If the decision to go to Tagovailoa was a surprise to many at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Georgia Coach Kirby Smart was not caught off guard. He spent nine seasons as an assistant to Saban at Alabama before taking over at Georgia two years ago, and on Monday he became the sixth former Saban assistant to lose to him (they are 0-12 over all).
“We told everybody at halftime there was no question they were going to him because they were struggling and they needed some momentum,” Smart said. “He provided them some juice.”
Tagovailoa went on to outshine the other freshman quarterback on the field, Jake Fromm of Georgia, who had led the Bulldogs to 13 wins this season and who fell just short of bringing the Bulldogs their first national title since the 1980 season.
And after watching Tagovailoa engineer the stunning comeback, even Hurts had to applaud his coach’s move.
“It was an executive decision and it was a good one,” said Hurts, who was 25-2 as a starter going into the game. “We’re national champs, so you can’t say anything about it.”
But that outcome was still uncertain just before the final play. After Georgia kicked a field goal on the first possession in overtime, Alabama sustained a setback on 1st down when Tagovailoa was sacked for a 16-yard loss.
Before the next play, Smith looked at his quarterback in the huddle and said, “Trust me.” Saban had already shown faith in Tagovailoa, and the second-down play called for four receivers to go deep.
“Smitty was wide open,” said Tagovailoa, who attended the same high school as Marcus Mariota in Honolulu. “So I hit him, and here we are now, thank God.”
The Tide had overcome enormous odds to even reach overtime. Trailing by 7 points with just under four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, Alabama had marched down the field but stalled and faced 4th down deep in Georgia territory. Tagovailoa rolled out to his left, avoided pressure and threw a 7-yard touchdown pass that sizzled past two defenders and into the arms of Calvin Ridley. The extra point by Andy Pappanastos tied the score, 20-20.
After Alabama’s defense forced Georgia to punt, Tagovailoa led the Tide back down the field and a victory seemed likely in regulation. They just needed Pappanastos to hit a winning field goal from 36 yards out with just a few seconds remaining.
But Pappanastos’s kick hooked severely to the left, just like a 40-yard attempt he had missed in the first half, and the Georgia fans, granted a reprieve, roared in delight and relief.
Those emotions did not last long. Georgia (13-2) did take a brief lead in overtime on Rodrigo Blankenship’s 51-yard field goal after Fromm, too, was sacked for a 13-yard loss. But Tagovailoa followed with perhaps the throw of the season to Smith, and Alabama (13-1) had its second title in three years. Both saw crafty coaching from Saban, who used an unexpected onside kick two years ago to help the Tide beat Clemson in that championship game.
This victory gave Saban six national titles and added to his stature as one of the most accomplished coaches in college football history. He matched Bear Bryant, who won six national titles at Alabama. Saban has five at Alabama and one at Louisiana State, and the wild victory on Monday helped ease memories of a crushing loss to Clemson in last year’s championship game.
Soon after Monday’s victory, someone tried to stuff a game ball in Saban’s hands to commemorate the latest accomplishment. He may have deserved it, but so, too, did Tagovailoa, Smith, Ridley, the members of the offensive line, and the entire defense, which held Georgia scoreless in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think you give anybody a game ball,” Saban said, noting the remarkable nature of the game. “It has to be a team ball, and that’s exactly what we’ll do with it.”