ATLANTA — Alabama coach Nick Saban changed his quarterback. Whether it was desperation or divine inspiration, that decision changed the College Football Playoff National Championship Game and the course of college football history.
What started as a sleepy SEC slugfest between Alabama and Georgia ended up as a nail-biting instant classic. It was a game that enhanced the legend of Saban and introduced the Legend of Tua Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide’s unlikely Hawaiian Hero. Riding Tagovailoa and his fellow unflappable freshmen, Alabama captured its second national title in three seasons — its fifth under Saban since 2009 — with a 26-23 overtime victory Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Youth was served for Alabama, and it served the Crimson Tide well. Saban was forced to hit the fast-forward button on the future. All those players with recruiting stars became stars when it mattered most, turning the tide for the Tide. All of Alabama’s touchdowns involved freshmen, including three touchdown passes from true freshman Tagovailoa, the last a 41-yard game-winner in overtime to fellow frosh DeVonta Smith that will live forever in the hound’s-tooth hearts of the Alabama faithful.
That’s sobering news for the rest of college football. Alabama doesn’t rebuild. It reloads on the run and wins national titles with kids who were in high school when Alabama lost the title game last year to Clemson and Deshaun Watson in similarly dramatic fashion. Sorry, but Bama is only going to get better as its precocious playmakers get more experience and soak up more of Saban’s wisdom.
The poor folks of the Peach State again had a vaunted football empire leave a pit in their stomachs. Playing in the home stadium of the Atlanta Falcons, the Georgia Bulldogs imitated their NFL counterparts, squandering a championship game they seemingly controlled. This wasn’t egregious like the Falcons coughing up a 28-3 lead to the Patriots in Super Bowl LI. But paralleling the Falcons’ failure, Georgia never trailed until the decisive overtime touchdown.
The Bulldogs led, 20-7, and had the ball at the Alabama 39-yard line with 6:32 left in the third quarter after a Tagovailoa interception. However, Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm gave the ball right back with a fluke interception that deflected off the helmet of Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand. It was a turning point; Alabama cashed in with a field goal.
But the real turning point was Saban’s decision to turn to Tagovailoa to start the second half after Alabama trailed, 13-0, at halftime. The highly touted Hawaiian set his state’s high school career passing mark with 8,158 yards at the same school that produced Heisman Trophy winner and Tennessee Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“We needed a spark on offense,” said Saban. “Tua certainly gave us that and did a really good job.”
The lefthander jump-started an anemic Alabama offense and finished 14 of 24 for 166 yards. Tagovailoa said “aloha” to college football lore, rallying Bama from a 13-point third-quarter deficit to tie the game on a fourth-down TD pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:49 remaining. Freshman running back Najee Harris ignited Bama’s stagnant running game in the fourth quarter, accumulating all 64 of his rushing yards on six fourth-quarter carries.
Alabama nearly won the game in regulation as Tagovailoa drove Bama to set up a potential game-winning field goal on the last play of regulation. But Andy Pappanastos experienced the cruelest fate for a kicker. He bent the kick of a lifetime wide left from 36 yards, sending the championship game to overtime for the first time in its history — and allowing Tagovailoa and Saban to make history.
After Georgia took a 23-20 lead in overtime on a 51-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship, Tagovailoa took a 16-yard sack on first and 10 from the 25, which is where teams start with the ball in the odious college overtime format.
Former Patriots tight ends coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Brian Daboll dialed up an all-verticals call on second down, and Tagovailoa hit a streaking Smith.
Alabama was positively Patriot-like in pulling out this victory. Saban has beaten his good friend and former boss Bill Belichick to the punch in winning his sixth championship. Nicky National Title now joins the late Paul “Bear” Bryant as the only college football coaches to win six national championships. It was fitting that it was Smith, wearing No. 6, who delivered title No. 6 for the best football coach on the planet not named Belichick.
“This is a great win for our players, and I’ve never been happier in my life,” said Saban.
Saban remained undefeated in 12 games against his protégés as Alabama coach. It was a soul-crushing defeat for Georgia coach Kirby Smart, Alabama’s former defensive coordinator who in his second season at his alma mater had Georgia on the precipice of its first national title since 1980.
“In overtime, we didn’t finish when we had to and Alabama did,” said Smart. “Give them credit. But I think everybody can see that Georgia is going to be a force to be reckoned with. I’m very proud of this team and this university.”
It would have been hard to anticipate a heart-pounding denouement and duel between true freshman quarterbacks in the first half. The biggest drama associated with the game was the attendance of President Trump, which caused some fans in the pro-Georgia crowd of 77,430 to get caught in a morass of security measures that delayed their entrance into the stadium.
Most of the first half was like watching the Monitor and the Merrimack bounce cannonballs off each other in the famous Civil War naval tussle. The game didn’t lack entertainment value, but it did lack a touchdown until the final seven seconds of the half.
Leading, 6-0, on a pair of field goals, Georgia got the ball on its own 31 with 1:19 to go. The Bulldogs converted a third and 10 with a 14-yard run by Sony Michel (14 carries for 98 yards), who set up Georgia’s first field goal by ripping off a 26-yard run on third and 20 from the Bulldogs’ 48.
Georgia cashed in on a creative play call. It ran the Wildcat, direct snapping the ball to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who raced into the end zone from a yard out.
It was an uncharacteristic half for Alabama. It committed costly penalties and allowed chunk plays (26, 23, 16, 16, and 14 yards) on third down. Alabama was outgained, 223 yards to 94. Nearly a third of those yards came on a QB draw by Jalen Hurts.
The rhythmic chant of Georgia fans rang true: “It’s great . . . to be . . . a Georgia . . . Bulldog.”
But it wouldn’t last.
Saban and Tagovailoa changed the game.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.