ATLANTA — Maybe next time Georgia plays Alabama, it should take it easy early and just let the Crimson Tide jump out front. When it comes to playing to them in championship games, the Bulldogs aren’t very good at playing from ahead.
For the second time in 11 months, Georgia had a two-score lead on Bama in the second half and a chance to extend it from there. But, just like in last January’s national title game, the Bulldogs couldn’t hold on in the SEC Championship as the Crimson Tide came from behind for a 35-28 victory
The loss dropped No. 4-ranked Georgia to 11-2 overall and likely knocked it out of a second straight berth in the College Football Playoffs. No. 1 Alabama, which had won its previous games this season by an average of 35 points per game, improves to 12-0.
Georgia led 28-14 with midway through the third quarter and was poised to expand that to 31-14 when place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship uncharacteristically hooked a 30-yard field goal attempt wide left. At the time of the missed kick, the Bulldogs had out-gained Alabama 340 yards to 140 yards.
The Crimson Tide would out-gain Georgia 263 yards to 114 the rest of the way.
“We couldn’t close the deal,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I don’t know why that is. We’re going to figure it out, though. I can promise you that. We’re a few plays away.”
The Bulldogs will find out around lunchtime Sunday just how costly of a loss it was. As it is, Georgia won’t repeat as SEC champions. Despite the protestations of Smart and Alabama coach Nick Saban, the defeat likely will knock the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoffs.
If so, Georgia will be relegated to playing in a New Year’s Six bowl, more than likely the Sugar Bowl against either Texas or Oklahoma, depending on whether the Sooners jump into the Top 4.
That will be left up to a committee of men and women to decide. For the first time all season, the Bulldogs lost control of their own destiny.
Quarterback Jake Fromm really did some incredible work for the Bulldogs. He was nearly flawless for the first three quarters of the game, failing to complete only two of his passes through the first 2 1/2 quarters, with two others being dropped. The sophomore finished with 301 yards and 3 TDs on 25-of-39 passing and completed passes to nine different receivers, including 4 for 81 yards and a TD to tight end Isaac Nauta.
But Fromm wasn’t without fault. His decision to slide down short of the first-down marker late in the third quarter left the Bulldogs two yards shy and they failed on third down. But Fromm was 5-of-9 on third down at halftime and Georgia piled up 454 total yards.
Also, with 66 yards rushing Saturday, sophomore D’Andre Swift went over 1,000 yards for the season. He now has 1,037. Swift also had two catches for 17 yards and two touchdowns, on on a nine-yard run and another on an 11-yard reception.
Fromm was sacked twice in the second half.
The Bulldogs did a great job against Tua Tagovailoa, recording two sacks and pressuring him several more times before knocking him out of the game for good with a knee injury early in the fourth quarter. That ended up not being a great thing as backup quarterback Jalen Hurts came off the bench to reignite the Alabama offense. He led the Crimson Tide on touchdowns on both of his series over the final 11:15 of play.
Before that, Georgia was positively dominant. They had two interceptions and forced two fumbles, though Alabama recovered both, but failed to score any points off the turnovers. The Crimson Tide struck for three explosive plays, a 59-yard run by freshman running back Josh Jacobs, who was named the game’s MVP, a 51-yard touchdown pass by Tagovailoa to Jaylen Waddle and a 23-yard run by Hurts.
When the game was on the line late, Georgia’s defense couldn’t come up with stops. The Tide converted three third downs — including one third-and-12 — on a 16-play, 80-yard drive that tied the game at 28 with 5:19 to play. Alabama would convert a third-and-8 on its final game-winning drive.
Overall, Georgia held the Tide way below their season averages of 49 points and 538 yards per game. Alabama finished with 403 yards. Junior safety J.R. Reed and senior linebacker Tae Crowder led the Bulldogs with eight tackles apiece. D’Andre Walker added 5 stops along with 2 TFLs and a sack and wreaked havoc all night.
SPECIAL TEAMS: F
Special teams was the one area that Georgia had a decided advantage going into Saturday’s matchup with Alabama. Ironic, then, that two special teams failures — a missed chip-shot field goal and a fake punt — would be so pivotal to the Bulldogs losing the game.
Blankenship has been the epitome of dependable for the Bulldogs all season, but his missed 30-yarder Saturday was extremely costly. The left hook not only kept Georgia from building a three-score lead midway through the third quarter, but it swung the momentum to Alabama’s sideline, where it would remain for the rest of the game.
With three minutes remaining in the game and the score tied, Smart inserted freshman backup quarterback Justin Fields as the upback to try a fake. Designed as a pass to running back D’Andre Swift, Swift was covered and Fields ran the ball for a 2-yard gain on fourth-and-11 at the 50. Alabama took the gifted field position and needed only five plays to make the winning score.
Those were just the most notable failures. Brian Herrien, a deep safety alongside Mecole Hardman on kickoffs, let a short kick land in front of him, then struggled to gather it up at the 2. He was tackled at the 6. Also, punter Jake Camarda had three touchbacks in the game.
On the positive side, Blankenship was 5-for-5 on touchbacks kicking off and Hardman had 52 yards in kickoff and punt returns.
Smart and coordinators Jim Chaney, James Coley and Mel Tucker deserve credit for coming in with a strong game plan and having the Bulldogs in peak condition both physically and mentally. The Bulldogs were the clearly better team for three-quarters of the contest. But their failings in the final 20 minutes of play were colossal, none more than the decision to fake a punt on fourth-and-11 at midfield in a tied game with three minutes to play. Like Georgia’s other to failed kick fakes this season, Smart insisted “it was there” based on formation and personnel. Only, it wasn’t. The play is designed for Fields to throw the ball to running back D’Andre Swift when the opponent is in punt safe. But Swift was covered and the freshman Fields panicked and ran.
The failure, though, was in even attempting such a high-risk play with the game on the line. The prudent strategy is to punt the ball and hope to pin the Tide deep. Even a touchback leaves them with 80 yards to go in three minutes. Meanwhile, Tucker’s defense didn’t react well to the change of Hurts at quarterback after Tua Tagovailoa was knocked out the game. And the offense scored only 7 points after halftime.
The loss has to be kept in perspective due to the level of competition. Nobody had competed with Alabama all season, the Tide winning their previous 12 games by an average of 35 points. The fact is, the two best teams in America reside in the same league and were competing for the conference championship. The fact that Georgia led Bama by two touchdowns and should’ve gotten up by three scores was a testament to skill, power and excellence residing within a decidedly young football team.
But the Bulldogs and their young head coach are still a work in progress when it comes to playing with poise and intelligence in the biggest ballgames. Georgia should’ve won but didn’t because of that.