ATLANTA — Even Hollywood screenwriters would have dismissed this plot line as too improbable and overly sappy.
On a stunning afternoon for the sport of college football, No. 1 Alabama came back from a two-touchdown deficit to beat No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game, 35-28, with backup quarterback Jalen Hurts — remember him? — leading a fourth-quarter comeback after starter Tua Tagovailoa left with a leg injury.
Though the final result was expected, it was the wildest of rides getting there. And it will undoubtedly give the College Football Playoff selection committee plenty to think about.
Here are five observations from another classic matchup between the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs:
Hurts so good: It was hard not to feel for Hurts this season. He had done little wrong in his career, losing just two games in two seasons as a starter, but lost his job anyway to Tagovailoa after months of offseason speculation about how Nick Saban would handle his two quarterbacks.
Many people expected Hurts to transfer, or perhaps shut down his season after four games to preserve his eligibility under a new NCAA rule. Instead, he stuck around, playing few meaningful snaps as Tagovailoa became the Heisman Trophy frontrunner.
But on a day where Tagovailoa was gimpy and ineffective (10-of-25, 164 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions), Hurts had to put the game on his shoulders with 11:15 remaining and Alabama trailing 28-21.
Though the circumstances were different from January’s national championship game when Saban benched Hurts at halftime with Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0 — this time, Tagovailoa went down in a heap, grabbing his right ankle and needing to be helped off the field — it was essentially a role reversal.
And all Hurts did was go 7-of-9 for 82 yards while scrambling for 28 yards on five carries, including the go-ahead touchdown from 15 yards out with 1:04 left.
“I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” Saban said. “It’s unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won, I think 26 or something, over a two-year period, start as a freshman, only lose a couple games this whole time that he was a starter, and then all of a sudden he’s not the quarterback. How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be, and for a guy that’s a great competitor, that takes a lot. It’s not easy to do.”
With a month to rest and heal, Tagovailoa should be ready for the semifinals on Dec. 29 and will undoubtedly retake his starting position. But Hurts earned a lot of redemption with this win after an admittedly frustrating season
“It kind of feels like I’m breaking my silence,” Hurts said. “I haven’t said anything all year, but this team has worked really hard.”
As usual, Hurts was understated in his tone and celebration. More than likely, these are his last games at Alabama, as he’s expected to pursue opportunities elsewhere next season. But still, it’s easy to feel good about getting that moment Saturday given the way he handled this whole situation.
“We played him as much as we could so that, if this came up, he was going to be ready,” Saban said. “I think it worked out great, and I think this is a great example of why guys don’t need to run off and just transfer every chance they get or every time something doesn’t work out. Jalen is going to be a more successful person in his life because of what he went through, not winning 26 games, but what he went through this year trying to be the kind of person who had to support other people after he was a star player.”
What the heck, Kirby: Georgia’s ill-advised fake punt on fourth-and-11 from midfield with 3:04 remaining will go down as one of the all-time dumbfounding coaching decisions in college football history.
In a tie game, Georgia ran what appeared to be a designed play for freshman backup quarterback/bluechip recruit Justin Fields to either run or pass. It didn’t even have a prayer of working.
The question is why Georgia would take such a huge risk when it could have pinned Alabama back near its own goal line in a tie game. Instead, it set up Alabama with great field position, and the Crimson Tide took advantage for the game-winning score just two minutes later.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart defended the call, saying it was a play the Bulldogs had been saving for two seasons and that they would have had a receiver wide open for the first down had the ball been snapped quicker.
“I felt like that was a great call because it was there,” Smart said. “We’ve seen their safe (formation). We know exactly what their safe is. They line up, and they don’t cover a guy. We’ve got a guy wide open, and he’s not going to be covered. But in the last second they saw it. And we had a way to check out of it, but we took too long to get it snapped, and I felt like it was a really good play. It was there. It got taken away at the last second, and we didn’t make the play.”
But why risk so much right then? It seemed like a bit of a panic move, as Georgia’s offense had stalled in the fourth quarter and its defense was wearing out.
“I wanted to be aggressive,” Smart said. “Look, I wasn’t coming here to play to tie, to play to keep it close. We came here to win the game. We wanted to win the game. These kids deserve to win the game, and we weren’t able to do it.”
Let the politicking begin: At the end of the third quarter, SEC spokesman Chuck Dunlap sent out the following Tweet: “#FourBestTeams @CFBPlayoff.” Even before the game was over and the result known, the SEC was making its case. In essence, it was this: Forget about the records, forget about the good wins, bad losses or whatever other teams have done. Two of the nation’s four best teams were on the field Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so if that’s the charge of the committee, put both in. We’ll see if they buy it after thrilling, close game in which Georgia came up just short.
Last year, Alabama got into the playoff as No. 4 despite failing to win the SEC West. Giving Georgia a pass with two losses (it got beat 36-16 at LSU on Oct. 13) would be wildly unpopular — especially with Oklahoma sitting there as a one-loss Big 12 champion — but you can certainly make an argument that Georgia might even be favored over every other team in the discussion.
What’s up with Tua?: The Heisman Trophy front-runner coming into the game went into the medical tent early after taking a sack in which his left leg/ankle seemed to bend a bit awkwardly. Even as Alabama has maintained that he’s healthy enough to play Tagovailoa has undeniably looked gimpy at various times down the stretch of the season. But whether it was physical or mental, the real issue for Alabama for much of this game was that his decision-making under pressure was downright poor.
Not only did he set the tone with a goal-line interception on Alabama’s first drive when he thought he had man coverage but didn’t read defensive back Richard LeCounte coming across the middle, but there were a few occasions when he seemed to just chuck it up to an area of the field under pressure without knowing who or what was there.
Once in the first half, he narrowly escaped a second interception. On the first drive of the second half, it cost him an intentional grounding flag.
Did Tagovailoa’s performance cost him the Heisman with Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray surging? We’ll see.
Learning experience: Alabama looked edgy and noticeably uncomfortable for much of the game until it found its stride late in the third quarter. You can probably attribute that to two factors: One, Georgia is by far the best team Alabama has faced all season; and two, Alabama simply had no experience being in the middle of a donnybrook.
When you’re used to boatracing everyone you play, as Alabama did in Weeks 1 through 12, it’s not too surprising that the Crimson Tide wasn’t ready for the pressure or physicality Georgia brought. Things were happening just a split-second quicker than Alabama was used to, and decisions that don’t have a lot of consequences when you’re up 28-0 are magnified in a game where everything matters.
“I don’t think we played our best game, and when it just comes to execution, doing the right things, making the right adjustments, not making a lot of mental errors. So there’s a lot to be learned from that,” Saban said. “And I think we’re going to try to use those lessons, and I liked Josh’s comment about I’m going to look at the things I need to do better. That’s kind of what we need our players to do. It’s not always good when you play bad and win because sometimes people aren’t thinking I’ve got to do something different. So it speaks volumes when we win and our players still think they have to make improvements and things because they recognize the fact that they could have played better.”
Frankly, it’s the kind of experience Alabama could have used at some point earlier this season. It’s not Alabama’s fault that it was able to physically overwhelm everyone it played, but it’s probably valuable that Alabama got some experience in those key third-and-8 moments when you’re trailing and need to keep the chains moving in this game rather than for the first time against someone like Clemson with a national title on the line.
But, like last year’s title game against Alabama, the Bulldogs couldn’t hold the lead. Now they’ll have to hope for a chance to make the field. Georgia finished 11-2 and will be competing with Big 12 champions Oklahoma, which ended its season at 12-1, and possibly Ohio State, which plays Northwestern later in the Big Ten title game.