ATLANTA – Reportedly, they will still conduct a National Championship Game next month outside San Francisco. But, for all practical purposes, it was waged Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium between Georgia and Alabama for a second straight year.
And for the second straight year, Alabama won it with a backup quarterback coming off the bench.
Jalen Hurts came off the bench in the second half to relieve an injured Tua Tagovailoa and lead the No. 1-ranked Crimson Tide to two fourth-quarter touchdown drives. On the second one, Hurts ran the ball from 15 yards out for the game-winning score with 1:04 to play. Bama broke Georgia’s heart again, 35-28.
Tagovailoa came off the bench in the second half in last year’s national championship game to lead Alabama to a 26-23 come-from-behind victory in overtime.
Georgia had 57 seconds remaining in the game after Hurts’ touchdown and a 36-yard kickoff return by Mecole Hardman. The Bulldogs would get the ball to the Alabama 39 before they had to call their final timeout with 3 seconds remaining to set up a final play.
Jake Fromm’s Hail Mary attempt was batted out of the back of the end zone, and Alabama had beaten Georgia on the last play once again.
While Hurts was the unlikely hero for the Crimson Tide, Kirby Smart was the goat for Georgia. Alabama’s game-winning drive was set up by his decision to have the Bulldogs attempt a fake punt on fourth-and-11 at midfield with the game tied at 28-28 with 3:04 to play.
Smart sent in Fields as the up back on the punt team and the snap was sent to him instead of punter Jake Camarda. Alabama was not fooled. Fields was stopped for a two-yard loss and the Crimson Tide took over on downs at their own 48-yard line.
Alabama then almost scored too fast. They needed only five plays to cover the 52 yards to the goal line. In the middle of it was another third-down conversion on third-and-8. Hurts had several of those in the critical moments, and this one came on a 16-yard completion to Jaylen Waddle when Georgia’s Tyrique McGhee fell down in coverage.
Georgia was also at strategic fault for taking the ball the out the hands of Fromm for much of the second half. The sophomore from Warner Robins had finished with 301 yards and 3 touchdowns on 25-of-39 passing. But only 66 of that came in the fourth quarter as the Bulldogs tried to sit on a one-touchdown lead.
Georgia led 28-14 midway through the third quarter and could’ve extended the lead to 31-14. But Rodrigo Blankenship hooked a 30-yard field goal try wide left for a rare miss. Alabama would then get within one score with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to Waddle with 3:02 remaining in that quarter.
The first half Saturday felt exactly like the one Georgia and Alabama played 11 months ago in the national championship game. That is, the Bulldogs were the aggressors and looked at times like the dominant team. That was especially true after Georgia’s fifth offensive possession of the game when the Bulldogs went 51 yards in six plays and Swift scored a walk-in touchdown on an 11-yard reception from Fromm. That made it 21-7 with 4:05 remaining in the half.
At that point, Fromm had completed 10 passes in a row – tying an SEC record – and had only three incompletions in the half, two of them drops by receivers.
Georgia led 13-0 at the half and 20-7 in the third quarter of last year’s national title game here. The Bulldogs eventually lost 26-23 overtime.
Alabama answered on Saturday the way it did then. On first down from its 25, running back Josh Jacobs, a freshman from Miami, found a hole at left guard and broke outside for a 59-yard gain. Two more runs got the Tide down to the Georgia 1, and an offsides call on the Bulldogs got them a half-yard closer.
On the next play, another Jacobs run, Georgia thought it had come away with the football, and the officials on the field thought so as well. Jacobs had the ball knocked loose and Jay Hayes recovered in the end zone for an apparent touchback. But a video replay review showed that Jacobs had regained possession of the football just inside the end zone, and Georgia’s J.R. Reed knocked it loose only after the touchdown had been scored. The overrule cut the Bulldogs’ lead to 21-14 with 2:18 remaining in the half.
Disaster nearly struck Georgia on the ensuing kickoff. Deep return man Brian Herrien inexplicably let the ball hit the ground on a short kickoff inside the 10. When Herrien finally scooped up the ball at the 2, he was surrounded by Bama’s pursuit and tackled after only a four-yard return at the 6.
That left the Bulldogs in tough shape at their with only 2:13 remaining. Bama was calling timeouts to preserve game clock before Jake Camarda had to punt from Georgia’s end zone. But Camarda and the Bulldogs were bailed out after a short punt when the Tide was flagged for incidental contact. The five-yard penalty resulted in a Georgia first down, and the Bulldogs were able to run out the rest of the clock on three plays and another punt.