ATLANTA — Alabama and Georgia met 327 days ago on this very same field, in a national championship game so big it required overtime for the Crimson Tide to win. Saturday in the SEC championship, with a spot in the College Football playoff on the line, the rematch went Georgia’s way right up until the moment it didn’t. It was eerie — and for Georgia fans, gut-churning — as Alabama came back with a backup quarterback to win 35-28 and seal a spot in the College Football Playoff.
The backup this time was Jalen Hurts, who came on for an injured Tua Tagovailoa. Hurts was incredible as soon as he took the field, none more so than on the final drive of the game as he scored a 15-yard rushing touchdown with just over 60 seconds to provide the winning margin.
Hurts was 2-of-2 passing for 35 yards on the drive and finished the game 7-of-9 passing for 82 yards and a score. That passing touchdown tied the game at 28-28 earlier in the fourth quarter.
“I’m so proud of this guy for what he’s done this year, I can’t even tell you,” Nick Saban said after the game of his former starter who was relegated to backup duty in this same building 11 months ago. As Saban spoke glowingly of his quarterback, his pride was clearly visible.
Ghosts hung heavy over this game for the Bulldogs, ghosts of second-and-26 and blown opportunities and lost national championships. If Georgia was going to have any kind of hope of exorcizing those ghosts — to say nothing of winning this game — it would need to get, and force, the kinds of breaks that Alabama just doesn’t give up. Breaks like … intercepting a Tagovailoa pass on the goal line, which the Bulldogs’ Richard LeCounte did to snap off the Tide’s first drive.
Georgia couldn’t flip that gift into points, but on the next drive showed why they’d be the toughest opponent the Tide had faced all season. Bulldogs quarterback Jake Fromm executed a virtually flawless drive, going four for five — the only miss was a drop in the end zone by Mecole Hardman — and orchestrating a brilliant strategy that ended with an Isaac Nauta reception for a touchdown. For the first time all season, Alabama trailed at the end of a quarter, 7-0.
But the Tide doesn’t stay contained for long. Alabama overcame some early game mistakes — Tagovailoa’s interception, drops by receivers Irv Smith and Jerry Jeudy that would have been certain or near-touchdowns — and began its slow, relentless grind. Joshua Jacobs opened the second quarter with a one-yard stroll straight into the end zone to even the score at 7.
Georgia countered — as literally only Georgia can — with another well-choreographed drive, this one 12 plays over 65 yards, taking nearly seven and a half minutes. D’Andre Swift capped it with a sweet little deke-and-ditch move from 9 yards out for another go-ahead touchdown.
And then maybe, just maybe, Bama started to flinch. Saban began mixing in backup quarterback Jalen Hurts for snaps, and Tagovailoa nearly threw a pick-six trying to throw a ball halfway across the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field. On the ensuing drive, Georgia scored a third straight touchdown on a Swift reception; he became just the fifth player in SEC championship history to score both on the ground and in the air.
That put the score at 21-7 Georgia, and some foolish souls in the pro-Bulldog (or anti-Bama) camp began to hope.
What followed was an object lesson in why you don’t get comfortable with a lead against Bama until two or three years after the game’s over. On the very next play from scrimmage, Jacobs ran for 59 yards, down to the Georgia 16, and three plays later the Tide was in the end zone and the deficit was a mere seven points. That was enough to incense Saban heading into halftime.
“We made some mental errors. We’ve got to play better on defense,” Saban told CBS as he was leaving the field at halftime. “They’re running the ball on us. We’re not staying in our gaps, we’re not executing. We’ve also squandered opportunities throwing an interception in the red area, not moving the ball consistently enough on offense when we have it, dropping a couple balls. All in all, not a real good half.”
Alabama received to start the second half and, well … matters didn’t go so well for the Tide. As Tagovailoa continued to limp and flail, Alabama went three-and-out, putting the ball right back in the hands of the dead-eyed Fromm.
Starting from midfield, Fromm followed a 21-yard scamper from Elijah Holyfield with a 23-yard dart to Riley Ridley on the edge of the end zone. Georgia went up two touchdowns on the Tide, and suddenly Alabama was in a bit of trouble.
But just as in the national championship game, Georgia couldn’t land the knockout blow. A 55-yard Fromm-to-Nauta pass to the Alabama 20 resulted in zero points when Georgia’s generally infallible kicker, Rodrigo Blankenship, pushed a field-goal attempt wide left. A second Tagovailoa interception midway through the third quarter similarly yielded zip, as Georgia went three-and-out. On the ensuing possession, Tagovailoa hit Jaylen Waddle for a 51-yard touchdown that pulled the Tide back within a touchdown and sent a jolt like CPR paddles through the Alabama crowd.
By the fourth quarter, Georgia had cooled to room temperature, punting three straight times after Blankenship’s missed field goal. Momentum wasn’t all the way in Alabama’s corner, but it was headed that way.
And then Tagovailoa, who had been nursing an injured left ankle all afternoon long, dropped to the turf as his uninjured right ankle got stepped on by an offensive lineman and the strangeness of this rivalry took another turn as Hurts came in at quarterback. It was the mirror image of that national championship game, when Saban yanked an ineffective Hurts at halftime and Tagovailoa led the Tide to a trophy and the starting job.
This time it was Hurts’ chance to come up big, and he did, marching the Tide all the way down to the shadow of the Georgia goalposts with a drive punctuated by big conversion after big conversion. It ended with a brilliant rollout touchdown as Hurts found a diving Jeudy in the right corner of the end zone to even up the score at 28 apiece with five minutes remaining.
That would have been plenty of time for Georgia to get in position for a field goal, but once again the Bulldog offense sputtered at midfield. And then Georgia made the curious, to put it politely, decision to fake a field goal at midfield on fourth and 11. It’s a decision that will be second-guessed for as long as Georgia plays football because it set the stage for Hurts, who led the fantastic drive for the win.
Georgia got the ball back one last time and converted two fourth downs. But a Hail Mary throw from inside Alabama’s 40 fell incomplete and Alabama hung on for the win.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• George H.W. Bush always had a special connection to baseball
• Washington grinds past Utah to win Pac-12 title
• Paylor: Recent history forced Chiefs’ hand in cutting Kareem Hunt
• NFL awards rankings: Can anyone catch Brees for MVP?