ATLANTA — For one of the first times in the Nick Saban era, Alabama was reeling.
Georgia had shut out Saban’s Crimson Tide in the first half of Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship. The Bulldogs’ offense was starting to click, while Alabama’s special teams continued to lag.
Dynastic ’Bama looked timid on a stage it knew well, while Georgia looked hungry for its first national title in 37 years.
"We have to do something," Saban said at halftime.
That something: Bench the quarterback who got him within a second of winning a national title last year at Raymond James Stadium.
It worked brilliantly. It might have been the best coaching decision of the best coaching job of the best coach in college football history. And it’s the reason the Tide, trailing throughout, rallied from a pair of two-score deficits and won 26-23 in overtime, in front of a Bulldogs-heavy crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
"If your number’s called, then you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do to give the team ... the best opportunity to win the game," said backup quarterback Tua Tagovaiola, who won’t hold that title much longer.
His three-touchdown, one-interception MVP performance bailed ‘Bama (13-1) out after Georgia (13-2) started to roll.
Bulldogs running back Sony Michel had 97 yards on his first 13 carries. The most important ones were the 26 he tight-roped on third and 20 to set up a second-quarter field goal. The Tide’s running backs rushed for 27 only first-half yards, and its passing attack was nonexistent.
A conservative approach made matters worse. One timid drive late in the second quarter stalled in Georgia territory. A second set up the Bulldogs’ first touchdown — receiver Mecole Hardman’s direct-snap 1-yard rush that gave Georgia a 13-0 halftime lead.
That’s when Saban made the call that won the Tide’s fifth national title in nine years and the sixth of his career, tying him with the legendary Bear Bryant for the most in college football history.
"I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark," Saban said.
So he pulled starter Jalen Hurts, who was 3-of-8 passing for 21 yards and rushed for 47 in the first half. That’s the same Hurts who nearly became the second true freshman in college football history to quarterback his team to a national title. The same one who ranks third in school history in total offense. The same one who entered with a 25-2 record as a starter.
If Hurts was disappointed, he didn’t show it.
"I’m happy we’re national champions," Hurts said.
Saban inserted Tagovailoa, the highly touted true freshman who drew rave reviews in practice but entered Monday with all of 53 career passes.
His 59th was massive. On his second series, Tagovailoa found receiver Henry Ruggs for a 6-yard touchdown that made it a one-score game. But Georgia answered four plays later, when quarterback Jake Fromm hit Hardman for an 80-yard, third-down touchdown strike to expand the lead back to 13. With the way both teams played defense Monday (and all season), the two-score gap seemed insurmountable.
It wasn’t, thanks to Tagovailoa (14-of-24 passing, 166 yards, 12 rushes for 27 yards).
Tagovailoa led two field goal drives to trim the deficit to 20-13 with 9:24 left. Then he delivered two plays that rank among the best in the Tide’s illustrious history.
The first came on fourth and 4 from the Georgia 7. Tagovailoa handled the pressure, rolled around and found Calvin Ridley in the end zone to tie it with 3:49 left.
"It was all Tua, to tell you the truth," Ridley said.
Alabama’s missed field goal on the final play of regulation led to overtime and Tagovailoa’s second monumental throw — after a freshman mistake.
Tagovailoa took a 16-yard sack on his first overtime snap. Given Alabama’s two missed field goals and the three points needed to force a second overtime, the lost yardage could have been disastrous.
Saban joked — we think — that he wanted to get a hold of him immediately afterward, "but I couldn’t get out there fast enough."
Freshman receiver DeVonta Smith looked over to Tagovailoa on the next play and said, "Trust me, bro." Tagovailoa nodded, then found Smith splitting Georgia’s secondary for a 41-yard touchdown and the title. It was the first time ‘Bama led all game.
As much as Monday was about Tagovailoa’s heroics, it also came down to Saban’s mind, beyond the gutsy decision to bench his quarterback in the biggest game of them all.
His Tide was as injury-riddled as any team he can remember in his four-decade career. Starting middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton has been out for weeks. His replacement, freshman Dylan Moses, was out, too. So was another linebacker, Anfernee Jennings. It didn’t matter.
The injuries and SEC parity led ’Bama to look vulnerable for most of the season. The Tide did not win its division, let alone its conference. If Iowa hadn’t blown out Ohio State by 31 points, ’Bama probably wouldn’t have qualified for its fourth consecutive playoff appearance, much less a third straight trip to the title game.
Even Kirby Smart — the Georgia head coach and Saban’s former top lieutenant — said last week that the Tide was "not as unbeatable as they have been."
Until it mattered most.
Then Saban was unbeatable again.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected] Follow @MBakerTBTimes.