TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Same opponent. Same venue. Same outcome.
On Dec. 1, 2018, after spending most of the season on the bench, while watching the player who beat him out as the Alabama starting quarterback nearly have a Heisman Trophy-winning season, Jalen Hurts was the difference in the SEC Championship Game.
With one of the greatest redemption performances you’ll ever see in any sport, the junior was inserted after injured Tua Tagovailoa couldn’t go any more in the fourth quarter, and saved the Crimson Tide’s unblemished season.
He calmly, and coolly, led two touchdown drives as No. 1 Alabama competed a dramatic 35-28 victory over No. 4 Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The irony, or course, was that Tagovailoa had replaced him and led Alabama’s 26-23 overtime victory in the previous season’s National Championship Game, in the same building and against the very same opponent.
This time it was the youngster being among the first to congratulate him on the sideline, and not the other way around.
"None of this has been easy,” Hurts said afterward, “but I think it shows true character and true heart to fight to the finish.”
He might have just re-defined the term when it comes to college football.
Hurts, of course, was a two-year starter who got Alabama to two national title games, coming one second shy of winning the first and was pulled at halftime of the second. He was still 26-2 as a starter and had his name all over the Crimson Tide record book.
The 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year was good; at times outstanding as Alabama’s starting quarterback.
Only Tagovailoa had been better — sort of like the gap between Alabama and Georgia, both in the 2017 title game and during this rematch.
“He's always put the team first,” Nick Saban said. “He's gone in the game whenever we've asked him to go in the game. We played him as much as we could so that, if this came up, he was going to be ready. I think it worked out great, and I think this is a great example of why guys don't need to run off and just transfer every chance they get or every time something doesn't work out.
“Jalen is going to be a more successful person in his life because of what he went through, not winning 26 games, but what he went through this year trying to be the kind of person who had to support other people after he was a star player.”
When Hurts didn’t bail on his teammates, opting to play out the season and get his degree (a week after the SEC title game), Saban was prophetic when predicting that there would come a time that Alabama would need him during the 2018 season.
It didn’t seem likely at the time, and even less so after Hurts suffered a high ankle sprain at Tennessee. The procedure he underwent to hopefully speed up his recovery didn’t appear to do so.
Meanwhile, Tagovailoa limped through a good part of the second half of the season after suffering a sprained knee at Arkansas. He sprained the other ankle early against Georgia, and had it get accidentally stepped on in the fourth quarter.
He had taken the Crimson Tide as far as he could.
Down 28-21, Alabama was three plays into a key possession when Hurts came in and extended it another 13. The offense converted four third-down chances, the final being sophomore wide receiver Jerry Jeudy’s 10-yard pass over the middle to tie the game.
The momentum had completely changed.
“You expect him to be the same, he is always mentally focused,” third-string quarterback Mac Jones said. “He just kind of looked up and said, ‘Let’s do it.’
“Jalen is such an even-keeled guy. It’s something every quarterback should try to strive to be.”
But with Georgia going for it on fourth down and failing to convert at midfield, Hurts had a chance to put an exclamation point on the evening.
In between possessions, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley talked to him on the phone from the press box. One of his questions was if they got close to the end zone what play did he want to run.
Hurts picked the one he scored the 15-yard touchdown. It was an option play and he was looking to see how a specific player on the Georgia reacted. When the defender abandoned the contain, Hurts took off and managed to reach the end zone.
The touchdowns were No. 70 and 71 in terms of responsibility. His 48 career touchdown pass actually tied him with Tagovailoa for second on the Alabama career list, trailing only AJ McCarron (77, 2010-13).
“I’ve been telling people you can’t write a book like this,” senior center Ross Pierschbacher said. “We’re part of a 30 for 30 now. It’s something special”
“People are going to be talking about this, it’s something crazy. I’m just so happy for the guy.”
After the game, Hurts went to find his parents in the stands. While some of the same fans who had cheered for his benching the previous year chanted “Ja-len, Ja-len,” he sort of did a victory lap and enjoyed the moment.
“It’s a testament to that kid, fighting though it,” Locksley said. “He has tremendous character. I can’t say enough good things about him.
“Hey, Tua did it for us all year long and Jalen was able to come in and finish it for us.”
This is the fourth story in a series that will appear before New Year's Day, counting down the top 10 Alabama football moments of the 2010-19 decade. Some information from the book "Decade of Dominance" was used.