Georgia comes close to title but falls to Alabama -- it’s Atlanta’s curse

One day, if Kirby Smart continues to work wonders with Georgia’s football program, there may be more SEC championship banners to hang. Maybe there even will be a national title or two to celebrate, assuming  the sports gods get tired of plunging pins into their Atlanta voodoo doll.

But that’s not now. Because all that happened Monday night was Georgia came as close as a team can possibly come to winning a championship without actually doing so.

Yeah, sounds familiar. Heartbreak continues, Atlanta.

Freshman Tua Tagovailoa threw a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime to give Alabama a 26-23 win over Georgia and with that the national championship that the Bulldogs have been starving for since 1980.

“It was within our reach,” wide receiver Mecole Hardeman said. “We had it. We kinda fumbled it. But it’s something we’ve got to learn from. It’s something you have to keep inside you to motivate you from this point out to try to get back here.”

> Photos: Georgia-Alabama battle in Atlanta

More pain-fueled motivation. I suspect Atlanta has long since had its fill of that. I believe this city and this stage was overflowing with pain-fueled motivation after the Super Bowl.

So close. So few parades. Misery plays on an endless loop.

The Bulldogs had leads of 13-0 and 20-7. They blew both.

The positive karma of Herschel Walker being in the building and even former coach Mark Richt Tweeting best wishes wasn’t enough. (Richt: “Good luck to the Dawgs tonight! I’m happy for the players, coaches, and the Georgia people! U Family!”)

Defeat appeared imminent with seconds left in regulation when Alabama’s kicker Andy Pappanastos pulled a 36-yard field-goal attempt, preserving a tie and sending Georgia to overtime for the second straight week.

One more chance. One more tease.

Rodrigo Blankenship rescued the offense with a 51-yard field goal following a sack to give the Dogs a 23-20 lead. Smart seemed on the verge so many times of becoming the first Nick Saban assistant to beat him in a game in 12 tries. But then Alabama got the ball. Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss on first down by Davin Bellamy, back to the 41-yard line and out of likely field goal range. But on second down, there was a breakdown in Georgia’s pass coverage. Smith ran past defensive back Malkom Parrish and safety Dominick Sanders had peeled off to the middle of the field, leaving the wide receiver wide open in the end zone.

Tagovailoa, inserted after halftime when Saban benched started Jalen Hurts, threw a strike. Ballgame.

Georgia heads bowed and hearts sank.

Running back Sony Michel, one of four seniors who came back this season, was having a difficult time remembering the positives of this season.

“Ultimately our goal is to finish and we didn’t finish,” he said. “Maybe next year’s team can do that.

“Nobody wants to come to the national championship and lose.”

A busted coverage decided the game. But, really, it never should have come to that. Georgia twice had 13-point leads in the third quarter. Georgia fans must’ve wondered: “Are we safe? Is this really happening? What number is Julian Edelman?”

But no lead is safe against great teams. Not 20-7. Not 28-3.

Tagovailoa ignited a comeback. He had a mad 9-yard scramble on third-and-7, breaking several tackles. Then he completed four straight passes, including a 6-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs.

Here we go.

Jake Fromm, the only freshman quarterback expected to play in this game, had an immediate response: an 80-yard touchdown strike to Mecole Hardeman on the fly down the right sideline. That made the score 20-7.

More breathing room. Not enough. Alabama’s defense stuffed Georgia on its next five possessions: an interception and four punts, including two three-and-outs. Then the defense wilted. An interception set up a field goal. Then came another field goal. Then Tagovailoa drove Alabama 66 yards in eight plays for the tying touchdown.

Pappanastos missed the 36-yarder, sending the game to overtime. Saban watched from the sideline and threw his hands in the air. The referee at midfield for the coin flip declared: “Congratulations to both teams. We still don’t have a champion.”

But the inevitable happened.

Vince Dooley won Georgia’s last national championship in his 17th season. Smart nearly won it in his second. Instead, Nick Saban won his sixth, including fifth in nine years for Alabama.

The extent of Georgia’s dramatic rise after last season could not have been expected. But Smart showed this season he was the right choice after Mark Richt’s firing. It wasn’t just that Georgia went 11-1 during the regular season but how it won. The Dogs showed resilience and toughness in a comeback win at Notre Dame, doing so with a freshman quarterback, Fromm, making his first start. They showed the stepped-on-their-throat mentality Georgia fans had been hungry for in lopsided wins over Mississippi State (31-1), Tennessee (41-0) and – let the angels sing – Florida (42-7).

They lost to Auburn, ending their run of undefeated brilliance. Then they body-slammed Auburn in the rematch for the SEC championship. Affirmation: This was real.

The Dogs went to the Rose Bowl to win a playoff game. Then they came home to try to win a championship.

It was defense, not surprisingly, that gave them an opportunity early. The Dogs held Alabama to 94 yards in five possessions and Hurts was a mere 3-for-8 for 21 yards.

Starting his second national title game in two years doesn’t buy you a long lifeline in Sabanville. Hurts was benched in the second half. Saban summoned Tagovailoa of Hawaii. So for the second half of a college football national championship game, we had two freshmen quarterbacks going at it. Wrap your heads around that, old school fans.

Fromm did his part for a while. It looked good for a while. It often does.

“It’s a tough in this sitiation where you fall so hard after you came so far and not come out on top,” said Nick Chubb, who was limited to 25 yards on 18 carries. “It’s definitely a loss I’ll always remember. Hopefiully it will drive these kids to come back next year.”

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