ATLANTA — Welcome to Meltdown City.
Eleven months after the Atlanta Falcons blew the unblowable lead to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Georgia Bulldogs were not to be left out.
Up 20-7 midway through the third quarter, the Bulldogs watched their first national championship since Herschel Walker was a pup slip through their grasp. And who was there to scoop up the prize but the Alabama Crimson Tide, which has won 'em on the field and won 'em in their version of reality, like back in the 1940s when it finished 20th in the AP poll but still declared itself champion.
Even Alabama missing a 35-yard field goal at the end of regulation couldn’t stop Georgia from sliding into the Atlantic. Even Rodrigo Blankenship willing a 51-yard field goal over the crossbar to start overtime for Georgia couldn’t stop it. Even a “Don’t take a sack!” sack of 16 yards by backup Bama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, that had Nick Saban ripping off his headset and boiling over in a rage, even that couldn’t stop it.
Sometimes, you can’t avoid history. Instead, Alabama and Saban made it in stunning fashion. Tagovailoa arched a 41-yard touchdown pass through the midnight air inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium to DeVonta Smith, a former Amite High School standout, to give the Crimson Tide a 26-23 victory.
Midway through the third quarter it looked like “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” would be the song of Georgia’s triumph. When it was over, more like “Gory, gory, how did that happen?”
Everything was going Georgia’s way. Jake Fromm, the freshman who only became the starter when Jacob Eason was injured in the Bulldogs’ opener, drilled third-down pass after third-down pass against a befuddled Alabama secondary. When he answered the Crimson Tide’s first score with an 80-yard dime to Mecole Hardman to put his team up 20-7 with 6:52 left in the third quarter, it looked like the play of the game. It looked like curtains for the Crimson Tide.
Bama was stumbling, struggling, losing its poise. Down 13-0 at halftime, it was the first time Alabama had been shut out in the first half since a scoreless 30 minutes at LSU in 2016. The Crimson Tide came back to win that one, 10-0 of course, scoring all its points in the fourth quarter. But that game was a fairly even defensive standoff, waiting for one side or the other to make a big play to push it in their favor.
This was utter domination by Georgia, a surprise considering how the Bulldogs had to score and score and score to beat Oklahoma 54-48 in a double-overtime thriller in the Rose Bowl while Alabama throttled Clemson 24-6 in the Sugar.
But it was happening. Georgia held a 223-94 edge in total offense at halftime. It certainly didn’t look like Alabama would even get in position to lose on the last play of the game, like it did in last year’s CFP final against Clemson.
Somehow, Bama didn’t give up.
“When we lost last year on the last play of the game we said, ‘Don’t waste the failing,’ ” Saban said. “The resiliency this team showed all season long showed they learned something from that.”
When the teams returned to the field to start the second half, there was just a whiff of desperation coming from the Alabama sideline that was detectable above the aroma of hot dogs and beer.
Josh Jacobs returned Blankenship’s kickoff from about 6 yards deep, eager to make a play, but only got to the Bama 22. Then Tagovailoa started the second half. Considered the better passer than Hurts but not as good a runner, it was the first time he saw action this season when Alabama didn’t have a double-digit lead.
Down double digits, the initial result was still the same as when Hurts was running the sputtering Tide offense. Alabama netted just 2 yards and had to punt and was grateful for a questionable flag that Georgia was offside on a blocked punt so the Bulldogs didn’t start their first second-half possession already in field-goal range.
Sometimes desperation, fear, is a great motivator. Bama’s defense held on Georgia’s first possession, Alabama got the ball back at its 44 and finally got on the scoreboard, as Tagovailoa found Henry Ruggs on a 6-yard touchdown pass to make it 13-7, a score at the end of a drive kept alive by Tagovailoa’s 9-yard scramble on third-and-7 near midfield.
Georgia answered right away on the Fromm-to-Hardeman strike. There was some silliness about sideline interference against Georgia, a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff, but the touchdown stood to make it 20-7 Bulldogs.
What Bama looked like it needed at this point was Tommy Lewis coming off the bench to make a tackle like he did against Rice’s Dicky Maegle in the 1954 Cotton Bowl.
But Georgia would score no more as Bama chipped away. A field goal, a field goal, a miss, yes, then the strike. Saban, who joined Bear Bryant as the only six-time national champion in college football history (five at Bama, the first at LSU) ran his record to 12-0 against former assistants, like Georgia head man Kirby Smart.
Apparently, Nick doesn’t teach them everything.