Alabama coach Nick Saban was 11-0 facing his former assistants entering Monday night’s fourth College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T, against Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in frosty Atlanta. Saban has not gotten to where he is by missing any tricks. He knows his opponents inside and out, especially Smart who coached under him for 11 years. Smart is in his second season at Georgia.
While Smart and UGA may well be the future, Alabama is the present of college football, and for the fifth time in nine years, they are national champions. It was a game in which all things appeared equal, but the greatest college football coach ever further cemented his legacy.
Badly outplayed in all phases and down 13-0 at halftime, Saban knew he had to shake things up. The overly conservative game plan was scrapped and in its place were attitude and a lightning bolt in the form of freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa. Tua, from St. Louis High in Honolulu (the same school that produced Marcus Mariota), had only seen action in mop-up roles this season most notably the second half against Vanderbilt.
Jalen Hurts, 25-2 as the starter, clearly lost his confidence in the passing game as the season wore on. In the first half he gave up on pass plays almost immediately, choosing to run. He got away with it in the semifinal against Clemson. He was not fooling them in this game. Hurts was 3-of-8 for only 21 yards passing, he rushed for 47 but the offense was at a standstill against the stout Georgia defense.
So Tua started the second half and the difference was immediate. On his first possession, he just missed Calvin Ridley deep, but it stretched the defense and showed a willingness to do so. On the next drive on third down, Tua miraculously eluded the Georgia rush, and ran 54 yards in a nine-yard gain. He ended the drive with a six-yard dart to Henry Ruggs III to pull ‘Bama within 13-7. But Georgia answered immediately. Their freshman QB, Jake Fromm, hit Mecole Hardman on an 80-yard TD to make the lead 20-7. It would be the only real offensive spark of the second half for the ‘Dawgs.’
A pair of Andy Pappanastos field goals drew Alabama closer, then Tagovailoa hit Ridley from seven yards out, and the game was tied at 20 with 3;49 remaining. When the Tide quickly got the ball back and easily moved downfield, the result seemed a foregone conclusion. But it was clear from the pregame warm-ups that Pappanastos had the yips, so playing for a winning field goal seemed shaky at best. It was no surprise when Pappanastos badly missed from 36 to send the game into overtime.
Pressure got to everyone, including the freshman quarterbacks, each taking a sack in the extra period. Terrell Lewis’ sack of Fromm forced a 51-yard FG from Rodrigo Blankenship, 23-20 UGA. On Alabama’s first play of OT, Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy teamed for a sack of Tagovailoa back to the 41, second-and-26. Tagovailoa dropped back, and the play was called ‘Seattle.’ Four wide receivers ran streak patterns deep downfield. Tua looked off the safety and threw down the left sideline for fellow freshman Devonta Smith, who made the catch on the full sprint into the shocked Georgia end zone and it was done: Alabama 26, Georgia 23!
Saban ties Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant with his sixth championship, and Alabama wins its 12th in the poll era and 17th overall.