ATLANTA- Alabama was the best team in college football. It had dominated every team it had faced. Crimson Tide quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was the clear Heisman favorite.
For the first three quarters of play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, Georgia flipped the script. But in the end, it was Alabama who came out on top in the fourth quarter, seizing the lead with just over a minute remaining and winning the 2018 SEC Championship Game 35-28.
Tagovailoa, considered by many to be the Heisman favorite, looked nothing of the sort, going just 10 of 25 with two interceptions. But after Tagovailoa went down with an ankle injury in the fourth quarter, Jalen Hurts took over and orchestrated a comeback to remember. Hurts, who was replaced by Tagovailoa in the second half of last year’s national championship game and never returned as Alabama’s starter, led the charge this time.
“We played [Hurts] as much as we could so that, if this came up, he was going to be ready,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “I think it worked out great, and I think this is a great example of why guys don’t need to run off and just transfer every chance they get or every time something doesn’t work out.”
On the same drive he entered, Hurts brought the Crimson Tide down the field to tie the game at 28 on a touchdown pass to receiver Jerry Jeudy.
Then, after a failed fake punt attempt for Georgia gave Alabama the ball at its own 48-yard line, with just over three minutes remaining, Hurts led another drive down the field. This time, the drive concluded in a touchdown run of his own to give Alabama a lead it never relinquished.
“I just think that the quick change-up kind of caught our defense off guard, and they’re two different style players that are both mobile, but they run differently,” defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said.
The Crimson Tide’s receiving corps was considered one of the best in the nation going into the game. In the first half, it was Alabama’s running game that kept it afloat. The Crimson Tide entered halftime with just 34 receiving yards compared to 112 rushing yards. But in the second half, Alabama turned the tides, finishing the day with 246 receiving yards.
“They had formationed us in a couple things that confused our players a little bit,” Saban said. “I think we just needed to get everybody settled down and making the right adjustments, and I think we played a little better in the second half because of it.”
Meanwhile, after relying on its passing game early, Georgia established its running game in the second quarter against the highly-touted Alabama defensive line. By the third quarter, Georgia looked exactly like it had in recent weeks: a balanced offense, firing on all cylinders through the air and on the ground. The Bulldogs finished the day with 153 rushing yards and 301 receiving yards.
The Bulldogs got on the board in the first quarter with a touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to Isaac Nauta. After Alabama evened things up with a touchdown in the opening seconds of the second quarter, D’Andre Swift put Georgia back on top with two straight touchdowns: one on the ground and one through the air.
In the second half, the opportunities to steal the momentum kept coming for Alabama. But it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Crimson Tide finally capitalized.
Alabama received the opening kickoff of the third quarter down just one score. But after the first drive, it seemed it was Georgia that had made the right halftime adjustments. The Bulldogs forced a three-and-out and then marched down the field for another touchdown to go up 28-14.
Midway through the third quarter, Alabama threatened again, with the ball on Georgia’s 28-yard line. Receiver Jaylen Waddle got open near the goal line, and a touchdown seemed inevitable. Instead, Tagovailoa lofted a throw that was picked off by J.R. Reed, snuffing out another chance for the Crimson Tide to steal back the momentum.
Alabama finally got back within one score in the third quarter, as Tagovailoa threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Waddle.
Then, in the fourth quarter, after keeping the game close throughout the second half, Alabama finally capitalized off its opportunities. From there, it was Hurts’s game, as he evened the score and led the Crimson Tide to a win, unseating the reigning SEC champions.
“We couldn’t close the deal,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “Everybody is going to point to whether it’s a field goal, whether it’s a fake punt, or whether it’s a breakdown on third down contain or fourth down contain and they score; a fumble. It’s so many things. It’s inches, and we didn’t get the inches tonight.”