That a freshman quarterback won Monday night’s national championship in overtime is entirely believable. A week ago, Georgia’s Jake Fromm looked good enough in the Rose Bowl to pull a victory from extra time again. At halftime, his team up 13-0, he seemed poised to be the second true freshman ever—and first since 1985—to lead his team to a title. The only word you’d have paused at was overtime.
Really? After such a listless first half, Alabama seemed incapable of mustering the 13 points needed to warrant extra football.
But forget 13; behind backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide put up 20 second-half points, and it was the Alabama freshman who ended up winning it all on a 41-yard touchdown pass, 26-23.
Last week, Alabama advanced to the national title game with its distinct brand of bulldozing defense and at times nap-inducing offense. On Monday, it fizzled and then dazzled, and so much of the fun was a result of that contrast. Jalen Hurts, the Tide’s starter all season, was just three of eight for 21 yards in the game’s first half, and though he was Alabama’s leading rusher through two quarters, that wasn’t enough to keep him active. Tagovailoa, who was rumored to be preparing to play in the Sugar Bowl but did not, took the field to start the second half, and he turned the game around on his team’s second drive, tossing the Tide’s first touchdown pass of the championship game on just the 59th pass of his college career. It was nothing spectacular, just a well executed six-yard pass to Henry Ruggs. The spectacle came later.
A week ago, when Georgia advanced in the Rose Bowl, the game signified an ending as much as it did a precursor to the title. Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma’s Heisman-winning quarterback, was done. Last January, when Clemson defeated Alabama for the national title, there was more finality; Deshaun Watson was off to the NFL. So often, the best college games are a wave goodbye to key players—or even, in the cases of Watson and Mayfield, the players who will define an era at their respective schools. Monday’s Alabama win was just the opposite. Sure, it was yet another ring for Saban’s machine, but it also welcomed Tagovailoa to the scene, and Fromm’s performance did nothing but suggest he’ll be back on this stage in the future.
And then there was DeVonta Smith, the freshman receiver who caught the game winning pass. He’s also a freshman. Najee Harris, the Tide’s leading rusher on the night? Yep, he’s a freshman, too. Ruggs, the recipient of that first Tagovailoa touchdown pass, also just finished his first year. Alex Leatherwood, who replaced Alabama left tackle Jonah Williams when he went down an injury in the third quarter and performed admirably, is also a freshman. Riley Ridley, the receiver who had the game of his career for Georgia, is only a sophomore, as is Mecole Hardman, the Bulldogs receiver who had 80 yards to Ridley’s 82.
These guys will all be back, and better, next fall. Monday was their grand entrance, and did they ever make the most of it. Plus, the future promises a level of intrigue: What about Hurts? And, looking back even farther, what about Jacob Eason, the sophomore quarterback who was Georgia’s starter in September but injured his knee and sat the rest of the year? Still, those questions pale in comparison to the talent we saw displayed Monday night—and to the fact that Georgia looks like a team that will keep threatening Alabama and elevating the caliber of play in the SEC East under Kirby Smart.
Monday’s game was far from perfect. Both Fromm and Tagovailoa looked in moments like rrokies playing on the biggest stage of their lives—which was a good reminder that this was real life rather than a game coached by Eric Taylor. The Bulldogs lost their shot at a touchdown on the first drive of overtime when Fromm was sacked for a loss of 13 yards. They had to settle for a field goal. Alabama, then, suffered a similar loss on its next drive when Tagovailoa was sacked for 16 yards. But on second down, he recovered, and that game-winning touchdown pass was the perfect mix of bravado and instinct.
For once, Alabama winning felt like something more than same old, same old. The only novelty surrounding the Crimson Tide in recent years has been when they fail—to make the SEC Championship Game, to beat Clemson last year. Monday night shattered that pattern. It was bizarre—from the flat first half to the quarterback switch to the missed field goal that sent the whole thing to overtime in the first place—and it was thrilling, and nearly every player responsible for the glorious ups and downs will be back again next fall.