ATLANTA — This time, Jalen Hurts saved Alabama. Here are three thoughts from an SEC championship for the ages that ended with one of the best teammates in college football history leading his team to a 35–28 win.
1. In the same stadium where he was yanked at halftime of the national title game in favor of Tua Tagovailoa—and against the same opponent—Hurts relieved an injured Tagovailoa and led the Crimson Tide to a victory that gave Alabama its sixth SEC title of the Nick Saban era and all but clinched the Crimson Tide’s fifth College Football Playoff berth in five years.
Alabama trailed by seven when Hurts replaced Tagovailoa, who injured his right foot with 11:15 remaining Saturday. Hurts, who could have used a new redshirt rule to leave the Crimson Tide after losing his starting job in preseason camp, elected to stay in Tuscaloosa. By doing that, he may have salvaged the season. Conventional wisdom suggested that if Alabama lost to Georgia, both teams would make the playoff. But there was no guarantee that the selection committee would favor 12–1 Alabama with no SEC title over a 12–1 conference champion. Thanks to Hurts, Alabama removed all doubt.
After replacing Tagovailoa with the Tide trailing by seven, Hurts led the Tide 69 yards. He threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy on the right edge of the end zone, and a Joseph Bulovas kick tied the score at 28.
Twice on the ensuing offensive possession, Georgia used true freshman Justin Fields to carry the ball even though sophomore Jake Fromm was playing one of his best games. That included using Fields as upback on a fake punt to run up the middle on fourth-and-11 from the 50. That gave Alabama the ball back on its own 48.
On third-and-eight from the 50, Hurts hit tight end Irv Smith for a 19-yard gain. Two plays later, Hurts ran up the middle for a 15-yard touchdown to give Alabama its first lead with two minutes to play. After Fromm's Hail Mary bounced harmlessly into the back of the end zone with zeroes on the clock, the Tide celebrated an improbable win against the Bulldogs for a championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second time in less than 11 months.
2. So the Crimson Tide are in the playoff. But after nearly knocking off the consensus No. 1 team, do the Bulldogs have a chance to be the first two-loss team to make the playoff?
That seems like a long shot if Clemson beats Pittsburgh in Saturday night’s ACC title game in Charlotte. It would be safe to assume the 13–0 Tide, 13–0 Tigers and 12–0 Notre Dame are in. But it’s unclear whether the Bulldogs, who entered Saturday ranked No. 4 in the playoff selection committee’s rankings, would stay ranked in the same spot. As usual, the No. 4 spot will generate the most controversy. Will the 12–1 champion from the Big 12 or Big Ten claim the spot? Or will the Bulldogs get a chance?
Earlier Saturday, Oklahoma beat Texas 39–27 in Arlington, Texas, to claim the Big 12 title. The Sooners, who entered Saturday ranked one spot behind Georgia at No. 5, made their case to the selection committee with their best win of the season. Oklahoma’s issue all season has been a porous defense, but Saturday’s win showed the Sooners can occasionally get stops against a quality opponent.
Meanwhile, Heisman voters must consider Tagovailoa’s shakiest performance of the season as they decide between the Alabama sophomore and Oklahoma junior Kyler Murray. On Saturday, Tagovailoa completed 10 of 25 passes for 164 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Tagovailoa and Murray have had outstanding seasons that, taken individually, would have allowed them to walk away with the Heisman in most other years. But with both having historic seasons, each performance will be parsed. And Murray (25 of 34 for 379 yards and three touchdowns, 10 carries for 39 yards) had the better Saturday. The question now is whether voters will decide Tagovailoa—who seemed comfortably in front of Murray going into this weekend—had the better season.
3. The Sooners entered Saturday thinking they would need to outshine Ohio State, which faced Northwestern in the Big Ten title game Saturday night in Indianapolis. Their win against the Longhorns bolstered their case against the inconsistent Buckeyes, but the question now is how the committee considers a Georgia team that lost a close game to Alabama. The most likely outcome seems to be one of the 12–1 teams (probably Oklahoma instead of Ohio State) getting the spot. Less clear is whether Tagovailoa’s injury will affect seeding. Playoff executive director Bill Hancock, who used to manage the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, often refers to an injury to Cincinnati star Kenyon Martin in 2000 that affected the Bearcats’ seeding. But in the first four seasons of the College Football Playoff, the committee has yet to have to deal with an injury to such an important player. Tagovailoa left the stadium Saturday with a boot on his left leg; he injured his left ankle in the first quarter. He wore only a sneaker on his right foot.
Fortunately for Alabama—and possibly for the committee—the Crimson Tide have a backup (maybe now a starter) who already led them to two national title games and may now have his chance to lead them to a third.