It was second-and-26, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium pulsated with Georgia fans sure that their Bulldogs were three more plays away from their first national championship in 37 years. Rodrigo Blankenship had already given the Bulldogs the lead in overtime with his third field goal of the game, this one a crossbar scraper from 51 yards out. Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy had just sacked Alabama freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss back to the 41.
Then, seconds later, heartbreak.
Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith, another freshman, beat Georgia cornerback Malkom Parrish down the left sideline. Tagovailoa threw a perfect pass. Ball game.
And somewhere in heaven, Larry Munson broke another chair.
The record books will show that on January 8, 2018, Alabama defeated Georgia 26-23 in overtime of the College Football Playoff National Championship. But this game will go down as more than merely the game that decided the national title, Nick Saban’s fifth at Alabama.
Chances are it will go down as the beginning of a rivalry along the lines of Ali and Frazier.
Rashaan Evans, Alabama’s senior linebacker, believes this story is not finished.
“Absolutely, it’s going to happen again next year,” Evans said. “We’ve got big time guys coming back next year.”
For what it’s worth, Saban didn’t win his first national championship at Alabama until his third season. Georgia will have a lot of holes to fill next season, especially if linebacker Roquan Smith leaves early for the NFL draft.
But with back-to-back monster recruiting classes and most of the offense back, the Bulldogs shouldn’t suffer much of a drop off.
“I think everybody can see that Georgia's going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Smart said. “I'm very proud of this team and this university, and we're not going anywhere.”
Jake Fromm, Georgia’s freshman quarterback, earned the respect of Saban. Fromm had a number of clutch passes, none bigger than his 80-yard strike to Mecole Hardman on third-and-11 in the third quarter.
“Jake Fromm, that guy, he knows where to go with the ball,” Saban said.
But it was the other true freshman quarterback, Tagovailoa, who turned out to be the difference in the game. Jalen Hurts, making his 28th consecutive start at Alabama, struggled in the first half so Smart told the players “there’s no question” that Bama would switch to Tua.
Unlike Hurts, Tagovailoa had the passing accuracy to exploit Georgia’s biggest weakness, it’s pass defense. Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes in regulation and had a huge 27-yard run when he appeared to be trapped by Georgia defenders.
“We weren’t surprised,” said Alabama running back Damian Harris. “That’s what we’re expected to do.”
Injuries and attrition forced Alabama to play more true freshmen in critical roles than Saban is comfortable with. Najee Harris went in for Damian Harris and provided a spark with 64 yards on six carries. Henry Ruggs III caught three passes and Jerry Jeudy added another. Counting Smith, that’s five of Alabama’s 17 receptions made by true freshmen.
This was the first meeting between Saban and Smart, but almost certainly won’t be the last.
The most overblown stat leading up to the Alabama-Georgia showdown for the college football national championship was this:
Nick Saban 11, Former Assistants 0
Derek Dooley didn’t have Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Mark Dantonio didn’t have Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain didn’t have Jake Fromm.
Saban and Alabama have withstood some challenges within the SEC, first by Florida, then by LSU, then by Auburn. But no team poses a threat to the Great Saban Dynasty like Georgia and Smart.
Smart has essentially out-recruited Saban in his two years at Georgia. Publicly, Saban has praised Smart for the job he has done. But the competition won’t remain so friendly as Smart stands up to Saban.
It’s not unlike when Pat Dye took over at Auburn and faced Bear Bryant. Before their first game, Dye supposedly looked Bryant in the eye and said, “We’re coming after you.” Bryant responded, “Are you trying to scare me?” Dye said, “No, sir, because I know you don’t scare. But I want you to know Auburn ain’t going to be scared of Alabama any more.”
For decades, Alabama and Georgia have coexisted peacefully in the SEC, each more concerned with deeper, more bitter rivalries. That may be about to change.