Atlanta—The No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs arrived at Saturday’s SEC championship game looking to exorcise the top-ranked demon to its football program. They are better known as the Alabama Crimson Tide.
And why not? Georgia came to Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the nation’s No. 1 defense (6.9 points per game) that was being described in terms like “generational.” The Bulldogs had dominated every opponent that they had faced.
This version of Alabama was ranked No. 3 but had genuine flaws. The Crimson Tide had played in five one-possession games, losing one to Texas A&M back on Oct. 9.
But in the final analysis Georgia, for all its talent on a defense that had not given up more than 17 points in a game all season, had no answer for Alabama quarterback Bryce Young.
After setting an SEC Championship game record with 286 yards passing in the first half, Young opened the second half with a 75-yard dagger to the heart of Georgia. That gave Alabama a 31-17 lead and it was, for all intents and purposes, over.
Georgia tried to make a comeback, driving deep into Alabama territory but quarterback Stetson Bennett’s pass intended for Brock Bowers was intercepted at the 12-yard line. With 11:59 left in the game Bennett threw a pick six to give Alabama a 38-17 lead.
Alabama (12-1) won the SEC championship game for the 10th time in 30 years.
Now the Crimson Tide awaits for Sunday’s assignment from the College Football Playoff selection committee, which will announce the four-team field at Noon on ESPN.
Alabama, the No.3 ranked team when play began on Saturday, will most likely be the No. 1 seed and play in either the Orange Bowl or Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31.
If Michigan beat Iowa in Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game, the Wolverines can expect to be the No. 2 seed.
As devastating as the loss to Alabama was for Georgia, the Bulldogs still expect to be in the CFP on Sunday. Georgia will likely be the No. 3 seed followed by undefeated Cincinnati (13-0), which beat No. 21 Houston 35-20 win the American Athletic Conference champion.
Cincinnati will be the first team from a non-Power Five conference to make the CFP.
This will also mark the second time in five seasons that the SEC has placed two teams in the final four of the CFP. In 2017 Georgia won the SEC championship by beating Auburn but Alabama was placed in the field with an 11-1 record. Georgia and Alabama ultimately met for the national championship in this same building.
Georgia led by double digits in that game but freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench and threw a 41-yard touchdown pass in overtime to give Alabama a 26-23 walk-off win and the national championship.
The following year Alabama and Georgia met here again, this time for the SEC championship. Georgia held a double-digit lead in that game but Alabama backup quarterback Jalen Hurts came in for the injured Tagovailoa and led the Crimson Tide to a 35-28 win.
In 2020 the two teams met again during the regular season with Alabama winning 41-24.
All of that Georgia heartache was supposed to end Saturday. But it didn’t.
But this much we do know. We do know that Young surely locked up the Heisman Trophy with yet another remarkable performance.
Last week Young led a drive for the ages, taking Alabama 97 yards in about a minute against Auburn to tie the game 10-10 and send it to an overtime.
In the fourth overtime Young thew to John Metchie for two-point conversion and a 24-22 win.
On Saturday night in Atlanta Young made the case that an Alabama player should take home the Heisman for the second straight year. Crimson Tide receiver DeVonta Smith won the Heisman in 2020.
His final numbers were staggering. His 421 yards passing and 461 yards of total offense were both records for the SEC championship game.
"It was great a great team win for us," said Young after the game. "This was really special."
Alabama Coach Nick Saban showed again why he is the greatest college football coach of all-time. Alabama lost 10 NFL draft choices from its 2020 team and six of those were in the first round. He had a new quarterback in Young and a new offensive coordinator in Bill O’Brien. He also had an offensive line that struggled all season.
None of it mattered when the SEC championship was on the line. And now Saban has a chance to win his eighth national championship. No other coach has won more than six.
"I'm extremely proud of this team the competitive character they have shown," said Saban, in his 15th year at Alabama. "Our players really prepared well for this game."
Smart, who built one of the nation’s best football programs since coming to Georgia six years ago, is now 0-4 against Saban, for whom he coached for 11 years.
Now the question for Georgia is whether or not the Bulldogs can recover in time for their CFP semifinal appearance on Dec. 31. Psychologically Georgia hoped to be in a much better place when this night was over. Now it is worse.
"I love them and I appreciate them," Smart said about his players. "The outside noise begins now."
And here’s the kicker: Georgia could meet Alabama again the playoffs.