The final play reminded me of another game I’d covered, and no, not Super Bowl 51. (We’ve covered that one here.) The final play reminded me of the 2012 SEC championship, which also pitted Georgia against Alabama and was likewise played in this city.
On that day, Georgia led by double figures. On that day, Georgia did not win. On that day, Georgia saw a national championship escape. (There was no playoff then, but the Bulldogs would surely have beaten Notre Dame for the BCS title.) On that day, Georgia was undone by a pass by an Alabama quarterback to a receiver who’d blown past his defender down the left sideline.
> Photos: Bulldogs’ dreams turn to dejection
That day’s winning touchdown: A.J. McCarron to Amari Cooper, who’d beaten Damian Swann, from 45 yards out. This night’s winning touchdown: Tua Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith, who’d beaten Malkom Parrish, from 41 yards away. (Dominick Sanders probably should have helped.) The McCarron-Cooper connection spanned 45 yards and came with 3:15 remaining. The Bulldogs would reach Bama’s 5-yard line, where they saw time expire after Chris Conley fell while grabbing Aaron Murray’s pass, which had been deflected by the blitzing C.J. Mosley. Kirby Smart was on the winning side that day.
Not this time. His team led Bama by 13 at halftime and by 10 with 10 minutes remaining. One week after winning the Rose Bowl 54-48 in overtime, Georgia lost the championship game 26-23 in overtime. So that’s twice that Alabama has denied the Bulldogs a national title. Of Nick Saban’s six championships, three have come at Georgia’s expense. (His 2003 LSU Tigers beat Georgia for the SEC title.)
I don’t really know that the Bulldogs did much wrong Monday. They overwhelmed Alabama in the first half. Through three quarters, they’d outgained the Crimson Tide 333 yards to 191. It’s not easy to protect a lead against a good opponent – do you dare to throw and risk stopping the clock, or do you try to run the ball, punt and play defense – and Georgia couldn’t.
The Bulldogs netted only 32 yards and two first downs in the fourth quarter and overtime. They would wind up being outgained 371 yards to 365. Alabama’s final four possessions: field goal, touchdown, missed 36-yard field goal at the end of regulation, walk-off touchdown in OT.
I don’t know that the Bulldogs did much wrong except get run down by an opponent that, once it got going, proved impossible to stop. Something similar had happened that day in 2012. Bama trailed by 11 points in the third quarter after Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown, whereupon Saban ordered his offense, perhaps counterintuitively, to start pounding the ball. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon eventually wore the Bulldogs to frazzle, and McCarron’s throw off play-action to Cooper was the inevitable consequence.
This time Saban benched his All-SEC quarterback at halftime, replacing Jalen Hurts with the freshman Tagovailoa, who still hasn’t started a collegiate game. Tagovailoa, from Hawaii, was considered the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback among last year’s signing class, and he’s held in high regard by Tide fans, who kept calling to him during Saturday’s media day at Philips Arena.
Still: He’d never played in a game of this magnitude, and all he did was win the thing. That Saban trusted him tells us something about Tagovailoa and more about Saban. He wins national championships for a reason. He ordered the onside kick that changed a game going Clemson’s way two Januarys ago; now this.
I’m sure Jim Chaney will review his play calls in the fourth quarter: Jake Fromm didn’t throw a pass until Bama had tied the game, whereupon he threw an incompletion, a short incompletion and another incompletion. He was sacked to end Georgia’s first series of the fourth and its only series of overtime.
The Bulldogs were actually lucky to nose ahead in OT on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal. (They were lucky even to be in overtime, the Tide’s Andy Pappanastos shanking a 36-yarder at the end of regulation.) But when Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss by Davin Bellamy and Jonathan Ledbetter on Alabama’s first OT snap, you figured Georgia might just pull this out. Nope. Next play: Touchdown, championship.
Did the game get too big and too fast for Georgia? Maybe a bit. The Bulldogs were really good for three quarters and coulda/shoulda won. They just didn’t. And if that sounds like another game you’ve watched recently, a game involving a pro football team based in this city … well, I feel your pain.
A wild game came down to Saban’s team -- always Saban -- exploiting the one thing Georgia didn’t do well, meaning cover downfield. A wild game was decided on a pass on second-and-26, when you’re not exactly playing for a toss-sweep. Alabama got what it needed when it needed it. Alabama always does.