ATLANTA — Alabama, the team being debated as college football’s greatest ever, was actually in trouble. Again.
Midway through the third quarter Saturday in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Crimson Tide trailed a feisty Georgia team bent on revenge.
The Bulldogs hadn't forgotten January’s overtime loss here in the CFP National Championship Game, and they were trying to hold onto its spot in this year’s CFP semifinals.
Georgia had a 14-point lead, and even though Rodrigo Blankenship blanked out and hooked a 30-yard field-goal try left with 8:20 to go in the third quarter, the Bulldogs were outplaying Bama in this rematch. Easily.
Adding to Alabama’s problems: With just over 11 minutes left in the game, down seven points, its Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, was laying on the turf, clutching his right ankle after he got stepped on by a teammate left tackle Jonah Williams, who was trying to pass-block.
Tua never returned. But Jalen Hurts did.
And oh, how he ended up making it hurt for Georgia, leading an incredible 35-28 comeback win.
You remember Jalen, of course. He’s the quarterback Nick Saban yanked in favor of Tagovailoa after an ineffective first half in the CFP title game, the Crimson Tide trailing 13-0. Tua led a 26-23 comeback win, throwing the winning touchdown pass to Amite receiver DeVonta Smith.
All season, Tagovailoa relegated Hurts to the Bama bench until, with the Tide leading 100-3 after three quarters, Saban would insert Hurts to just move “the process” on to its next victim.
Alabama didn’t need Hurts. Until now. When it really needed him. The Crimson Tide looked like Mike Tyson in that 1990 loss to Buster Douglas, all invincibility and armor plating until its opponent stripped all that away.
Most teams would have been in a serious fix, down a touchdown to a really good team with their starting quarterback unable to play. Remember LSU coach Ed Orgeron saying how, for a long stretch this season, he had to stop letting Joe Burrow run much because backup Myles Brennan was injured? The Tigers, like most teams, had no appealing options.
Of course, Alabama isn’t most teams. What, doesn't every team have a backup four-star quarterback who was 26-2 as a starter and ranks third on his school's total offense list?
That’s Alabama, folks. Yes, it’s an embarrassment of riches. If Alabama was an NFL team, it would have to pay a luxury tax or something.
The result was, shall we say, predictable. Hurts threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy with 5:19 left, then scored the winning touchdown on a 15-yard keeper with 64 seconds remaining. What wasn’t predictable was Saban getting all choked up and emotional about Hurts afterward.
"I've probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen," Saban said. "It's unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won ... and then all of a sudden, he's not the quarterback. How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You've got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first."
Saban knows Hurts could have taken advantage of the new NCAA redshirt rule and left the program after four games, as Kelly Bryant did at Clemson when freshman Trevor Lawrence took his job (though Hurts would have had to sit out this season). And he still may transfer. Who knows?
But for now, he’s still at Bama, throwing and running for critical touchdowns for the first time this season. It was impressive and ridiculously theatrical to watch, considering Hurts had surgery in October to accelerate healing from a high ankle sprain against Tennessee.
Georgia helped, though.
With the game tied 28-28 and just over three minutes remaining, Georgia lined up for a punt on fourth-and-11 at the 50. The punt snap went directly to upback/backup quarterback Justin Fields.
Alabama was not fooled. Fields gained 2 yards. And once again, Smart’s smarts were questionable, just as when he blew off what looked like a sure field goal at LSU that Grant Delpit smothered with one talented, heady play.
Smart defended the decision in his postgame news conference.
“We actually carried that (play) last year and thought it was there, and it was there today,” said Smart, a Saban assistant at LSU and Bama. “We were going to snap the ball quick. We took too long to snap the ball. They didn’t have a guy covered. We had a guy open, and we took so long to snap it that they ended up recognizing it and got the guy covered late."
Smart added: “We wanted to try to win the game.”
Well, sure, Kirby. But instead of pinning Alabama deep and making Hurts drive the field to win, you set up Bama at its 48 with 3:04 left. That doesn’t seem … well … intelligent.
The victory sent Saban’s record to 16-0 against his former assistants. Just how he pulled that Vulcan mind meld from across the field to convince Smart to run the fake punt, Saban wasn’t telling.
There is no telling just yet who will be Alabama’s quarterback in the CFP semifinals four weeks from now. But betting Bama will not have a winning option to play would not be … smart.
Not after this win.