BATON ROUGE, La. — Nick Saban lingered at LSU’s end of the field, seeking out the players he once recruited to the Tigers. He wanted to give each of them a hug, pass along a few words about how much they still meant to him.
Then it was time to head the other way.
Saban’s wearing crimson now.
In a bittersweet return to the school he once coached, Saban kept his current team on course for a shot at the national championship with a thrilling win Saturday. After missing a chip-shot field goal on the final play of regulation, No. 1 Alabama stayed perfect when John Parker Wilson scored on a 1-yard sneak in overtime for a 27-21 victory over the 15th-ranked Tigers.
The Crimson Tide wrapped up a spot in the Southeastern Conference championship game, a stunningly quick accomplishment even for a coach of Saban’s renown. He took over a proud program that had been mired in mediocrity, and needed only two years to bring it back to the prominence it held under Bear Bryant.
“We are at about 19,000 feet,” Saban said. “The mountain is at 26,000 feet, and the air is changing a little bit. The air is a little rarer.”
He’s familiar with this position, having led LSU to the BCS championship in 2003. He traded the Tigers for the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, only to decide after two seasons that he was a college coach at heart.
When Alabama called with a $4 million-a-year contract offer, Saban jumped at the chance — even though that put him back in the SEC West, the same division as LSU. Needless to say, most Tiger fans weren’t exactly thrilled to see their former coach wind up at one of their biggest rivals.
All along, Saban has insisted the decision wasn’t personal.
“We have special memories of this place,” he said. “We always will, and no one will ever tarnish those no matter what they do.”
Alabama (10-0, 6-0 SEC) barely survived its toughest test yet. After Charles Scott tied it for LSU on a 1-yard touchdown run with just over 6 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama drove into position to win it. From the 12, Saban called his final timeout with 3 seconds remaining.
Leigh Tiffin lined up for a 29-yard field goal, but his kick was low and Ricky-Jean Francois swiped it away with his big right hand.
LSU got the ball first in overtime, only to give away even a shot at the field goal when Jarrett Lee threw his fourth interception — the third pick of the game by Alabama’s Rashad Johnson, tying the school record. The Tide didn’t even bother with another field goal try, having already missed twice.
Wilson hit Julio Jones along the sideline, and the freshman dragged his defender to the 1 for a 24-yard gain. Two plays later, Wilson powered into the end zone to win it. Saban, surrounded by a larger-than-usual contingent of state troopers, threw up both arms, then strolled onto the field to shake hands with his LSU successor, Les Miles.
For a minute or two, it looked as though Saban might head to the wrong locker room, but he was merely trying to speak with his ex-players. Finally, after drifting deep into the Tigers end of the field, he took off running toward the Alabama locker room — with a dozen troopers struggling to keep up. He pointed toward the Crimson Tide’s raucous contingent before disappearing into the tunnel.
There were no hard feelings toward those LSU fans who held up signs such as “Miles Over $aban.”
“It’s really not sweeter clinching the (SEC) West in Tiger Stadium,” Saban said, his voice rising. “It really isn’t. My emotions for this place are positive, not negative. I didn’t leave LSU to go to Alabama. I left LSU to go to Miami. Myself and my family learned that we didn’t like professional football as much as we liked college. So we had the best opportunity to return to college football at the University of Alabama. There is nothing personal in that for me.”
LSU (6-3, 3-3), the defending national champion, was eliminated from the conference race and, in all likelihood, any consideration for a spot in the BCS.
“This one is bitter. It’s painful,” Miles said. “But as a competitor, when you play your tail off, there’s a comfort in that.”
Glen Coffee rushed for 126 yards, including a 3-yard touchdown that put Alabama ahead 21-14 in the third quarter. Wilson was 15 of 31 passing for 215 yards.
Last year, LSU won “Saban Bowl I” with two touchdowns in the final three minutes, pulling out a 41-34 victory in Tuscaloosa and going on to finish No. 1. But this was his first game at Tiger Stadium as the Alabama coach, and a crowd of 93,039 — the biggest in LSU history — turned out to give a rude reception to the coach they once celebrated.
At the end of the third quarter, the public-address announcer tried to fire up the crowd by noting that nightfall had descended on a stadium known for its raucous evening games.
“The sun has found its home in the western sky,” he said. “It’s now Saturday night in Death Valley!”
LSU responded, turning the game into a thriller. The embattled Lee, who heard boos from the home crowd as the errant passes piled up, guided a 14-play, 72-yard drive. The redshirt freshman completed four passes for 58 yards, including a 24-yarder to Brandon LaFell.
The bruising Scott took it in from the 1 for a 21-21 tie. He finished with 92 yards and a pair of TDs. Lee was 13-for-34 for 181 yards.
“There are a lot of mistakes that you just can’t make at this level of ball,” Lee said. “It’s something that for sure I need to work on.”
Early on, Alabama found itself in an unusual position: behind. Having trailed for only 1 minute, 15 seconds in its first nine games, the Tide went down 14-7 when Scott broke off a 30-yard touchdown run for the Tigers with just under 6 minutes left in the first quarter.
LSU scored two touchdowns in less than a minute, capitalizing on one of three Alabama turnovers in the first half.
After Lee threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Bird, Javier Arenas had the ball knocked away on the ensuing kickoff return. Kicker Josh Jasper fell on the loose ball along the Alabama sideline, not far from Saban.
Scott got a huge block from left guard Herman Johnson and broke threw a gaping hole to score the touchdown that gave LSU its first lead.
Alabama was on the short end of the score until Lee made a familiar mistake. The young quarterback badly overthrew Terrance Tolliver, Johnson picked it off and went 54 yards for a touchdown — the sixth time this year Lee threw an interception that was returned for a TD.
The Tide fumbled away its opening possession just inches short of the end zone, but Johnson’s first interception gave Alabama the ball again at the LSU 15. Wilson turned that chance into a TD, shoving it in from the 1 for the first of his two TDs.
Alabama, which had outscored its first nine opponents 198-26 in the opening half, had to settle for a 14-all tie at the break.
“That was as lethargic a half of football as we have played all year,” Saban moaned. “We just didn’t look the same out there. We looked a bunch of guys who were tired.”
They were all jumping around at the end.