Once again, Georgia gives back a lead and loses to Alabama

Credit: Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

Credit: Crimson Tide Photos / UA Athletics

Once again, Georgia had a second-half lead on Alabama. Once again, they gave it back. The Bulldogs have closed the gap on Alabama in every way except the one that matters most. They can’t beat Bama, and so far that’s kept them from where they want to go.

Georgia coach Kirby Smart lost to Alabama for the third time in three tries. This game wasn’t as big as the other two. There was no championship was on the line. The Bulldogs can recover from this loss. If they win the SEC East, they’ll likely see the Crimson Tide again in the title game.

Yet this 41-24 loss is the latest evidence that Georgia hasn’t caught Alabama. That was Smart’s task when he left Alabama four years ago. Well, technically, winning a national championship is the goal, but that essentially requires beating Alabama at some point.

The Bulldogs get as many good players as Alabama. They also pay a lot of money for a lot of coaches. But they still can’t beat Bama.

“Give Alabama a lot of credit,” Smart said. “They have great skill players, and I thought we contained them early. The second half we couldn’t do it. Give their coaches credit. They outcoached us."

Saban improved to 22-0 in games against teams coached by his former assistants. Smart’s teams had played the Crimson Tide closest from that group. This one was tight for a spell. The Bulldogs had a 24-17 lead seconds before halftime. Alabama stole a field goal before halftime, then routed Georgia after it.

ExplorePhotos from Georgia's loss to Alabama

This time it wasn’t Jalen Hurts replacing Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, or vice versa, and rallying Alabama. They’re in the NFL. Wide receiver Jaylen Waddle is still at Bama, though. Their old nemesis stuck it to the Bulldogs again.

Waddle streaked for a 90-yard touchdown that put the Tide ahead for good in the third quarter. His performance as a freshman against Georgia in the 2018 SEC Championship game made him a star. Now Waddle is on his way to becoming the first wide receiver selected in the next NFL draft.

Or, if it’s not Waddle, maybe it will be teammate DeVonta Smith. Smith had 167 yards and two touchdowns. Waddle had 161 yards and the 90-yard score. Those two and quarterback Mac Jones connected 17 times.

“They have perfect throws, perfect catches and we were playing a great ball club in Alabama,” Georgia safety Richard LeCounte said.

Georgia had a good drive going after Waddle’s touchdown. Stetson Bennett passed 36 yards to Jermaine Burton and James Cook ran 10 yards for a first down at Alabama’s 25-yard line. But Bennett’s third-down pass was picked off by freshman safety Malachi Moore near the goal line.

The Tide turned that turnover into a touchdown. Bennett threw another interception on the first play of the fourth quarter. Alabama running back Najee Harris pounded away on a 10-play drive that ended with another touchdown.

That made the score 41-24, Alabama. Georgia was on its way to another come-from-ahead loss to the Tide. The Bulldogs had two-score leads on Alabama after halftime in the 2017 national championship game (20-7) and 2018 SEC title game (28-14). You know how those games ended.

Three times the Bulldogs seemingly had Alabama in trouble. Three times they ended up with the same results as every team coached by a former Saban subordinate.

Who could blame Smart if he’s tired of hearing about it? But Bama often will be in the way of Georgia’s ambitions, so beating Saban is the bar.

Saban was cleared to coach in this game after the SEC determined his positive test for COVID-19 was false. It was a weird subplot to the buzz for Alabama vs. Georgia, Saban vs. Smart. Then the game started and things got weirder.

The first 104 seconds featured two turnovers and a touchdown. Georgia used some ham-fisted deception that somehow worked to set up a go-ahead touchdown before halftime. Alabama answered with a field goal after the stadium clock showed zeroes.

A minute before halftime, Georgia’s offense lined up on fourth-and-inches 11 yards from Alabama’s end zone. There was a formation shift and a hard count by Bennett. Alabama didn’t bite. Bennett tried it again. The Tide took the bait.

Offsides on Alabama, first-and-goal Georgia.

