TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Just when it appeared as if third-ranked Alabama was destined to lose yet another home game to LSU, ending the decade O-fer in five tries, the Crimson Tide looked to familiar faces to save the day.
You know them. Mark Ingram (Heisman Trophy candidate). Julio Jones (Welcome back). One of the nation's top defenses (97 yards allowed in the second half). Lynyrd Skynyrd (American rock band).
When the final seconds ticked off at Bryant-Denny Stadium, Alabama's hand signals to its delirious fans told the story: The Crimson Tide earned a rematch with No. 1 Florida in the SEC Championship next month in Atlanta thanks to its dramatic 24-15 victory over the ninth-ranked Tigers.
As expected, it was a brutish, physical, entertaining showdown that was also tinged with controversy involving -- guess who? -- the officials over a replay ruling at a key moment in the fourth quarter.
Still, there was no denying the outcome and one fact remained: Alabama (9-0 overall, 6-0 SEC) moved a step closer to its second straight perfect regular season.
"It was a tough, physical game," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who beat his former team for the second straight year.
"Man, those games are fun to be a part of. We wanted to play our best game today. We kind of knew our destiny was ours in terms of what we wanted to do. We knew it was about what we would do in the game."
What Alabama did was change its offensive approach against LSU, which took a 15-10 lead into the fourth quarter despite losing quarterback Jordan Jefferson (ankle) and running back Charles Scott (broken collarbone) to injuries for most of the second half.
The Tigers (7-2, 4-2) also had won four straight games here but haven't fared well lately against top-10 teams. They have lost four straight after winning six in a row.
"I understand what happened, I am just unhappy with the outcome," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We'll regroup and fight again."
After uncharacteristically relying on the pass in the opening half against a LSU defense that was putting extra defenders near the line, the second half was more typical of the Tide's grinding style.
Alabama handed the ball to Ingram, who gained 106 of his 144 yards in the final 30 minutes to continue to merit serious Heisman Trophy consideration. Ingram averaged 6.5 yards on 22 carries, 16 in the second half. Mighty-Mark has 719 rushing yards against four ranked opponents this season.
The Crimson Tide also held a decisive advantage in time of possession in the fourth quarter -- 10:56 to 4:04.
Jones, quiet for most of the season due to injuries, caught a short pass near the line from quarterback Greg McElroy, made a quick move and sprinted down the sideline untouched for a touchdown with 10:24 remaining in the game. Trent Richardson's two-point conversion pushed Alabama back in the lead at 21-15.
"They needed me to make a play and I did," Jones said without a hint of emotion despite enjoying one of his best games of the season -- four catches for 102 yards, including his second touchdown.
"We practiced that all week. A situation like that, I feel like I should just step up and make the play.
"I did what I had to do."
A few feet away, senior left guard Mike Johnson, a few steps slower than Jones, couldn't wipe the grin from his face.
"I don't know if we have ever run that play before," said Johnson, who was one of the players who attempted to make the letter 'A' hand signal to represent Atlanta for the fans, signifying the location of the SEC title game.
"It was kind of a little action to the right, kind of where we let the tackle back out to the backside. I locked eyes with the linebacker and after I made my block I looked out there (on the flat).
"I saw a couple of blocks and Julio looked like he was just high-stepping. Other than that, I was looking for a yellow flag on the ground because it was too good to be true."
The Tide - specifically McElroy -- also breathed a sigh of relief at the 5:52 mark in the fourth quarter, when Patrick Peterson nearly picked off the Alabama quarterback's pass on the sidelines. However, after a lengthy review that proved inconclusive, Peterson was ruled out of bounds.
McElroy then completed a pass to Jones on third-and-7 to help Alabama move into field goal position.
"It was kind of like an 'Oh, shoot' moment,'" said McElroy, who completed 19-of-34 passes for 276 yards and two touchdowns. He opened the game with seven straight pass attempts and threw the ball on nine of its first 10 plays from scrimmage.
"What can you say," McElroy continued.
"It was a learning experience. Sometimes you have them go in your favor and that call did. It was a situation I should have thrown it away. It's frustrating to me that I could make a mistake like that in a key moment. But it also gives me confidence they were willing to put the ball in my hands in that situation."
The weather couldn't have been any better for early November -- sunny, low 70s with a slight breeze and not a cloud from here to possibly Atlanta. Of course, the Crimson Tide had clear sailing to the SEC title game with a victory.
In a game that was expected to be low on points, instead it had plenty of shoot-out drama. The game has decided the SEC West for four of the past five years.
"Anytime you lose it's bad, but when you lose in a big game like this, when we knew we had it, we where right there," LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard said.
"We knew we had to pull away. We needed to make a lot of adjustments on different plays. Alabama had a great scheme coming in. In the first half they had a hard time establishing the run but in the second half they did a really good job of moving the ball."
LSU's defense held its own through three quarters, but, in the end, it was the Tide's unit that set the tempo. It limited the Tigers to 253 total yards, 9 in the fourth quarter.
Jefferson and Scott were playing well before going to the sidelines. Scott ran for 83 yards and his 34-yarder was the longest run play given up by Alabama this season. Jefferson passed for 114 yards and also had some success running the option.
Needing two scores, backup quarterback Jarrett Lee and LSU couldn't get it to midfield in the final minutes.
"I don't think we played our best game but we did enough to win," Alabama safety Mark Barron said.
"LSU's offense did a couple things we weren't prepared for, so we had to make adjustments as the game went on. I feel like we did a pretty good job of that."