ATLANTA — So now what?
On a stunning afternoon for the sport of college football, No. 1 Alabama came back from a two-touchdown deficit to beat No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game, 35-28, with backup quarterback Jalen Hurts — remember him? — leading a fourth-quarter comeback after starter Tua Tagovailoa left with a leg injury.
Though the final result was expected, it was the wildest of rides getting there. And it will undoubtedly give the College Football Playoff selection committee plenty to think about.
Here are five observations from another classic matchup between the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs:
Hurts so good: Could you really script it any better? On a day where Tagovailoa, the presumed Heisman Trophy front-runner, was gimpy and ineffective (10-of-25, 164 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions), the game went on Hurts’ shoulders with 11:15 remaining and Alabama trailing 28-21.
Though the circumstances were different from January’s national championship game — Tagovailoa went down in a heap, grabbing at his right ankle and needing to be helped off the field — it was essentially a role reversal from 11 months ago when Nick Saban made a quarterback switch at halftime with Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0 in this same building.
And all Hurts did was go 7-of-9 for 82 yards while scrambling for 28 yards on five carries, including the go-ahead touchdown from 15 yards out with 1:04 left.
Tagovailoa’s health going into the playoff will be a major story line over the next month. But Hurts earned a lot of redemption after a frustrating season in which he played very few meaningful snaps and there was a nationwide discussion about whether he should transfer and preserve this season of eligibility. Good thing for Alabama that he didn’t.
What the heck, Kirby: Georgia’s ill-advised fake punt on fourth-and-11 from midfield with 3:04 remaining will go down as one of the all-time dumbfounding coaching decisions in college football history.
In a tie game, Georgia ran what appeared to be a designed play for freshman backup quarterback/bluechip recruit Justin Fields to either run or pass. It didn’t even have a prayer of working.
The question is why Georgia would take such a huge risk when it could have pinned Alabama back near its own goal line in a tie game. Instead, it set up Alabama with great field position, and the Crimson Tide took advantage for the game-winning score just two minutes later.
Let the politicking begin: At the end of the third quarter, SEC spokesman Chuck Dunlap sent out the following Tweet: “#FourBestTeams @CFBPlayoff.” Even before the game was over and the result known, the SEC was making its case. In essence, it was this: Forget about the records, forget about the good wins, bad losses or whatever other teams have done. Two of the nation’s four best teams were on the field Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, so if that’s the charge of the committee, put both in. We’ll see if they buy it after thrilling, close game in which Georgia came up just short.
Last year, Alabama got into the playoff as No. 4 despite failing to win the SEC West. Giving Georgia a pass with two losses (it got beat 36-16 at LSU on Oct. 13) would be wildly unpopular — especially with Oklahoma sitting there as a one-loss Big 12 champion — but you can certainly make an argument that Georgia might even be favored over every other team in the discussion.
What’s up with Tua?: The Heisman Trophy front-runner coming into the game went into the medical tent early after taking a sack in which his left leg/ankle seemed to bend a bit awkwardly. Even as Alabama has maintained that he’s healthy enough to play Tagovailoa has undeniably looked gimpy at various times down the stretch of the season. But whether it was physical or mental, the real issue for Alabama for much of this game was that his decision-making under pressure was downright poor.
Not only did he set the tone with a goal-line interception on Alabama’s first drive when he thought he had man coverage but didn’t read defensive back Richard LeCounte coming across the middle, but there were a few occasions when he seemed to just chuck it up to an area of the field under pressure without knowing who or what was there.
Once in the first half, he narrowly escaped a second interception. On the first drive of the second half, it cost him an intentional grounding flag.
Did Tagovailoa’s performance cost him the Heisman with Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray surging? We’ll see.
Learning experience: Alabama looked edgy and noticeably uncomfortable for much of the game until it found its stride late in the third quarter. You can probably attribute that to two factors: One, Georgia is by far the best team Alabama has faced all season; and two, Alabama simply had no experience being in the middle of a donnybrook.
When you’re used to boatracing everyone you play, as Alabama did in Weeks 1 through 12, it’s not too surprising that the Crimson Tide wasn’t ready for the pressure or physicality Georgia brought. Things were happening just a split-second quicker than Alabama was used to, and decisions that don’t have a lot of consequences when you’re up 28-0 are magnified in a game where everything matters.
Frankly, it’s the kind of experience Alabama could have used at some point earlier this season. It’s not Alabama’s fault that it was able to physically overwhelm everyone it played, but it’s probably valuable that Alabama got some experience in those key third-and-8 moments when you’re trailing and need to keep the chains moving in this game rather than for the first time against someone like Clemson with a national title on the line.
But, like last year's title game against Alabama, the Bulldogs couldn't hold the lead. Now they'll have to hope for a chance to make the field. Georgia finished 11-2 and will be competing with Big 12 champions Oklahoma, which ended its season at 12-1, and possibly Ohio State, which plays Northwestern later in the Big Ten title game.