Guerry Clegg

When you think about it, college national championship game has already been played

Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against Georgia during the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday in Atlanta.
Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts (2) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the fourth quarter against Georgia during the Southeastern Conference championship Saturday in Atlanta. AP

Resumes? Conference championships? Losses avenged? Elite offense? Strength of schedule? Quality wins? Select your own criteria, and you can make a case for whomever want to join Alabama and Clemson in the College Football Playoff field.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter now. Oklahoma drew the careful what you wish for short straw and will play Alabama in the Orange Bowl.

It’s not that Oklahoma is undeserving as the fourth team after Alabama, Clemson and Notre Dame. It’s simply this: For the second time within this calendar year, the two best teams in college football met at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the national championship at stake. So technically, Alabama’s 35-28 victory over Georgia Saturday was merely for the SEC Championship.

Alabama coach Nick Saban compared it to 2012, when the Tide beat Georgia 32-28 in the SEC title game, with Georgia just running out of time. Then Bama went on the manhandle Notre Dame in the national championship game.

“Georgia was the best team. They were. They deserved to be in the championship game,” Saban said. “Based on the team that we’ve played this year, I think this team deserves to be in the playoff as well.”

It’s hard to watch that game and conclude that there’s any team in college football better than those two.

Clemson? The last time the Tigers played Alabama, they lost 24-6 in last year’s semifinal game. Georgia and Alabama have played 120 minutes of regulation plus two possessions of overtime in 2018, and only two plays separate the two teams.

Sequels seldom live up to the hype created by the original. But this one did, and then some. It had about every plot twist imaginable:

The stunning moment when Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa lay crumpled on the artificial turf after getting his ankle stomped on by a teammate.

The forgotten star turned hero in his backup, Jalen Hurts.

The epic comeback by Alabama, aided by a shocking rare missed field goal attempt by Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship.

And then a what-the-heck decision by Kirby Smart to fake a field goal at midfield and give Hurts and the Alabama a short field with just three minutes left to play in regulation.

While the finish wasn’t as dramatic as the original, when Tagovailoa connected with DeVonta Smith in the end zone in overtime for the winning score, the game still hung in the balance until the very last play. Jake Fromm had maneuvered the Bulldogs to the Crimson Tide 39 with three seconds left on the clock. Fromm eluded Bama’s Anfernee Jennings and heaved a pass into the end zone. But Mack Wilson emerged from a cluster of seven Crimson Tide defenders and four Bulldog receivers to deflect the ball away to secure the game.

“It hurts,” Fromm said. “Right now, there’s this stunned feeling. It happens, not once but twice.”

“It’s tough, man. Tough one to lose like that, especially when you’ve got the lead the whole game,” said Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta. “Somehow, they just find a way to make one more play than you. I don’t think there’s a way to put on a toughness scale from last year to year, which one’s tougher. They’re both tough. Especially when you look at this team and the seniors and everything they’ve done, it’s something you want to do for them.”

Saban paid Georgia what he called “the ultimate compliment” when he said, “I sure as hell don’t to play them again.”

Saban improved to 16-0 against his former assistants, with three of those wins coming in this building. For the most part, that stat has been irrelevant. Most of those games were mismatches in terms of talent. But in this case, Saban reminded everyone why he’s maybe the best to ever walk a sideline, while Smart still has much to learn.

From their respective handling of talented quarterbacks to that indefensibly poor decision to fake a punt, Saban clearly outmaneuvered Smart. Saban had the makings of an explosive quarterback controversy, but diffused it. Smart had a comparatively benign quarterback situation — an experienced returning starter who long ago won the locker-room and a talented understudy — and created an awkward arrangement by repeatedly force-feeding Justin Fields into the game-plan. He did it again Saturday even while Fromm was putting on a quarterback clinic.

But the fake punt — on fourth-and-11 at midfield — was only slightly less stupid than Gus Malzahn’s comical attempt to trick Alabama with a fake field goal a week before in the Iron Bowl. In a game that could hinge on any one play, Smart gave up precious snaps to predictably ineffective results.

Chances are, Smart will get a chance for redemption, whether it’s in next year’s SEC Championship Game or the College Football Playoff — or maybe even both.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs still have some unfinished business to tend to, a Sugar Bowl matchup against Texas. They can secure back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time since the 1982-83 seasons — the latter, coincidentally enough, after a Cotton Bowl win over Texas.

“We’re still going to get back in the lab and get ready to play,” said safety Richard LeCounte. “We still have a lot of football left to play. I’m proud of these guys.”

After the loss in January, Smart declared, “We’re not going anywhere.” He didn’t make such a declaration this time. Then again, he didn’t have to. His teammate made that statement for him.

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