‘An Overwhelming Feeling’: L.S.U. Solves the Alabama Puzzle

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Somewhere down in the bayou, you can be certain that candles were lit, Hail Marys were paired with bloody marys and gris-gris were lovingly caressed again on Saturday afternoon. It is the way they mark Alabama day during the college football season.

For the last eight years, as the calendar has turned over, that appointment has carried with it the dread of inevitability, stamping an expiration date on whatever great expectations Louisiana State had built to that point in the season.

Alabama has Nick Saban as its coach, but the truth is, for a decade now, he has lorded over two programs — his own and the one at L.S.U., where he won a national championship in the 2003 season before an unsavory sabbatical in the N.F.L. (and a mountain of money) lured him back to the college game.

The Tigers have had fine coaches in the meantime: grass-nibbling Les Miles, who won a national title of his own in the 2007 season, with some of Saban’s players, and the one-of-us Ed Orgeron. Each university has churned out N.F.L. players and each has won a lot of games.

But there has been a discernible difference between the programs, which comes into relief each time they meet: Alabama always appears to have all the answers.

“In recruiting, they say if you go to L.S.U., we’re going to beat you,” said L.S.U. safety JaCoby Stevens, one of a large contingent that has been recruited by both teams.

So if L.S.U.’s 46-41 victory over Alabama on Saturday marked a shift in the hegemony of the Southeastern Conference and a further jumbling of the College Football Playoff picture, it was more profound than that for the Tigers.

They had arrived emboldened, ready to be tested by the environment and Alabama’s championship determination, but encouraged by Orgeron’s proclamation early in the week that they were the better team. Thus, when their eight-game head-to-head losing streak, which began in the 2011 national championship game, had been laid to rest, there was a catharsis that came with it.

“Being a guy from Baton Rouge, coming in here playing for my home city — grew up 20 minutes away from campus,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said after rushing for three touchdowns and catching another. “I can’t put it in words. Just an overwhelming feeling.”

A moment later, Edwards-Helaire, who was visibly emotional immediately after the game, tried again.

“Understand there were plenty of guys that came before me that didn’t win a game,” he said. “Five-year seniors that didn’t win a game here against Alabama.”

The question now for L.S.U. is what happens on the way to the coronation? The Tigers are likely to ascend to the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings when they are announced on Tuesday. (They were No. 1 in the Associated Press poll that was released on Sunday.) Also, the Heisman Trophy is Joe Burrow’s to lose after his latest quarterbacking master class.

Ahead is a trip to Mississippi on Saturday; a visit from Arkansas, which just fired its coach; and a final home game against Texas A&M, which beat the Tigers in eight overtimes last season.

Then comes the SEC championship game, almost certainly against Georgia.

The Tigers, with a résumé that includes wins over Texas, Florida, Auburn and Alabama — all in the top 10 when they played — can almost assuredly afford a slip-up.

There are few others, though, that can say that. Perhaps only Ohio State, which has thoroughly dominated a middling slate of opponents. Clemson is the defending national champion and has won 25 consecutive games, but its schedule is exceedingly soft.

The final four weeks of the regular season are shaping up as a free-for-all chase for the final berth in the four-team Playoff.

Minnesota, which struggled to beat South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern, is nevertheless undefeated after upsetting Penn State on Saturday. The Gophers climbed from 13th to seventh in the A.P. poll, but they are not likely to be that high in the C.F.P. poll, where they were ranked 17th last week. Baylor, which is also 9-0 against a modestly more difficult schedule, dropped a spot, to 12th, in the A.P. poll after winning at Texas Christian. It will have a chance to burnish its credentials when it hosts 10th-ranked Oklahoma on Saturday.

The Pac-12 division leaders, Oregon and Utah, saw their hopes grow a flicker brighter during a bye week, but their problem is that the best line on either one’s résumé was Oregon’s lone loss — against Auburn to open the season.

All of this is good news for Alabama.

“We don’t want to waste a failure,” Saban said after Saturday’s game, knowing full well that if the Tide win their final three games (at Mississippi State, home against Western Carolina and at rival Auburn) it may well reach the Playoff for the sixth consecutive season. Alabama reached the Playoff in 2017 after finishing behind Auburn in the SEC West and proceeded to win the national championship.

What could sink Alabama is if Georgia wins its regular-season games (including Saturday at Auburn) and beats L.S.U. in the SEC championship game.

Still, after the way Alabama was beaten — looking like the lesser team on its home field against a team it had befuddled for years — perhaps Orgeron’s defiance was understandable after he headed to an interview room. This wasn’t quite Jim Harbaugh coming after Pete Carroll, but he had a message for the other side.

“We comin’,” Orgeron growled. “We comin’. This won’t be the last time.”

And the next time might not be far off.