Posted on January 9, 2018, by Travis Pulver
Kirby Smart prepared the Georgia Bulldogs well for the Monday night’s CFP Championship Game. He, like every other coach in the country, knew that Alabama was dependent on the run. Stop the run, and you essentially stop their offense. During the first half of Monday night’s game, it worked. Jalen Hurts struggled to move the Crimson Tide offense, and Jake Fromm got enough out of Georgia’s to take a 13-0 lead into halftime.
But there was one thing that Smart did not prepare his team to handle– a different quarterback.
He did not prepare them for the unlikely possibility that Nick Saban would bench his quarterback. Hurts had only lost two games in two seasons as the Alabama starter. There was no way he would bench him—but he did.
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Hurts was not a good passer and Saban knew his team needed to throw the ball if it was going to have a shot. The Georgia defense was keyed to stopping the run and was doing a great job. But if Alabama could start throwing the ball, the Bulldogs would have to respect the passing game and would loosen up against the run.
It was a risky maneuver, but he did it. Hurts was out in the second half and true freshman Tua Tagovailoa was in.
“I just thought we had to throw the ball, and I felt he could do it better, and he did,” Saban said Tagovailoa (ESPN).
The move didn’t work immediately. Alabama went three and out on their first possession of the second half, but the Crimson Tide defense appeared to be refocused as well. They forced a three and out on Georgia’s first drive—and then it happened.
Tagovailoa got his first first-down with his legs but then started connecting with his receivers. Seven plays after taking over with the ball at the Alabama 44-yard line, Tagovailoa connected with Henry Ruggs III for Alabama’s first touchdown.
Georgia needed to do something to regain control of the game. As easily as Alabama moved the ball, it was vital that they do the same on their next possession to push the lead back out to two scores. An 80-yard touchdown pass to Mecole Hardman from Fromm certainly did the trick.
But Alabama had finally figured out how to move the ball—and they did. While a refocused Alabama defense continually frustrated Jake Fromm and the Georgia offense, Tagovailoa kept punching away at the Bulldogs lead.
Saban’s big gamble appeared to pay off when Tagovailoa connected with Calvin Ridley for a seven-yard touchdown to tie the game with 3:49 to play. But Tagovailoa wasn’t done yet.
After the defense forced Georgia to go three and out on their next possession, he marched them downfield and into field goal range. They had a chance to win the game in regulation, but then Andy Pappanastos missed his second field goal of the day.
After a lackluster second half, that meant the Bulldogs had another chance to pull out the win. For a brief moment, it looked like they would. After settling for a field goal on their possession, Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa on Alabama’s first play for a 16-yard loss.
With Alabama out of field goal range, the Georgia defense just needed to win the next three plays to secure the national championship. But instead, Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith with a 41-yard touchdown pass to win the game on the next play.
“After the sack, we just got up and took it to the next play,” Tagovailoa said (ESPN). “I looked back out, and he was wide open. Smitty was wide open.”
Final score—Alabama 26 Georgia 23.
So, once again, Alabama is the national champion. It’s Saban’s sixth title and fifth in nine years at Alabama. He’ll undoubtedly lose some key players to the draft, but with the talent he has hidden away on his roster, Alabama will be in play again next season for the title.
What will be interesting to see is how Saban handles his newfound quarterback controversy. There is no denying the success the time has had with Hurts at quarterback, but he did need to bench Hurts and insert Tagovailoa to win Monday night.
Georgia is going to lose some key players, too. But the Bulldogs will be set at quarterback and appear to have their next great running back already in D’Andre Swift. They will undoubtedly be in the mix next year as well.
But will anyone else provide a challenge?