Here’s the real upset of this just-completed college football season.
Alabama became the unlikeliest of winners as unlikely as that statement sounds. Not so much in winning for the fifth time in the last nine seasons, but how it won.
Yes, even a landslide preseason No. 1 team can astonish a national-television audience, a sitting president and 77,430 SEC conference brethren in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium by barely squeezing into the playoffs and then breaking every heart in Georgia with an electrifying overtime finish to shock an opponent that seemingly had the victory in hand.
But never ever count out Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, who once more kills hope in almost all the other 129 FBS football programs and defied the odds with an improbable 26-23 classic Monday night. So a team that didn’t even win its division, didn’t get to play in the SEC title game and sweated out the final College Football Playoff rankings before being slotted last in the four-team field walks off the field once more as national champions.
Alabama came within a second of winning a year ago on the last play from scrimmage and then won this 2017 national championship on the game’s final play and in a most jaw-dropping manner possible.
Alabama won with a backup quarterback throwing the game-winning touchdown pass to a backup wide receiver.
Alabama won with a fresh-legged, game-leading rusher who didn’t have a single carry in the first half.
Alabama won in spite of two missed field goals by Andy Pappanastos, one to begin the game and the other to end regulation with one of the ugliest, hooked 36-yarders you’ll ever see that was so wide you’d have sworn he was aiming for one of the exit tunnels.
Alabama won one play after true freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa took an ill-timed sack on the Tide’s first offensive play of overtime, causing Saban to angrily rip his headset off.
But then the Hawaiian lefty — who’d never entered a game that wasn’t already decided by four touchdowns or more this season — had the presence to gather himself, remain composed, look off a Georgia safety and throw a perfect 41-yard dart to DeVonta Smith for his only catch of the night.
Freshman to unlikely freshman as Saban trotted out one rookie after another whether it was Najee Harris, who high-stepped his way to 64 yards on just six second-half carries, or receivers Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy, who combined for four big catches or Tagovailoa, who threw for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
“This was one of our best recruiting classes, the freshmen from last year, and especially the offensive talent,” Saban said, adding that he’s never leaned quite so heavily on rookies. “They played a lot this year. They were ready to make contributions for us.”
And who should race onto the field to congratulate his teammates just before the confetti cannons boomed? None other than the benched Jalen Hurts, a sophomore who had a fitful first half but said in a post-game interview that his replacement “has the it factor.”
What, so Alabama leads the country in unselfishness, too? Is that really fair?
But should anyone be surprised? When Georgia’s push came to shove, Alabama won doing what Alabama does.
It twice overcomes 13-point deficits, the first coming in the first half when the Bulldogs became the first team since the 2016 LSU held Alabama scoreless the first two quarters. Yeah, the Tide won that one, too. “We kept clawing back and showing resilience to make plays,” Saban said, celebrating his personal sixth national title.
It completely throttled a prolific Bulldogs offense sporting a pair of 1,000-yard rushers, checking Georgia on a single touchdown following halftime on a perfectly executed, 80-yard scoring strike.
The defense led by nose guard Da’Ron Payne and end Raekwon Davis — a 6-7, 306-pound sophomore who copied Payne’s Rose Bowl heroics with an athletic interception and nifty runback — frustrated Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm and held the rushing game to 36 second-half yards even if that number was curiously helped by coach Kirby Smart’s reluctance to give dynamite senior Sony Michel more than just his six carries in the second half.
”The defense stepped up when it had to,” Saban said. “I don’t think you can give anyone a game ball. It has to be a team ball.”
So Saban, the greatest coach in the history of college football, set himself apart once more when he had the guts and fortitude to bench Hurts, who had lost all of two games in his career, one on the last play of the 2016 season when Clemson’s Deshaun Watson found Hunter Renfrow open in the end zone.
Few coaches probably had the instinctive resolve that Saban does and the fortitude to switch quarterbacks. Even fewer train their teams to be so mentally tough that they don’t crater when they trail by two touchdowns or see their kicker unravel. But Alabama stayed strong, sacked Fromm to force a 51-yard field goal by Georgia in overtime and remained confident.
Saban admitted the Tide entered the game thinking it might play Tagovailoa. “I just didn’t feel we ran the ball well enough, but felt Tua would give us a spark, which he certainly did. We have total confidence in him.”
Even after Tagovailoa threw an interception on what was a called run play.
“But we learn from things like that,” Saban said, turning to face him in the press conference. “And we learned, didn’t we?”
His freshman nodded knowingly. Tagovailoa did learn, and the rest of the country did as well, including his former assistant Smart, who called his 13-2 Georgia team “a force to be reckoned with. We’re not going anywhere.”
But then neither is Alabama, which very clearly never left.