ATLANTA — Georgia had every opportunity to put top-ranked Alabama away in the 2018 SEC Championship Game.
The Bulldogs had a 14-point second-half lead and squandered a golden opportunity to add to it. They also saw their offense stall out for much of the second half after putting on a dominant display for two-plus quarters.
And on top of it all, Alabama’s superstar quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was the frontrunner to win the Heisman Trophy coming into Saturday, played the worst game of his collegiate career before exiting the game with an injury.
The chances were there for the Bulldogs to pull off a massive upset over the top-ranked Crimson Tide. But a couple of crucial moments swung in Alabama’s favor and allowed it to hang around through the first three quarters, and the Crimson Tide pulled off a 35-28 win over Georgia in a stunning fourth-quarter finish.
“We’re a few plays away,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. "There were a lot of plays in that game 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 foruth down contain and they score: a fumble. It’s so many things.”
The lasting memory of the SEC title game will likely be Jalen Hurts’ entrance into the game in the fourth quarter for an injured Tua Tagovailoa, and him clinching the win with a game-winning, 15-yard touchdown run with 64 seconds left.
But there were critical moments throughout the first three quarters that allowed the Crimson Tide to stay in the game.
“They just made more plays than us. Tough catches, tough throws, they were making them."
- Deandre Baker, Georgia cornerback
Georgia took its first commanding lead in the second quarter, when Jake Fromm found D’Andre Swift for an 11-yard touchdown to make it 21-7 with 4:05 left in the first half. The Georgia faithful in Mercedes-Benz Stadium were roaring, and the possibility of an upset began to look more and more likely.
But on Alabama’s first offensive play after the score, SEC Championship Game Most Valuable Player Josh Jacobs ripped off a 59-yard run to the Georgia 16-yard line to put the Crimson Tide back in business. Alabama’s ground game kept it alive when Tagovailoa was struggling, and the Crimson Tide rushed for 112 yards in the first half on 12 carries while Tagovailoa passed for just 35 yards.
“We were executing our runs a little better today than we normally do,” Jacobs said. “That was probably the biggest thing, the big run I had just sparked the emotions of everybody and just allowed us to go on the run we did.”
Later during the same drive, Jacobs fumbled at the goal line and it was initially ruled as a recovery by Georgia’s J.R. Reed. The Georgia players erupted after the apparent turnover. But after review, it was ruled that it was Jacobs who clearly recovered the ball in the end zone before Reed later ripped it away, making the play an Alabama touchdown instead of a turnover forced by Georgia.
And just minutes after Georgia appeared to seize momentum, Alabama was back within seven points and down just 21-14 heading into halftime.
The Bulldogs snatched momentum again out of the half,. They gained a 28-14 lead and had the ball in the Alabama red zone after a 55-yard Isaac Nauta catch and run. But after the drive stalled, Georgia kicker Rodrigo Blankenship pushed a 30-yard field goal wide left, igniting the Alabama sideline. Alabama defensive lineman Raekwon Davis said after the game that the miss lit a fire under the Crimson Tide, and it helped the defense to pitch a shutout for the rest of the game.
It was moments like those, Jacobs’ running and Blankenship’s missed field goal, that prevented Georgia from pulling away from Alabama in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs still had ample opportunity to win. But in the fourth quarter of a close game, it was Alabama that prevailed after surviving moments earlier in the game that could’ve put the Crimson Tide away.
“They just made more plays than us,” Georgia senior cornerback Deandre Baker said. “Tough catches, tough throws, they were making them. The ball was in their favor today.”