ATLANTA – For a complete report on Saturday’s SEC Championship Game and Major Heart Surgery With a Butter Knife, you may read on.
Like a bad truck stop burrito, Alabama just keeps coming back on Georgia. It never seems to change for Bama. Struggle early. Change quarterbacks. Celebrate in Atlanta.
So went another excruciating day in the big city for the neighboring Bulldogs. They came from ahead to lose Saturday’s SEC Championship game inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium to the unbeaten and top-ranked Crimson Tide 35-28.
Just losing wasn’t bad enough. This loss ran right over the scar tissue from Georgia’s overtime loss to Bama in the national championship game here just 11 months ago.
Only this time, throw in a large dose of second-guessing, as Kirby Smart’s call to go for a fake punt on fourth-and-11 at midfield with just over two minutes left in a tie game spectacularly misfired. That gave Alabama a half-a-field head start on the winning touchdown drive.
“Thought it was there, and it was there today,” the Georgia coach said of the direct snap to the up man in the punt formation, freshman quarterback Justin Fields. Needing 11 yards, Fields rushed for only 2. Smart suggested the play was intended to be a pass, but then broke down.
Five plays later, Hurts tucked away the ball and ran the final 15 yards for a touchdown, giving the Tide the lead for the first time Saturday with just 1:04 left to play. Georgia won many of the previous 59 minutes, but will receive no trophy for that accomplishment.
Smart’s most defiant explanation for the fake: “We came to win the game. We wanted to win the game.”
And to think, Saturday had begun so promisingly for the Bulldogs. It always begins promisingly for them against the Tide.
Barely four minutes into the game, Alabama was experiencing a sensation new to it this season – discomfort.
Throwing into the same end zone where 11 months ago his pass to DeVonta Smith had ended overtime and won the national championship at Georgia’s expense, Tagovailoa was intercepted by Bulldogs safety Richard LeCounte. It was only the third interception this season by the nation’s leader in passing efficiency.
Alabama’s angst was further heightened when Tagovailoa, who had been dealing with a balky knee since early October, ducked into the team’s sideline medical tent after that play seeking attention away from prying eyes.
Tagovailoa carried on, although he never seemed quite right the rest of the night. Meanwhile, Georgia went about the business of proving it, too, had a pretty fair quarterback.
Jake Fromm had a brilliant day, finishing 25-of-39 for 301 yards and 3 passing touchdowns. On the Bulldogs’ first score, Fromm’s arm accounted for all but 2 yards of the 60-yard drive. The final strike was a 20-yarder over the middle to tight end Isaac Nauta.
In its unbeaten regular season, in which no team had come within three touchdowns of beating it, Alabama had trailed for a grand total of 75 seconds. Georgia would carry an advantage a good deal longer than that. Just not long enough.
Georgia was a first-half juggernaut, adding touchdown drives of 74 and 51 yards to put them up 21-7 with just four minutes left in the first half.
The Bulldogs were controlling the ball, possessing it for nearly 21 of the first 30 minutes. Fromm was unerring – over one stretch completing 10 consecutive passes (tying a SEC Championship game record). And then Georgia tailback D’Andre Swift began putting his fingerprints all over the stat sheet. He ran for one of those first-half scores – a 9-yard sprint – and caught a pass for another – an 11-yard hook-up.
No team had scored more than 23 points against Alabama this season. And here was Georgia nearly hitting that ceiling in the first 26 minutes of Saturday.
That seemed to be the sharp stick in the eye that the Bama offense needed to rile it up a bit. But even its answering touchdown, just four plays after Swift’s catch made the score 21-7, wasn’t the typical forceful response you’d expect of Alabama. It was as much good fortune as it was good football.
For as Bama’s Josh Jacobs lunged for the goal line, the ball popped loose, raising the specter of a second turnover on the doorstep to a touchdown. But some force of nature kept the ball within Jacobs reach. Laid out, he was able to pull it in and hold it aloft just long enough to make it an Alabama touchdown.
History repeats itself
So, here was Georgia, up at halftime against mighty Alabama, looking quite serious about shocking the world. Eleven months ago, that same vision was a mirage. A cruel tease. The necessary build-up to the let-down.
Surely that couldn’t happen again.
But when the usually sure-thing kicker Rodrigo Blankenship missed a 30-yard field-goal attempt midway in the third quarter, the omens started to take an ugly turn for Georgia.
The Bulldogs rebuilt the lead to 14 early in the second half (28-14) when Fromm laid a perfect over-the-shoulder, 23-yard touchdown delivery to Riley Ridley. It wasn’t much of a window Fromm threw into, more a narrow transom.
They blunted one Alabama drive later in the third quarter when safety J.R. Reed intercepted a ball on the Georgia 3-yard line.
And still that wasn’t enough. Dynasties don’t exactly yield like wet cardboard.
Nor did Bama buckle when Tagovailoa, caught up in the backwash of another Georgia rush, had to be helped off the field for the last time with a bum ankle with about 12 minutes left to play.
Hurts so good
For Hurts was ready for his moment. Once the star, he instantly, instinctually, picked up the role again. He led a 16-play, seven-minute drive to tie the score at 28-28, using his scrambling ability to keep the last play alive long enough to find Jerry Jeudy for a 10-yard scoring pass.
Then, with just a little more than a minute left to play, Hurts’ keeper from 15 yards out was the last dagger in an old wound.
“Same as last time,” said Swift, who finished with 75 rushing yards and another 63 receiving. “A new quarterback comes in and we get beat. Can’t dwell on it, but it’s still gonna hurt.”
“Jalen came in and surprised us a bit, a more mobile quarterback,” Bulldogs defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said. “Those are adjustments you’ve got to make in a game.”
What was left afterward for a two-loss Georgia was to try to make the case that a narrow, heart-breaking loss to lordly Alabama shouldn’t eliminate it from consideration for the four-team college playoff field. The playoff committee will render its verdict Sunday afternoon.
Smart made his stump speech: “Well, it boils down to one thing. Do you want the four best teams in or not? It’s that simple.”
Noting that Alabama won it all a season ago after not even playing in the SEC Championship, Smart added, “They sat at home last year and got to go in the game while everybody else is beating each other up. Give that coach across the sideline [Saban] a vote who he doesn’t want to play. He’ll start with us. I promise you, you don’t want to play us.”
Rewriting the script and beating Alabama would have made for a far more convincing argument.