BATON ROUGE, La. | Nick Saban lingered at LSU’s end of the field, seeking out the players he once recruited. He wanted to give each one a hug, passing along a few words about how much they still mean 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 its field goal was blocked 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 against the No. 15 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 left 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. Needless to say, most LSU fans weren’t thrilled to see their former coach wind up with one of their 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) barely survived its toughest test yet. After Charles Scott tied it for LSU on a 1-yard touchdown run with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter, Alabama drove into position to win it. From the 12, Saban called his final timeout with three 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 right hand.
LSU (6-3, 3-3) got the ball first in overtime, only to give away a shot at a 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.