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ATLANTA — Dynasties die hard.
The University of Alabama’s time at the top of college football’s summit hung in the balance as the ball spiraled out of Tua Tagovailoa’s left hand toward the end zone in overtime on Monday night.
The Alabama era seemed at an end just moments earlier in the College Football Playoff Championship Game when the freshman quarterback was pounded into the turf at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for a 16-yard loss. Georgia was up by a field goal and the Crimson Tide was facing second-and-forever, 41 yards from a winning touchdown and three plays away from defeat.
Tagovailoa didn’t blink. He took the snap and recognized Georgia’s coverage. He looked off a safety and heaved the ball to DeVonta Smith, a freshman who had caught just seven passes all season, as he crossed the goal line.
The unlikely touchdown connection — freshman to freshman with everything on the line on the game’s biggest stage — gave Alabama a 26-23 victory and the 17th national championship in school history.
Gold streamers rained down from the domed stadium’s roof as Alabama players rushed the field in celebration. The dynasty would live on, with Alabama winning its fifth national championship since the 2009 season.
Alabama coach Nick Saban — who tied the late Paul W. “Bear” Bryant with his sixth national championship, most by any collegiate coach ever — watched that pass leave Tua’s hand. He followed its trajectory and saw the receiver breaking open. He saw touchdown.
“Couldn’t believe it. Could not believe it,” he said.
The Crimson Tide team believed.
It believed when Georgia led 13-0 at halftime, dominating Alabama and cashing in a touchdown in the final second before intermission.
It believed when Tua, the rookie from Hawaii, was tabbed to take over for Jalen Hurts — UA’s starting quarterback all season — in the locker room at the midpoint of the biggest game of the season
Alabama believed when Jonah Williams, a stalwart at left tackle, went down with an injury.
It kept believing as it clawed back from a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter and even after missing a field goal that could have won the game on the final play of regulation.
“We have to do something,” Saban said as he left the field at halftime.
What Alabama did was change quarterbacks. Hurts had gone 3-for-8 passing for 21 yards and rushed for 47 yards on six attempts. Alabama’s offense wasn’t working.
“They were struggling,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, a longtime Saban assistant at Alabama before taking over the Bulldogs’ program two seasons ago. “They needed momentum. He provided them some juice.”
Tagovailoa went three-and-out on the first possession of the third quarter, and scrambled for nine yards on third-and-seven to keep the next drive alive. He kept pressing, finding receivers with the ball and pushing downfield until he passed to Henry Ruggs III for a 6-yard touchdown. Andy Pappanastos’ extra-point kick cut Georgia’s lead to 13-7.
The Bulldogs answered right back with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to Mecole Hardman for a 20-7 lead.
Georgia didn’t score again until overtime as Alabama’s defense clamped down. And Tagovailoa did not relent. He threw an interception, but UA got it right back when massive defensive lineman Raekwon Davis picked off a deflected pass. Six plays later, Pappanastos kicked a 43-yard field goal and UA had cut the lead to 20-10.
With a spark from freshman running back Najee Harris, Alabama drove to a 30-yard field goal with 9:24 to go in regulation to move within a touchdown, and Tagovailoa threw a 7-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:49 remaining to tie it.
Alabama had a chance to win it on a 36-yard field goal try on the last play of regulation, but it sailed wide left.
Georgia took a sack on its overtime possession, but Rodrigo Blankenship booted a 51-yard field goal to give the Bulldogs a 23-20 lead. When Tagovailoa was sacked on UA’s first overtime snap, it looked like that margin would hold.
But looks can fool you when an era hangs in the balance, because dynasties don’t die easily.
“After the sack we just looked toward the next play,” the young quarterback said. “I hit him, and here we are now.”
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.