Alabama 35, Georgia 28: Alabama Wins SEC Title in an Eerily Familiar Rematch With Georgia
ATLANTA — In sports, there is bizarre, there is really bizarre and then there is just plain eerie, like top-ranked Alabama’s 35-28 victory over fourth-ranked Georgia on Saturday, which confirmed the Crimson Tide’s spot in the College Football Playoff, whose four-team bracket will be released Sunday.
The Southeastern Conference title game was nearly a mirror image of the national title game 11 months ago, also between these two teams, also in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
In last January’s game, Alabama Coach Nick Saban benched his two-year starting quarterback, Jalen Hurts, who struggled mightily in the first half against Georgia, for the freshman backup Tua Tagovailoa, who led the Crimson Tide to a victory in overtime. Tagovailoa has put together a Heisman Trophy-worthy season this year.
But on Saturday, it was Tagovailoa’s turn to struggle, and Hurts’s turn to bail Alabama out.
In the fourth quarter, with Alabama trailing by 7 but being outplayed worse than that, Tagovailoa exited with an injury. (Saban later said Tagovailoa had played with a sprained ankle since the first half and had his foot stepped on in the fourth quarter.)
Hurts, a junior, had spent the prime moments of Alabama’s perfect season sitting on the bench. But he came in and promptly led the Tide down the field, completing a 69-yard drive with a third-down scramble to the right that let him find receiver Jerry Jeudy streaking in the back of the end zone to tie the game, 28-28, with under six minutes left.
“It shows the type of character,” the Alabama offensive coordinator, Michael Locksley, said afterward. “Jalen had to always prepare himself so that when this opportunity came, he showed up and made the plays we needed.”
Added Saban, winner of six national titles: “I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen.”
The crowd, which until that time had seemed to favor the home state Bulldogs, roared for Alabama when Hurts’s pass tied the score.
On a later drive, Alabama stalled the Bulldogs offense, which had been so potent, at midfield. It got the ball there after a Georgia fake-punt play on fourth-and-11 failed.
Following that, Hurts hit tight end Irv Smith Jr. for 19 yards on a third-and-7, and then receiver Jaylen Waddle for 16 to put Alabama at the 15-yard line. On the next play, Hurts — arguably a run-first quarterback, in contrast to the pass-first Tagovailoa — tucked the ball and ran it for a touchdown.
It was Alabama’s first lead of the game, and, it turned out, the only one that would matter. Georgia’s final drive got as far as Alabama’s 39-yard line, from which a desperation pass fell incomplete as time ran out.
Alabama improved to 13-0 and iced a spot in the playoff, in whose rankings it had been No. 1.
The loss dropped Georgia to 11-2. The selection committee will primarily match its résumé against Oklahoma’s. The Sooners (12-1) entered Saturday ranked fifth to Georgia’s fourth, and in the Big 12 title game defeated Texas — 14th, according to the playoff committee, and the team Oklahoma lost to in October. Sixth-ranked Ohio State also improved to 12-1, with a 45-24 victory against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game.
Georgia’s losses came at Louisiana State (9-3), 10th in the latest playoff rankings, in October, and of course Saturday to the top-ranked Tide.
After the game, no less than Saban made the case for Georgia’s inclusion in the final four-team bracket: “Based on the teams that we’ve played this year, I think this team deserves to be in the playoff, as well. I sure as hell don’t want to play them again, but that’s the best compliment I can give you or give them.”
Hurts finished the game 7-for-9 passing with 82 yards passing, one throwing touchdown and one rushing touchdown. Locksley said Alabama’s offense accommodates both quarterbacks during practice.
“Jalen gets 50 percent of the reps when he’s healthy,” Locksley said. “We can run that whole offense — the same things we do with Tua, we do with Jalen.”
Georgia led for most of the game, and it felt like it. This in itself was remarkable: Alabama entered the game approximately a two-touchdown favorite. Its average scoring margin before Saturday was above five touchdowns; its closest victory had been by 22 points.
“Everyone wanted to know how we would respond when we got tested,” Locksley said, “and these guys stuck together.”
Tagovailoa entered this game a Heisman front-runner, completing 70 percent of his passes for nearly 12 yards per attempt, with a stunning 36 touchdowns against two interceptions.
But he was rattled on Alabama’s first drive — after a sack and an interception, he briefly entered Alabama’s sideline injury tent — and was far from himself for the rest of the game. Hurts took a couple of snaps in the first half as Alabama threw things at the wall to see what would stick.
Georgia’s modest 21-14 halftime lead did not fully indicate how desperate the outlook was for the Crimson Tide. For one thing, the deficit might have been larger: Late in the second quarter, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs coughed up the ball at Georgia’s goal line, a seeming touchback for Georgia, until the replay revealed Jacobs had ever so briefly recovered his own fumble in the end zone for a touchdown.
Midway through the third quarter, though, something seemed to click for Alabama. It held Georgia’s offense to a three-and-out. On the fourth play of the next drive, Tagovailoa hit Waddle, who took the ball 51 yards for a touchdown. Tagovailoa finished 10 of 25 for 164 yards.
Georgia managed just one first down on the next drive, Alabama’s pass rushers finally harassing the sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, who generally played superbly, finishing 25-for-39 passing with 301 yards and three touchdowns.
Georgia’s last score came not three minutes into the second half, though a missed 30-yard field-goal attempt midway through the third quarter did not help.
Still, Alabama appeared to be stalling again when Tagovailoa’s injury brought in Hurts full time. The rest was, truly, history.