by Chad Peltier
Alabama had the ball in overtime, trailing Georgia by a field goal. Backup quarterback Tua Tagavailoa made his second mistake of the game, taking a scrambling sack to bring up second-and-26 from the Georgia 41-yard line. Kicker Andy Pappanastos' longest field goal of the season was 46 yards, so a 58-yard attempt would likely have been too difficult -- as it would for almost any kicker.
Before we get to the end, though, let's revisit everything that got us to that point. After taking a 13-0 halftime lead, the Bulldogs had allowed the Crimson Tide to crawl back into the game, ultimately allowing Alabama to tie the game with a 7-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley. Ridley, who was held to just four catches for 32 yards on the game, caught the touchdown on fourth-and-4 with just 3:49 left in regulation. Entering the game, he had 30.7 percent of his team's passing targets and almost four times as many receiving yards as the second-leading Alabama receiver. Calvin had been outpaced by his younger brother Riley, a Georgia receiver who ended the game with six catches for 82 yards despite bringing only eight catches for 136 yards into the game.
Fate then seemed to be on Georgia's side because of three enormous plays, which happened almost back-to-back-to-back. First, Alabama missed a potential winning 36-yard field goal as time expired at the end of the fourth quarter. Almost everyone in the stadium expected that to be the walk-off field goal to give Alabama the win, but when it missed, overtime was already improbable enough that a Georgia win felt inevitable at the point.
Second, Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship set yet another record. The Bulldogs' first offensive possession in overtime didn't start off well, with two Nick Chubb runs gaining only 4 yards, then Jake Fromm taking a 13-yard sack, which forced a 51-yard field goal attempt. But "Hot Rod" nailed the 51-yarder, a national championship record, just a week after setting the Rose Bowl record with a 55-yarder. Was it possible that four special teams plays -- Blankenship's 55-yarder at the end of the first half of the Rose Bowl, Lorenzo Carter's blocked field goal in double-overtime last week, Alabama's missed field goal to force overtime, and now Blankenship's 51-yarder -- would be the four key plays of Georgia's national championship run?
Third, it got worse for the Tide when Tagavailoa was sacked on Alabama's first offensive play of overtime. Tagavailoa had been incredible since coming in for Jalen Hurts after halftime. Apart from an interception on his third possession midway through the third quarter, Tagavailoa gave the Tide a fearless vertical passing game that they had lacked under Hurts in the first half. Where Hurts was held to 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards, Tagavailoa had gone 13-for-23 for 125 yards and thrown the critical touchdown on fourth down to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
But Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy sacked Tagavailoa as the freshman ran backwards to escape the pass rush, bringing us to the second-and-26 from the Georgia 41-yard line. To that point, Georgia had allowed just three passes longer than 15 yards, and Alabama's long of the game was still just a 20-yarder to Jerry Jeudy. The Bulldogs would need just two more stops to force a long field goal attempt.
But Tagavailoa stepped up in the pocket and heaved a long pass to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard touchdown to end the game. It's difficult to state how improbable this sequence of plays was. Smith, a freshman receiver who had only six catches heading in to the game, caught a perfectly thrown pass, running a streak right by a Georgia cornerback.
The Bulldogs defense ranked fifth in overall, opponent-adjusted passing S&P+, but 30th in passing IsoPPP. Essentially, if Georgia's defense had any weakness, it was that the big plays they allowed were often fairly big, even though they were rare. For instance, Georgia allowed 28 points to Missouri earlier in the year, largely on the back of Emanuel Hall's 141 receiving yards on four catches. In the first Auburn matchup, three Tigers receivers averaged more than 21 yards per catch. So that small weakness ended up being the final, decisive difference between the two teams.
For Alabama, it's yet another national championship (Nick Saban's fifth at Alabama since 2009) for the most talented team in college football. S&P+ gave Alabama a 55 percent win probability before the game and a projected 2.3-point margin of victory. But few expected the win would be as dramatic as it was -- with a freshman backup quarterback throwing a 41-yarder in overtime.
For Georgia, while it's true that Kirby Smart appears to be building a juggernaut of his own in Athens, the Bulldogs did seem to have a critical mass of upperclassmen for a playoff run this season. Running backs Nick Chubb (who finished with a disappointing 18 carries for 25 yards) and Sony Michel (14 carries for 98 yards, including a critical sideline run for 26 yards in the first half); wide receiver Javon Wims (the team's leading receiver, who was injured for most of the game and finished with just a single catch); left tackle Isaiah Wynn; the entire linebacker corps, including Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter, and probably Roquan Smith (a junior and Butkus Award winner, who will likely be a first-rounder if he comes out for the draft); defensive backs Dominick Sanders (who has the tie for the school's record in career interceptions), Malkom Parrish, and Aaron Davis -- it's a lot to replace, especially on defense.
