12/01/2018 -- Atlanta, Georgia -- Georgia Bulldogs running back D'Andre Swift (7) runs out of a tackle to complete a touchdown during the first half of the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Saturday, December 1, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Alyssa Pointer
Photo: Alyssa Pointer

Alabama finally gets tested and shows it’s up for it

The question was abstract: How would Alabama respond when challenged? No one knew because all season the Crimson Tide had bullied opponents until they submitted. 

In 12 games, Alabama had trailed for barely more than a minute. The Crimson Tide won every game by at least 22 points. Heck, the Tide won half their SEC games by 30-plus points. 

But they had yet to see Georgia, and the Bulldogs did not back down. They resisted the Tide in the SEC Championship game Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama had its usual air of certainty early, but Georgia knocked it from them and replaced it with something unfamiliar: doubt. 

Now we know what happens when Bama can’t play bully ball. Georgia pushed the Tide, who lost their footing before pushing back. They trailed by two scores for the first time all season, lost star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to injury in the fourth quarter, but still found a way to win. 

The Tide will be in the College Football Playoff after this 35-28 victory. Jalen Hurts, Tagovailoa’s replacement, ran for the winning score with about a minute to go. The Tide had trailed 28-14 with 12 minutes left. 

Alabama escaped with another big victory over Georgia after also doing it in last season’s CFP Championship game. Nick Saban bested Kirby Smart, improving to 16-0 against his former assistants. The Tide are alive for their second undefeated season under Saban. 

In this game, the Tide lost their sense of indestructibility. But they gained certainty that they can beat an elite opponent that doesn’t capitulate. Georgia took it to the Tide, and they showed something by giving it right back. 

The Bulldogs exploited Alabama’s one major weakness, allowing big plays. They controlled the Tide’s best player, Tagovailoa — he tossed two interceptions near the goal line after he had two picks in 269 attempts before Saturday. 

The Tide trailed Georgia 28-14 when Tagovailoa threw his second interception. Georgia stressed Alabama’s defense all day but, this time, the Tide forced a three-and-out. Four plays later Tagovailoa passed to Jaylen Waddle, who delivered a 51-yard catch-and-run touchdown. 

The Bulldogs ran five plays before punting again. For the first since early in the game you could feel the Bulldogs bobble. But then, after the teams traded punts, Tagovailoa went out with an ankle injury. 

Enter Hurts, who took Alabama to the last CFP Championship game against the Bulldogs before Tagovailoa finished them off. Hurts completed two long passes during that drive before delivering a 10-yard TD toss on the run to Jerry Jeudy. 

Tie score, 5:19 to go, Alabama had its mojo back. Its defense stiffened again, and Smart, perhaps sensing Alabama wouldn’t be stopped again, tried a fake punt at midfield. It didn’t work.

Alabama needed just five plays to take the only lead it would need. What a comeback for the Tide. They scored the game’s final 21 points after they appeared vulnerable for the first time all season.

Alabama trailed by a touchdown after Georgia scored first. The Tide were down two touchdowns in the second quarter. They were lucky to be down seven at halftime — Josh Jacobs fumbled at the goal line, then stretched out to recover it in the end zone. 

This was all new for the Tide. They hadn’t trailed since September, when Ole Miss scored a touchdown on the first play. The Tide tied the score 70 seconds later, part of 62 consecutive points. 

The next week, Texas A&M was down 21-13 at home to Alabama 3:24 before halftime. The Tide scored 10 more points before the break. Texas A&M scored with less than eight minutes left to get within 22 points of the lead, but three minutes remained when the Aggies saw the ball again. 

This was how it’s gone for Alabama. When the Tide didn’t blitz opponents with points, they methodically grinded them down until they had nothing left. They could do neither to Georgia, which led 21-7 four minutes before halftime. 

Georgia was all over Tagovailoa from the first drive. The Bulldogs sniffed out a second-and-goal pass play and D’Andre Walker and Juwan Taylor sacked Tagovailoa. The quarterback limped away after that play. 

Some of Alabama’s early issues were self-inflicted. After that sack, Tagovailoa tossed an interception to Georgia safety Richard LeCounte. The Tide’s next drive ended when Irv Smith dropped a third-down pass with open space all around him. 

With those plays, the Tide lost their early vibe of inevitability. Georgia got the ball first and went three-and-out. D’Andre Swift could do little more than dive into piles on first and second down. On third down, Tide nose guard Quinnen Williams tossed aside his man and grabbed Fromm for a sack. 

Alabama returned the ensuing punt to Georgia’s 29-yard line. Punt returns are a Tide weakness, so that play added to the feeling that the Tide were raring for a rout. That sense grew when, two plays later, Alabama had a first-and-goal. 

But then Tagovialoa had a rare lapse. His third interception of the season was a bad one — Tagovialoa apparently didn’t see LeCounte roaming the goal line. A penalty during LeCounte’s return cost the Bulldogs field position and they ended up punting, but the Tide gave the ball right back when Smith dropped that pass. 

It wasn’t going to be easy for Alabama. The Tide did it the hard way. They answered the question we could only wonder about before. When the Tide are challenged, they still find a way to win.

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About the Author

Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham
Michael Cunningham has covered the Hawks and other beats for the AJC since 2010.