ATLANTA — If Georgia was going to upset top-ranked Alabama, the game would probably look a lot like how the 2018 SEC Championship Game did.
The Bulldogs gave Alabama quarterback, and Heisman Trophy frontrunner, Tua Tagovailoa all he could handle. He had what was likely the worst game of his collegiate career before exiting the game with an injury in the fourth quarter.
Jake Fromm looked spectacular for much of the game with 301 passing yards and three touchdowns, leading the Bulldogs to 454 yards of offense. Georgia also won the turnover battle 2-0 and looked to have control of the game well into the third quarter.
“[The loss makes me feel] sick. We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter."
- Kirby Smart, Georgia head coach
But somehow, Alabama still pulled off a 35-28 win Saturday after a dramatic fourth-quarter comeback behind a backup quarterback to win the SEC championship and solidfy itself as the nation’s No. 1 team.
“[The loss makes me feel] sick,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve got to play better in the fourth quarter. That’s a big thing for us. We talked about it at halftime. We wanted to come out and be the more physically dominant team and play the second half and win. We couldn’t close the deal.”
Through three quarters, Georgia statistically dominated Alabama.
The Bulldogs outgained the top-ranked team 376 yard to 266, possessed the ball for 30:07 of the first 45 minutes and did not allow the Crimson Tide to convert a single third down. Tagovailoa threw two interceptions in a game for the first time in his collegiate career, both of which were picked off near the goal line.
And when Tagovailoa exited in the fourth quarter with an injury, it seemed that most everything one could reasonably expect to go wrong for Alabama went wrong.
But then Jalen Hurts entered. He led the Crimson Tide down the field with ease, converting five third downs in the fourth quarter after they’d converted none before Hurts went under center.
Alabama kept making plays. Georgia seemed to not be able to make one of its own. And as the fourth quarter raged on, it felt that the championship metal of the Crimson Tide had taken over.
“I feel like in the fourth quarter, we knew [Georgia’s] body language started to change,” Alabama defensive lineman Quinnen Williams said. “Their running backs were not running the same as they were in the first half. We knew everything started changing with them."
It’s easy to draw parallels between Georgia’s loss Saturday and its loss to Alabama in the national title game in January.
Alabama rode a second-half quarterback change and erased a two-touchdown deficit to down Georgia in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in a championship game. The Bulldogs appeared in control of both games for more time than Alabama was, but it was the Crimson Tide that snuck away with the wins.
Unfortunately for Georgia, the most recent loss might present a harsh reality.
Georgia played nearly as well against Alabama as can be expected. The Bulldogs displayed good balance on offense (301 passing yards, 153 rushing yards). They forced Tagovailoa into his worst outing of the season. He also got hurt, bringing in Hurts at quarterback, who the Bulldogs shut out in one half of football in the national title game.
The Crimson Tide were sloppy enough at times to where it looked like they could get blown out. But with all of those factors in their favor, it still wasn’t enough for the Bulldogs.
To throw salt on Georgia’s wound, Alabama acknowledged that it didn’t play its best game, and it was still enough to break the hearts of a team that once again came so close.
“It’s not always good when you play bad and win because people aren’t thinking ‘I’ve got to do something different,’” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. “So, it speaks volumes when we win and our players still think they have to make improvements and things because they recognize the fact that they could’ve played better.”