' biggest ambitions alive. It guarantees little beyond that.
The Tide's remaining SEC West opponents are a combined 23-3. LSU and the league's top defense and Cam Newton-led Auburn and the No. 1 offense remain in the way, along with a rising Mississippi State team.
Alabama controls its own destiny in the SEC hunt, if not necessarily nationally.
"I think there's a lot of other people probably in the same boat, so it's who can take care of their business the best down the road," Saban said. "What we control is how we play. That's the most important thing that we want to be able to focus on. That's why we need everybody's best at this time of the year.
"We're going to play some of the best teams, and we need to be playing our best football of the year if we're going to be able to accomplish what we have an opportunity to accomplish."
The Tide is No. 6 in the current BCS standings, but figures to get a significant bump in strength of schedule over the next month. LSU is 10th, while Auburn trails only Oregon.
"The BCS rankings are always crazy," LSU guard Josh Dworaczyk said. "If we go 11-1, we can go to a BCS bowl with a chance to play another great opponent. We can be 11-1 taking a loss to Auburn which is the hottest team in the country. Their defense is playing well and no one has had an answer for Cam Newton."
The next month doesn't shape up any easier than Alabama's earlier stretch against then-ranked teams Arkansas, Florida and South Carolina.
"The schedule's going to be tough," tailback Trent Richardson said. "We've got to go to Death Valley, we've got Mississippi State and then we've got Auburn. Mississippi State isn't a step behind anybody else. Then we've got Cam Newton."
What Alabama has beyond that remains to be seen.