ATLANTA — It has been true from the time Nick Saban arrived in Tuscaloosa a decade and a half ago, and remains so even with one of the more flawed teams he has coached in that time: Never count Alabama out.
With its College Football Playoff hopes on the line against a No. 1-ranked Georgia team that had carried an aura of dominance around the Southeastern Conference for the last three months, Alabama delivered one more jolt to a season of chaos with a 41-24 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium that should cement the Crimson Tide as the No. 1 seed heading into Sunday’s playoff selections.
Yes, No. 1 seed and SEC champion Alabama. The same team that needed a near-miracle just a week ago to come from behind against 6-6 Auburn. The same team that looked vulnerable against the likes of Arkansas and LSU and took a loss to Texas A&M. The same team whose offensive line seemed like a nightmare waiting to happen against a Georgia defense that had given up a meager 230 yards per game this season.
None of it mattered Saturday as Alabama found a way to attack Georgia’s secondary and protect quarterback Bryce Young just well enough for him to deliver a potential Heisman Trophy-winning performance.
Young, the sophomore who has carried Alabama’s offense all season, found soft spots in the Georgia defense that had not been there for any other opponent this season, throwing for 421 yards and three touchdowns on 26-of-44 completions. For some context, the only team that had thrown for 300-plus yards on Georgia this season was Tennessee in a 41-17 loss. Alabama’s 41 points were more than the Bulldogs had allowed in the entire months of September, October or November. Its 537 yards were more than twice what Georgia gave up to seven opponents this season.
And the magnitude of that performance certainly raises some new questions about Georgia, a team that did not face the toughest of SEC schedules this season and whose best wins came against No. 20 Clemson, No. 22 Arkansas and No. 23 Kentucky.
Still, it would be hard to imagine the playoff selection committee punishing Georgia enough to drop the Bulldogs out of the final four completely, particularly without any other obvious options. Though Notre Dame went 11-1, its résumé lacks a top-25 win. The only other option would be Big 12 champion Baylor (11-2), whose 30-28 loss to a 5-7 TCU team will probably end up being the game that keeps the Bears out of the playoff.
Assuming Georgia is still in, it sets up a scenario where these two teams could meet again for the national title, just as they did in 2017. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is now 0-4 in his career against Saban, who employed him as an assistant at Alabama from 2007-15.
Despite its playoff hopes being on the ropes several times this year, Alabama may be rounding into form just in time. Though it appeared for the first quarter like Georgia was playing the game it wanted to play — the Dawgs led 10-0 on the first snap of the second quarter — Alabama stabilized right away when receiver Jameson Williams got wide open over the middle and raced away to a 67-yard touchdown.
From there, the Crimson Tide left Georgia choking on exhaust. By halftime, Young had set an SEC championship game record with 286 passing yards as Alabama took a 24-17 lead. Alabama’s momentum continued in the second half, taking it 75 yards on five plays to open the third quarter and forcing Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV into two interceptions, including a 42-yard touchdown return by safety Jordan Battle to make it 38-17.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Alabama hands Georgia first loss, earns playoff slot