ATLANTA — The Crimson Tide title drought didn’t last long, but it needed a dramatic comeback from a freshman backup quarterback.
Tua Tagovailoa hit freshman wide receiver DeVonta Smith with a 41-yard touchdown pass, and Alabama defeated Georgia 26-23 in overtime to win the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. The win gives the Crimson Tide their fifth title since the 2009 season and first since the 2015 season.
“I don’t know how Coach (Nick) Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tagovailoa said. “Thank God he found me and we’re here right now.”
This is the fifth national title for Saban as head coach of the Crimson Tide and sixth overall. With the win against Georgia head coach — and former Alabama assistant — Kirby Smart, Saban improves to 12-0 against his former staffers in his tenure as Alabama’s head coach.
But it was a nail-biter for Crimson Tide fans.
In a first half that was dominated by defense, Georgia took a 13-0 lead. That led to Alabama benching quarterback Jalen Hurts in favor of Tagovailoa at the start of the third quarter.
“I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did,” Saban said.
A 6-yard Tagovailoa touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Henry Ruggs III made it 13-7 with 8:52 left in the period, but Georgia responded on the following drive with an 80-yard touchdown pass from freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to sophomore wide receiver Mecole Hardman to make it 20-7.
And later tempers flared, as Crimson Tide linebacker Mekhi Brown, who was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, was seen being restrained on the Alabama sideline.
But Alabama didn’t go away. With 3:49 remaining, Tagovailoa found Calvin Ridley in the end zone to make it 20-20.
Alabama had the chance to win in the final seconds of regulation, but the 36-yard kick from Andy Pappanastos was no good.
He was saved in the extra period by Tagovailoa, a dual-threat quarterback from Ewa Beach, Hawaii, who played at the same school as Tennessee Titans quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota. Both Tagovailoa and Mariota played at Saint Louis School in Honolulu.
“This is very big for us kids back home,” Tagovailoa said. “Making our state proud is the biggest thing.”
It was more heartbreak for fans in the state of Georgia, coming less than a year after another local team, the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, blew a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI. The Bulldogs haven’t won a national championship in football since 1980.
“Give (Alabama) credit, but I think everybody can see that Georgia’s going to be a force to be reckoned with,” Smart said. “I’m very proud of this team and this university, and we’re not going anywhere.”
One guarantee heading into Monday night was that the champion was from the Southeastern Conference, which Alabama (SEC West) and Georgia (SEC East) are both members. This is the ninth time in the last 12 seasons that a team from the SEC has won the national championship.
With that, it seemed fitting that this season’s championship game was played in the heart of SEC country: The University of Georgia, which is located in Athens, is about 70 miles away from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, while the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa is a 200-mile drive.
No. 4 Alabama (13-1) was playing in its third straight national championship game. The Crimson Tide, who reached the playoff despite not making it to the SEC championship game, defeated No. 1 Clemson 24-6 in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, avenging the Crimson Tide’s loss to the Tigers in last year’s national championship game.
No. 3 Georgia (13-2), the SEC champion and in the playoff for the first time, defeated No. 2 Oklahoma 54-48 in double overtime in the Rose Bowl semifinal.
This is the first time two teams from the same conference reached the College Football Playoff, a four-team seeded postseason format that began for the 2014 season and replaced the Bowl Championship Series (BCS). The SEC also had two teams featured in the 2011 season finale, when Alabama defeated Louisiana State in the BCS title game.
Counting the national championship, the SEC went 5-6 this bowl season.
College football dates back to the late 1800s and is older than the NFL. The sport, which is a pipeline to the professional level, is well known for its loyal and passionate fan base, including enthusiasts pulling for their alma mater or channeling their rooting interests for another university.
The College Football Playoff determines the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) national champion. The FBS is the highest level of football in the NCAA.