- Alabama's Tua Tagavailoa will go down in college football history for coming off the bench to replace Jalen Hurts in the second half, but Georgia's freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, played like a seasoned veteran too. Fromm completed 50 percent of his passes against the country's sixth-ranked passing S&P+ defense, averaging 7.3 yards per throw with a 39.4 percent passing success rate despite losing his top receiver to injury in the first half. Neither of his interceptions were directly his fault: his first was bobbled into the hands of Alabama corner Tony Brown, while his second was deflected off an Alabama defensive lineman's helmet. Fromm was best in the most critical situations, converting five of 11 third-down passing attempts, despite averaging 7.7 yards to go on those plays. If Georgia had won, it would have been due in large part to their success on third downs, where they converted 42 percent of the time, compared to 21 percent for Alabama.
- Hardly anyone has had success running the ball against Alabama, but Georgia's Sony Michel had 14 carries for 98 yards, with a 57 percent rushing success rate and four runs of 10 yards or more. Georgia's offensive coordinator Jim Chaney also had an incredible play call at the end of the first half, lining Mecole Hardman up as the quarterback for a direct snap with an option to handoff to Michel -- a variation on the Wild Dawg that was used to great effect against Oklahoma -- that resulted in a touchdown to go up by double digits.
- Freshmen were decisive for both teams. While the sophomore Hurts was in the game, the Alabama offense had three-and-outs on three of five possessions, generating just one scoring opportunity and 90 total yards in the half. The Tagavailoa-led offense had just a single three-and-out (on Alabama's opening possession of the second half), creating five scoring opportunities on eight total possessions. Alabama's offense had a 45.8 percent success rate in the second half after just a 25.0 percent success rate in the first half (and four of their six successful first-half plays came on the Tide's first offensive possession of the game). Besides Tagavailoa, and DeVonta Smith's team-leading (and game-winning) 41 receiving yards, freshman running back Najee Harris led the team with 64 rushing yards on just six carries, adding explosive runs in the second half due to his fresh legs. Fromm, meanwhile, not only led his team to the national championship game as a freshman, but also threw for 232 yards.
- In a play that will likely be burned into Georgia fans' memories, the Bulldogs appeared to block the Tide's punt on their first possession of the second half, which would have given the Bulldogs the ball near the Alabama 25-yard line. They were instead called for an offsides penalty, giving the Tide another chance at the punt. Replay appeared to show that the guilty Georgia special teams player had not actually crossed into the neutral zone before the snap, however, and even that an Alabama player may have moved first. Georgia went three-and-out on their next drive instead of getting the ball with at least an almost certain field goal.
- Tua Tagavailoa and Jalen Hurts, QBs, Alabama. We've already detailed how effective Tagavailoa was coming in to replace Hurts in the second half. But Hurts' leadership -- always being the first one to come out and congratulate Tua after touchdowns and staying involved rather than sulking at his benching -- was exactly what the team needed.
- Sony Michel, RB, Georgia. Sony Michel was incredibly explosive, with four carries of 10-plus yards on just 14 total runs. In his final game, both he and Chubb gave everything they had to will Georgia to overtime.
- Riley Ridley, WR, Georgia. Stepping up in place of the injured Javon Wims, Georgia's 6-foot-4 leading receiver, Ridley nearly doubled his catches for the season with six receptions for 82 yards. He stepped out of his superstar brother's shadow with huge catches in the first half.
- Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama. In hindsight, Raekwon Davis' interception in the third quarter may have been decisive for the Tide. Tagavailoa had just thrown an interception to Deandre Baker, giving Georgia the ball at the Alabama 39-yard line, up 20-7. Another score, even a field goal, would have been devastating for the Tide's chances. But on the very next play, Fromm threw a pass that hit an Alabama defensive lineman's helmet, while Davis has the awareness to snag the interception and then return it for 19 yards to the Georgia 40. The next drive resulted in a field goal for the Tide.
- Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia. Roquan Smith lived up to his Butkus Award, flying over the field for a team-leading 13 tackles (nine solo), 2.5 tackles for loss, with one sack.