ATLANTA — Alabama is as close to a sure thing as we're probably ever going to get in college football. Nick Saban won his sixth national title, and fifth in nine seasons, Monday night at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with a 26–23 win over Georgia in overtime. Yet as used to Crimson Tide domination as we are—and yes, Bama fatigue is a real thing in other parts of the country—this championship was different than any of Saban’s other ones.
It was different because it needed a second-half comeback sparked by a true freshman QB, Tua Tagovailoa—inserted into the lineup at halftime with Alabama on the ropes as Georgia continued to pound away and sophomore starting quarterback Jalen Hurts was unable to get its downfield passing attack cranked up.
It was different because the guy who caught the game-winning pass—a 41-yard strike from Tagovailoa—was also a true freshman, DeVonta Smith.
It was different because if you asked the Tide’s leading rusher during the regular season, Damien Harris, he’d tell you in the winner’s locker room a half hour after the confetti cannons went off—actually, he'd yell for the benefit of anyone within earshot—“THEY SAID WE WEREN'T SUPPOSED TO BE HERE, AND WE WON ALL OF THIS S---!”
And it was also different because Crimson Tide co-offensive coordinator Mike Locksley never was more emotional coming into a game than he was on Monday in his 25-year coaching career. The last time Alabama played in this building was Sept. 3, the night of a season-opening win over No. 3 Florida State. As he watched his players embrace on Monday night, the 48-year-old Locksley recalled walking off this field three months ago and getting a text message from his son Meiko in the tunnel: “Dad, I really think you guys are gonna win the Natty this year.” That would be the last time he ever got to communicate with his middle son. The next day Meiko was shot and killed in Columbia, Md., in a crime that hasn't been solved yet. He was 25.
Before the game, the elder Locksley shared that message and sent a group text to his family, and vowed to get this one for Meiko.
“God works in mysterious ways,” said Locksley’s youngest son Kai, a junior college quarterback. “To come from all the pain that we’ve had and now to see him become a national champion. God is great.”
Before he was able to get to his family, Locksley found Hurts, one of his protégés. On this night, the starting quarterback wasn’t the star, finishing 3 of 8 for 21 yards before giving way to Tagovailoa, but he still was a star in how he handled the moment as the ultimate teammate and brother. “Continue to keep fighting your butt off,” Locksley told Hurts, reminding him that he got the Tide to this point.
The sophomore’s selfless leadership shined throughout as the Tide’s freshman quarterback rallied Alabama. Hurts was also the first one to congratulate Tagovailoa for his late heroics.
“It’s just the mutual respect that we have for each other,” Hurts said of Tagovailoa, who finished 14-of-24 for 166 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. “He has been there for me all season like a little brother.
“He balled out tonight. I’m so happy for him and so happy for my teammates.”
Saban broke the news to the former SEC Player of the Year that he was getting pulled in favor of the rocket-armed true freshman from Hawaii. “It was an executive decision,” Hurts said of Saban’s move, “and it was a good one.”
Hurts had a simple message for Tagovailoa: “Play your game.”
Tagovailoa, the consensus top-ranked QB prospect in the 2017 recruiting class thanks to his powerful arm and his composure, displayed both on a big stage.
“With the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I just didn’t feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did,” Saban said. “I couldn't be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him. We played him a lot in a lot of games this year, and he did very well. He certainly did a great job tonight.”
For all the talk about whether a new superpower was ready to push Alabama from the mountaintop over the past month—first it was defending national champion Clemson, then it was Georgia led by Saban's protégé Kirby Smart—it was the Tide who ended up dancing Monday night, and much of it was made possible by an eye-popping group of freshmen.
“A lot of those guys are really mature for their age,” Saban said, acknowledging he‘s never had a young group do this before. “And they were ready to make contributions and they certainly did a fantastic job for us this year. There’s no doubt about that.
“I think one of the things that makes me most proud of this team is—and I’m surprised nobody asked it—we’ve never had this many games missed by starters in a season ever, and to be able to overcome that with the next guy up, whoever it was, to go out there and play the way they played together as a group and trusted and believed in each other, and I think that respect and trust is something that’s really important to have in a good team. That’s something this team had.”
One of the questions that is sure to come in the wake of this game is who the Tide’s quarterback will be going forward in 2018 and beyond. Can Hurts still hold off Tagovailoa after his benching helped lead to a national title? That should be a question for another day. The kid from Hawaii admitted after the game that he still gets homesick and still longs for Hawaii and his family back there. That kind of bond is hard to replace.
“I don’t know how Coach Saban found me all the way in Hawaii from Alabama,” Tagovailoa said after being asked about all of the differences between his old home and his new one. “Thank God he found me and we’re here right now.
“I don’t know, the biggest difference from Hawaii and Alabama would probably be there’s no beaches, but other than that, the people are very nice. The people are very religious. There’s football too. So how much better could it get?"