Yes, again: Georgia blows a big lead and a bigger chance

How many times can the same heart be broken in the same way by the same opponent? How many times can Georgia and Alabama play this game -- it happened in the SEC Championship game in 2012, for the national title in January and now once again -- without the star-crossed Bulldogs ever winning.

Stop me if you’ve heard this in other years against other Alabama teams, but Georgia could scarcely have played better than it did against the Crimson Tide. For the third time in six years, it took a double-digit lead with some sort of trophy on the line. For the third time in six years, it lost.

It’s possible that this 35-28 loss might somehow convince the College Football Playoff committee to keep Georgia at No. 4 and therefore in the field that will be announced Sunday, but that’s now up to someone else. The Bulldogs came very close to erasing all doubt Saturday night, but again they failed at the end. Alabama can make you crazy. It made Kirby Smart crazy enough to try a fake punt, but more about that in a bit.

This first half was the second installment of a dream first dreamed on the night of Jan. 8, 2018. Once again, Georgia didn’t just outplay Alabama. Once again, it came close to overwhelming the Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on three consecutive drives – they managed only two touchdowns in the national title game – and Jake Fromm completed almost everything he threw.

In this half, the famous Tua Tagovailoa was the second-best sophomore quarterback on the field. Georgia didn’t run to set up the pass. It passed to open running lanes. The first touchdown came three snaps after Mecole Hardman dropped what should have been the first touchdown. Undeterred, Fromm found Riley Ridley for 11 yards, then Isaac Nauta down the middle for the score. For the second time this season, Bama was behind.

This time Alabama needed 192 seconds to equalize. (They trailed at Ole Miss for 75 seconds.) By now, though, Georgia’s offense had hold of Alabama’s defense. The Bulldogs moved 75 yards on 14 plays over 7:19 to retake the lead. Fromm was 6-for-6 throwing to five different receivers. The drive’s final three plays covered 21 yards, all on the ground – Elijah Holyfield for 5, then for 7, and then D’Andre Swift replicated his cutback at Kentucky to score from 9.

Tagovailoa nearly delivered his second interception of the day – his first had snuffed Alabama’s opening possession and wasted a goal-to-go chance – but Deandre Baker couldn’t stay inbounds. No matter. Swift rushed for 20 yards, then 13. On third-and-3 from the Bama 11, Fromm found the tailback in the left flat. Swift made another guy miss. Georgia led 21-7, a bigger advantage – by one point – than it held that star-crossed night in January.

Josh Jacobs burst 59 yards on the Tide’s next snap. Three plays later, Jacobs saved Bama’s bacon after nearly losing it. He lost the ball inside 1 when Juwan Taylor punched it loose, and for a moment Georgia was celebrating a recovered fumble in the end zone. Replay showed the Jacobs had somehow re-grasped the ball with both hands beyond the goal line before it was knocked free again.

Alabama was within seven points, even as it had been outgained 227 yards to 146 and Tagovailoa had completed only 3 of 9 passes. Four of those had been dropped, including Irv Smith’s flub of what should have been a 50-yard gain when it was 0-0. The difference between these teams wasn’t so great that Bama could beat Georgia playing badly, and that’s what had happened in this half: By playing so well themselves, they Bulldogs had made the Tide look bad.

The second half began with Tagovailoa having a passed tipped and being flagged for grounding. Soon the Tide were again 14 points in arrears. Fromm found Ridley – whose brother Calvin, now a Falcon, had caught the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter in January – for a 23-yard touchdown.

The next Bama series lasted another three plays, its fourth three-and-out of the game. At that moment, Tagovailoa’s passer rating was 32.8; Fromm’s was 202.7. He promptly found Nauta on a delayed slant for 55 yards, and Georgia was positioned to render this alleged mismatch a wipeout the other way. But Fromm missed Ridley on third down, and Rodrigo Blankenship jerked a 30-yard field-goal try wide left. Bama was on the respirator, but it still had life.

Granted its reprieve, Bama finally began to move. But Tagovailoa threw another interception, this time throwing late to Jaylen Waddle, who’d popped open. J.R. Reed flashed across to snag the pass.

As Georgia knows all too well, the Tide never gives up on a game no matter how dire the straits. Georgia couldn’t move off the goal line, and soon Waddle took a pass and fled 51 yards to make the score 28-21. By quarter’s end, Alabama had the ball again with a chance to tie, and hadn’t everyone seen this movie – and various sequels – before?

In January, Saban changed quarterbacks because Jalen Hurts, 26-2 as a collegiate starter, could do nothing against Georgia. Come the fourth quarter, Hurts was summoned in relief of Tagovailoa, whose ankle buckled after offensive lineman Jonah Williams stepped on it. Hurts led Bama to first-and-goal at the 10, and then his bit of improvisation – he scrambled left on third-and-goal – enabled Jerry Jeudy to catch the tying touchdown with 5:19 remaining.

Now it was down to Georgia to answer, to clinch its second consecutive SEC title and a second consecutive playoff berth, and it couldn’t. Fromm’s third-down pass to Hardman was batted away. A bizarre fake punt on fourth-and-11 saw Justin Fields, No. 2 quarterback, stopped nine yards short. Hurts found Irv Smith on third-and-7. Then Hurts dashed 15 yards to give Bama its first lead.

The game ended with Fromm’s Hail Mary being batted to the end-zone turf. The game ended with the same team winning, which meant the Bulldogs were again the losers in one of the best games you’ll ever see. Old Lady Luck has deserted them. The law of averages have been no help. Try as they might, they can’t catch Bama. But boy do they come close.