On first down, Bennett couldn’t connect with Darnell Washington. Then he threw too high for Burton, who was open in the end zone. The third try was good: touchdown, Burton.

The Tide started their next drive on their 25-yard line with 23 seconds until halftime. Alabama gained 14 yards on back-to-back plays but used its final two timeouts. Jones completed a pass to Waddle at Georgia’s 34-yard line, then ran to the spot to spike the ball.

The clock showed zero when he did it. Smart started taking his team off the field. Game officials called him back. They ruled one second was left. Will Reichard kicked a 52-yard field goal as time expired, really this time.

“I thought it brought their crowd back into it,” Smart said. “We didn’t want to give up a big shot to Waddle, and we didn’t play that aggressive. That is on me."

Those points ended up not mattering much. The Bulldogs had a 24-20 lead at halftime. Their first four drives after it ended punt, punt, interception and interception. Alabama punted once, then scored three straight touchdowns.

With Smart, the Bulldogs have closed the player talent gap with Alabama. The 247 Sports composite places Georgia No. 1 and Alabama No. 2 for most top recruits on the roster. Smart looked to have the team to beat Bama this year.

The Bulldogs bullied Auburn and Tennessee in consecutive weeks. But the Tigers are 14th and the Volunteers 15th in that 247 composite team talent ranking. They shouldn’t be on UGA’s level and they aren’t.

Tennessee took a beating at home from Kentucky on Saturday afternoon with fans in the stands. Auburn lost at South Carolina. Those results prompted questions about the Bulldogs before they took the field in Tuscaloosa. Just how good are they?

Alabama also faced scrutiny for its 63-48 victory against Ole Miss a week ago. The Tide ceded 647 yards, a record for them. Just how good is Alabama’s defense?

By game time, Saban’s COVID-19 testing drama overshadowed all of that.

Saban tested positive Wednesday. According to Alabama, he tested negative for three 24-hour periods thereafter. Per SEC protocols, that counted as a false positive. Saban was cleared Saturday afternoon.

Before the game, CBS sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl relayed Saban’s thoughts on rejoining his team: “It was not a good feeling to not be around my players.” Sentimental Saban warms the heart.

Steve Sarkisian was to be in charge on the Alabama sideline if Saban couldn’t. Sarkisian, the offensive coordinator, probably is a better coach than he gets credit for. And it’s not as if Saban is immune to high-profile blunders during games. But he’s the greatest college football coach of modern times, if not all of them, so maybe having him in command was a boost for Alabama.

Certainly, the defense played a lot better. The Bulldogs came out passing. Good idea considering how easily Ole Miss did it. But it didn’t go well for Georgia.

Its first possession started at Alabama’s 31-yard line courtesy of LeCounte’s interception. It ended three plays later when Tide nose tackle DJ Dale tipped Bennett’s pass and teammate Justin Eboigbe caught it.

That turnover led to John Metchie’s 40-yard touchdown. Georgia tried to pass four times on its next drive. The results: holding penalty, four-yard gain, five-yard gain, 12-yard sack. All night Georgia’s linemen couldn’t keep pass rushers away from Bennett. They fared better as run blockers.

After a poor Alabama punt, rushes by Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton got Georgia in scoring position. Bennett’s 10-yard pass to Cook created a first-and-goal and Zamir White ran 10 yards for a score. Georgia’s defense forced a third straight punt, then Bennett made Alabama pay for sending extra rushers.

Tide linebacker Dylan Moses hit Bennett hard as he let go of a second-down pass. He still managed to get it to Cook, who had slipped behind his defender. Cook caught the ball and streaked for an 82-yard touchdown.

That gave the Bulldogs a 14-7 lead. The Tide later would forge a 17-17 tie. The Bulldogs answered with the hard-count caper and a touchdown. Then they gave the lead back, again.

“We have a great team, man," LeCounte said. "The team who played better tonight won. It’s not really a demoralizing thing. ... We’re good. It’s just a little bump in our road.”

Maybe, but it’s the same bump. The Bulldogs can make the Tide work but they still can’t beat 'em.