ATLANTA — Georgia’s historically dominant regular season gave way to a disappointing SEC Championship Game performance.
Alabama pulled off a shocking 41-24 upset on Saturday afternoon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, repeating as SEC champions and denying Coach Kirby Smart what would have been his second SEC title in six years before the crowd of 78,030.
The good news for the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs is they will likely get a second chance as one of the top four teams in the nation when the College Football Playoff rankings come out at noon on Sunday
That would allow Georgia (12-1) plenty of time to hit the reset button before appearing in one of the two CFP semifinals on Dec. 31 at the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas, or the Orange Bowl in Miami Gardens, Fla.
There will be plenty of things for Smart to work on after his record-setting defense, which allowed a nation-best 6.9 points per game (the best since 1986 Oklahoma’s 6.75) during the regular season had a shocking meltdown in the first game of the postseason.
Alabama quarterback Bryce Young was 26-of-44 passing for 421 yards with 3 touchdowns and rushing for another 40 yards, accumulating an SEC-record 461 total yards.
Young likely clinched the Heisman Trophy while also assuring the Tide a spot in the College Football Playoffs and an opportunity to defend its national championship.
Virtually no one saw Saturday’s upset coming, a fact supported by the overwhelming majority of Georgia red in the stands, which outnumbered supporters wearing Crimson by a 3 to 1 ratio.
The outcome seemed even more unlikely after Georgia dominated the first quarter, outgunning Alabama 159-46.
The Bulldogs scored a TD on the first play of the second quarter on a 5-yard pass from Stetson Bennett to Darnell Washington to take a 10-0 lead, and it appeared to be business as usual.
Instead, Young and Alabama (12-1) heated up, taking advantage of busts in the Georgia secondary and the Bulldogs’ sudden inefficiency on offense.
The Tide scored on its next five possessions with Young scrambling and buying time each time the Georgia pass rush — which failed to record a sack — closed in.
Jameson Williams took advantage of a blown assignment in the second quarter to spark the comeback, reeling in a pass and outracing Christopher Smith to the end zone for a 67-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 10-7.
Georgia went three-and-out on its next two drives, and the Tide answered with scores, another touchdown and a field goal to make it 17-10.
Georgia tied the game at 17-17 with a 3-play, 75-yard drive aided by three penalties on the Alabama secondary. Ladd McConkey took a receiver screen from Bennett and cut back, slipping a tackle and racing 32-yard for a touchdown at the 2:06 mark.
Alabama got the ball back and UGA’s secondary repaid the favor, busting a coverage on a third-and-10 that enabled the Tide to convert and move the ball into Georgia territory. Four plays later, Young scrambled for an 11-yard touchdown.
The Tide got the ball first in the second half and scored on its opening drive, rendering whatever adjustments Smart and his defensive staff made meaningless to take a 31-14 lead.
Georgia’s offense, meanwhile, struggled in the second half.
Bennett, who finished 29-of-48 passing for 340 yards, had two costly interceptions and came up empty in the red zone on another possession.
Bennett had a soft throw intercepted at the Alabama 9-yard line on UGA’s opening drive of the second half when he threw into coverage on second-and-9 at the Tide 19.
On the next drive, Bennett threw incomplete on fourth-and-9 at the Tide 20, panicked into a quick throw when pressured by Alabama safety Jordan Battle.
The Tide’s lead was still at 31-17 when Bennett threw a Pick-6 that all but ended the game, Battle returning it 42 yards as Alabama’s lead swelled to 38-17 with 11:50 remaining.
Georgia tight end Brock Bowers gave the Bulldogs’ fans one final moment to cheer for when he took a short pass 18 yards for a touchdown, breaking three tackles and closing out UGA’s scoring with Bama still up by two touchdowns.
Bowers had an SEC-record for tight ends with 139 yards on 10 catches.
The CFP Selection show is at noon tomorrow on ESPN.