On December 4th, Georgia left the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta deflated. A chastening defeat by their nemesis, Alabama, took away their unbeaten record, an SEC conference championship and threatened to derail their momentum towards a long-awaited coronation at the top of college football.
37 days later, they emerged triumphant, rightly at the pinnacle of college football with a revenge win over their great rivals and a national championship in their clutches after a 41-year wait. In my preview of the final for Ninety-Nine Yards, I wrote about the huge motivation Georgia would have after losing to Alabama after such, to that point, an impressive unbeaten season. The chip on the shoulder after losing again to a Crimson Tide team that in recent years seems to have been the final hurdle to their breakthrough to win their third ever national championship, that coupled with forty-one years of hurt after the Bulldogs' last national title in 1980 when a 12-0 Georgia team featuring the sensational running back Herschel Walker beat Notre Dame 17-10. The coach that day, Vince Dooley, was fittingly in the crowd on Monday to watch the newly-crowned national champions.
The national championship. played out in front of an electric atmosphere at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, may well have been won in that transitional five weeks. "We worked", said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, in response to questions on how his team regrouped after the SEC Championship loss. Smart had his own demons to conquer. A former assistant to Alabama coach Nick Saban for eight years, he moved to Georgia in 2016 to build his own elite team, but had lost his four previous meetings in games against Alabama.
"We're going to be aggressive", said Smart before the game. Georgia, winning the toss, trusted their defense to stop Alabama on their first drive. Their defense stepped up. The Bulldogs' man mountain defensive end Jordan Davis sacked Alabama quarterback Bryce Young and Georgia's outstanding linebacker, Nakobe Dean, picked up the loose ball and ran it back for a touchdown on a "scoop and score". First blood to Georgia and a huge statement for their defense.
So they thought. After a review stating that Young's arm was in forward motion and therefore an incomplete pass, the touchdown was cancelled and Alabama completed a first down on their next play with a pass to Jameson Williams. Early in the first quarter, this was a defining moment for Georgia. Drop their heads and they would give the defending champions critical momentum. Keep theirs, and they could win it back.
A Jahleel Billingsley slip on third down restricted Alabama's drive to a 37-yard Will Reichard field goal. Georgia's defense held their ground and a mixture of defensive plays, aggressive rushing and drop backs in to zone coverage put Bryce Young on the back foot. Stetson Bennett, the former walk-on quarterback for Georgia, couldn't take advantage early on, sending his offense back to the sidelines on two "three-and-out" plays. He needed a big play to give his offense confidence and his defense some valuable rest.
A 61-yard pass to George Pickens who made a diving catch briefly ignited the Georgia offense, a momentum-building 87-yard drive ended with points on the board from a 24-yard field goal from Jack Podlesny.
Alabama responded quickly in a moment that proved to be one of the defining moments of the final. Standout receiver Jameson Williams hauled in a 40-yard pass from Young to move the Tide quickly downfield. Williams' knee buckled and he had to be helped off the field, ending his game. It was later confirmed that the Alabama receiver, destined to be a certain top-10 pick in the NFL Draft, had torn his ACL. Flashbacks to last year emerged, when DeVonta Smith left the game at half-time. It was a cruel blow for Williams, and the Crimson Tide. who had already lost their other star receiver, John Metchie III, to injury. Reichard completed the drive with a 45-yard field goal.
It was looking like a tight game in Indianapolis. Both teams swapped a further field goal with the first half finished with Alabama 9-6 up and neither team looking in control. Georgia, tellingly, had given up seven penalties in the first half, the most damaging of which brought a 59-yard return from Kenny McIntosh back to Georgia's 20-yard line for holding. Georgia were needing nine yards on average to convert third downs which was stopping their offense building impetus. With both defenses playing at such a high level and making big stops on third down, it looked as if the ability of the offense to put points on the board would be the deciding factor.
After disappointing opening second-half drives from both teams, Georgia blocked a 48-yard field goal attempt by Will Reichard, having picked off Bryce Young on an earlier drive. Georgia sensed the opportunity. James Cook cut and run for a 67-yard gain placing the Bulldogs within reach of the Alabama end zone. In came Jordan Davis from defensive duties to smash through the Alabama line, allowing Zamir White to run in a one-yard touchdown and give Georgia their first lead, 13-9, with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Early in the fourth, Alabama marched to the Georgia goal line, but huge pressure from the defense disrupted Bryce Young and took away the Heisman winner's time to throw, Alabama had to settle for another field goal but regained the lead on their next drive after forcing a Stetson Bennett fumble which gave them the ball back on Georgia's 16-yard line. Scrambling away from Georgia's hungry pass rush, Young found a stooping Cameron Latu for a three-yard touchdown pass, restoring Alabama's lead to five with 10:18 left in the match.
Digging deep with their season on the line, Georgia put their foot down. Stetson Bennett was targeting the inexperienced Alabama secondary. A free play gave them the lead. Adonai Mitchell caught a 40-yard touchdown pass over Khyree Jackson, giving Georgia back the lead. It was an impressive recovery from Bennett after his fumble and visibly lifted his team.
Bulldogs' defensive back William Poole made a critical pass break-up on Alabama's third-and-twelve on the next drive and Georgia had the ball back with seven minutes left. Cook and White started to run the clock down, picking up two first downs before a Brock Bowers touchdown catch from Bennett on a critical third down play put Georgia 26-18 up with just over three minutes left.
Georgia's dominant defense put the icing on the cake came with 1:10 left. Bryce Young forced a throw downfield on a third-and-ten play which was picked off by Kelee Ringo, who ignored pleas from his head coach to go down to secure the ball and not risk a fumble (see the above clip from Twitter). The defensive back kept going, scampering 79 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, his pick-six clinching the game against the backdrop of jubilant Georgia celebrations in his wake.
This was a fitting end to a fascinating season. All sorts of possibilities for headlines to sum it up. Saban vs. Smart as Master vs. Apprentice or Georgia's Stetson Bennett, the journey of a walk-on quarterback winning it all, the guy with the flip-phone who ignored his critics and social media. Dan Lanning, Georgia's defensive coordinator and mastermind, is off to Oregon next season. His first opponent? Georgia.
Quite simply, the best team won and deserved to win. Kirby Smart, emotional after his first national title as Georgia's head coach, was congratulated by his mentor Saban after the game. It was a cathartic win for Smart. "We burned the boats and came to fight", he said.
"This is a special moment for the University of Georgia and a special moment for this team."