ATLANTA — After a feast of whiplash plot twists, a riveting national championship game had one shock left Monday night. It formed improbably on a second down and 26, 41 imposing yards from the end zone in Alabama's possession in overtime. It came just after Davin Bellamy's 16-yard sack seemed to tilt the evening back toward Georgia.
It came from the hand of a freshman from Hawaii, Tua Tagovailoa, and as it went up the left sideline, many of the 77,430 lucky to occupy Mercedes-Benz Stadium probably gasped. For there, after all the plays, ran an Alabama receiver, DeVonta Smith, with space behind the defense.
Smith reached ahead and grabbed it in the end zone. Alabama's players and coaches streamed out onto the field as streamers tumbled from the ceiling. Somehow, after a 13-0 deficit at halftime, a 20-7 deficit in the third quarter and a quarterback who arrived at school only last January, Alabama had snared a 26-23 overtime win over Georgia. It had a fifth national title in the last nine seasons. It had Saban's sixth title all told, which pulled him alongside Bear Bryant.
It had enough turns to last in memory for decades in two neighboring states.
Having constructed his Alabama dynasty on toil and smarts and might and a protracted war against human complacency, Saban summoned something else on a fickle Monday night in January. He went digging into his own, vast supply of intestinal fortitude, and even that proved to be pivotal.
Troubled with a 13-0 halftime deficit and an offense that strained to budge, Saban made a move that might daunt many a coach, yet a move that will translate into Alabaman legend from here on. To reap his sixth national championship and pull up alongside Bear Bryant atop that all-time list, he replaced a decorated, two-year starting quarterback whose late-stage 30-yard run had graced the title game of January 2017.
He went from the famed Jalen Hurts to a fellow who arrived on campus at only about the time Hurts was streaming to the end zone against Clemson. Yet Tua Tagovailoa not only entered the game; he energized it. He altered its tenor and amped up his sideline. By the time he led Alabama on four scoring possessions and nearly a fifth during regulation, he looked like a budded star.
He ran and scrambled well, sometimes outrageously so. He zinged touchdown passes of six yards to Henry Ruggs III and seven yards to Calvin Ridley, the latter while on the move during a palpitating fourth down with 3:49 remaining.
He even helped dig Alabama from a 20-7, mid-third-quarter hole that formed after Georgia's magical, 80-yard touchdown pass from Jake Fromm to Mecole Hardman, who seemed capable of running all the way to Athens to get under the thing, up the right sideline. That took a game that had seemed to turn, and turned it back.
The idea of Georgia as a fresh beast had begun to congeal across the first half, unforeseen after the first exchange of possessions, which went like this: Alabama interception (by Tony Brown), Alabama 47-yard drive (to a missed field goal). From there, the Bulldogs got going while the Crimson Tide got next to nothing.
The plays that got the game there brimmed with Georgian confidence and Alabaman imprecision: a false start that negated a made field goal, a neutral-zone infraction that gifted a first down, and more. Georgia faced 11 third downs in the first half and converted an outlandish six of them, a statistic worthy of disbelief in a golden Alabama era. The Bulldogs had Sony Michel, their four-touchdown Rose Bowl hero, on a tightroping, 26-yard run on a third and 20, doing a muscular ballet up the very edge of the right sideline. They had a third and seven from their own 8-yard-line, nobody's idea of fun, with Fromm hitting Ridley on a 16-yard crossing pattern.
They had a gorgeous, 23-yard pass from Fromm to Ridley on the left sideline on a third-and-8, and a pretty 16-yard pass from same to same on a third-and-6. They even did not mind that third and three when Alabama kindly lined up in the neutral zone, providing a sweat-less first down. Because Alabama's defense remains something for so many to fear, all of those things helped Georgia to a lead of only 6-0, on Rodrigo Blankenship field goals of 41 and 28 yards.
For their touchdown, which ended seven seconds before halftime, they threw in a third and 10 from their own 41-yard line, on which their line created a boulevard to the left, Michel easing through it for 14 yards. By the time a receiver, Hardman, took a direct snap to hurry left near the pylon for the last yard, they had Alabama in serious, serious inconvenience at 13-0.
Like a beast, they had possessed the ball for 19:23, to Alabama's 10:37.
They had run 47 offensive plays, to Alabama's 24.
Alabama had done not much beyond that early march and Hurts' 31-yard weaving scramble, sending Saban into a bold move on a bodacious night.