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ATLANTA – The ball buzzed nearly 60 yards in the air, a perfect parabola from Alabama’s Bryce Young that hummed through the dread of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
All afternoon long, Georgia fans partied toward a coronation here, as they entered the game 12-0, boasting a generational defense and championship thirst. Georgia supporters dominated the tailgates, distinctly outnumbered Alabama fans in the stands and saw the SEC title game as the first step toward winning the school’s first national title since 1980.
All that giddy Georgia optimism disappeared quickly in Alabama’s 41-24 SEC title game victory. Alabama scored on five consecutive drives — four touchdowns and a field goal — capped by Young’s deftly thrown 55-yard pass that sailed over two UGA defenders and nestled gently on Jameson Williams’ left hip early in the third quarter.
On a championship Saturday that saw Oklahoma State come inches short of a playoff chance, Cincinnati stalk history and Notre Dame lighting candles for backdoor entry, Young tossed all the hopes, pre-conceived notions and perceptions into the blender.
He delivered one of the most dynamic performances in the history of the SEC championship, a game that generally doubles as a preview of the Pro Bowl. Along the way, he simultaneously crushed Georgia’s relentless optimism and revived Alabama as a national title favorite.
And he set up Alabama coach Nick Saban to gleefully thank the media for providing Alabama with boundless motivational fodder. This toe-headed columnist said on the College Football Enquirer Podcast that Alabama would be lucky to score 14 points. Saban typically has scorn for “rat poison” when his team is praised too much. But he turned the tables: “The rat poison you put out this week was yummy,” he said.
Alabama’s brief and spectacular cameo as an underdog left the college football world pondering the rearranged order of what Sunday’s College Football Playoff could look like – No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Georgia and No. 4 Cincinnati. Or, perhaps, flipping the Wolverines and Tide? Surely the committee wouldn’t pair the Tide and Bulldogs again. (At halftime, with Alabama leading 24-17 and likely assuring two playoff spots for the SEC, commissioner Greg Sankey’s smile glistened from here to College Station.)
Young put forth a performance that will be remembered in SEC circles as the Bryce Young Game. He sashayed with his legs for 40 yards and a touchdown, threw with precision off-platform and broke Mac Jones’ SEC championship record by passing for 421 yards. He added three touchdown passes. “We all answered the bell,” Young said. “We all understood what was at stake.”
Georgia’s reputation for historic defensive dominance is now in flux. They entered the game No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (6.9) and total defense (230.9). Alabama finished with 41 points and 536 yards. “No one else that Georgia has played can throw the ball like Bama,” one assistant coach surmised from home.
Young dazzled with a distinct flair that will long be remembered, as this could be the game years from now when he’s an NFL veteran that’s recalled as the moment he announced himself to the football world at large. Young scrambled and channeled his inner-Air Force quarterback by flipping an option pitch to Bryan Robinson. He hung in and took a hard hit at the goal line for a long pass early in the game. He freelanced some runs and teased some of the athletic dynamism that’s going to make him the favorite to be the top quarterback picked in the 2023 NFL draft.
Young punctured the vaunted Georgia defense, the best the sport had seen statistically since 1986, by finding Jameson Williams on a crossing pattern that saw him outrun the Georgia secondary for 67 yards early in the second quarter. Saban saw that as a turning point: “I think that changed the momentum of the game a little bit for us, so that was really important.”
And that opened up a wound in the UGA defense that never found a tourniquet on Saturday, as Young proceeded to almost single-handedly slay Georgia’s defense. Alabama needed to get the ball out quickly and play the game in Georgia’s secondary. And by doing that, they turned UGA into just another flawed team in a wide-open playoff. “We have a two-game season now, I hope,” Saban said. “That's what we're going to work for.”
The surprise SEC title also ended Alabama’s cameo as an overlooked underdog. Vegas favored Georgia by nearly a touchdown, as Alabama’s offense was stuck in quicksand for 58 minutes before a miracle comeback at Auburn last week. Saban credited the Alabama offensive line — coached by longtime NFL head coach Doug Marrone — for playing more physical and setting the tone for the blowout.
For Georgia, the drumbeat to start backup quarterback J.T. Daniels over Stetson Bennett will only grow louder. This UGA no-show isn't Stetson Bennett's fault, but the distinct lack of playmaking at the quarterback position proved one of the day’s defining contrasts. The culprit that crushed Georgia’s undefeated season and SEC dreams today was a suddenly leaky defense that gave up 537 yards. But there was an aura of helplessness around UGA once it fell behind.
Smart deflected a question about whether he has a decision to make on a starting quarterback for the College Football Playoff, blaming UGA’s defense and inability to run the ball for the loss more than Bennett’s 29-for-48 for 340 yards and two interceptions.
Bryce Young’s resplendent night was so powerful that it not only shook up the CFP and SEC, but it may ripple through the Georgia quarterback room. And that same lightning bolt also restored a familiar world order in the sport.
A year after boasting one of the most dominant teams in the history of the sport, Alabama has replaced six first-round draft picks and figured out a way to return to the CFP.
And the final legacy of the Bryce Young Game will be a simple one — the Crimson Tide pulled an upset so big that we’re all surprised that they’re national title favorites again.