Saban trusts in backup freshman QB, wins historic sixth title

ATLANTA—.After a first half in which he looked mortal, and Alabama seemed to be in deep trouble, the amazing Nick Saban found a way.

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Denied his sixth national championship in a heartbreaking loss to Clemson last year, Saban got it done this year.

After trailing 13-0, Alabama came back to stun Georgia 26-23 in overtime Monday night.

Saban’s sixth national championship—five at Alabama and one at LSU—ties him with the legendary Paul `Bear’ Bryant.

``The big thing is, after being behind 13-0 at halftime, they just kept playing the next play,’’ Saban said. ``We have great competitors on this team. They have great mental toughness, and I’m really proud of this team for what they did tonight.’’

Freshman backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who had replaced a struggling Jalen Hurts at the start of the second half, threw a seven-yard TD pass to Calvin Ridley to tie the game 20-20 with 3:49 left.

Shaking off a missed 36-yard field that could have won the game as time expired in regulation, the Tide finally won it on a dramatic 41-yard touchdown to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 in overtime.

``I couldn’t believe it,’’ Saban said. ``I knew we were running Seattle, which is four streaks. When I saw Smitty come open on the other side, I said, `This is it.’ There’s lots of highs and lows. Last year we lost on the last play of the game. This year we won.’’

With that, the entire Alabama team burst onto the field to celebrate. And Georgia was left to ponder the what-ifs.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

The truth is, by winning five times in this era, Saban had pretty much done enough to be mentioned in the same sentence as the Bear, if not on the same stat line.

But now, there’s no debating that.

At halftime, though, when Georgia led 13-0, it sure looked like the pupil was giving the teacher a lesson.

Second-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator Saban had hired, showed his mentor some interesting sleights of hand in the first two quarters.

``In overtime, we didn’t finish. But I think everybody can see Georgia is going to be a force to be reckoned with,’’ said Smart, disappointed but appreciative of what his team accomplished. ``We’re not going anywhere.’’

Despite its accomplished running tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Georgia opened with seven straight passes, and followed that with six straight rushes.

That extreme-sports play-calling set the table for freshman quarterback Jake Fromm to complete a respectable 11 of 23 passes for 126 yards. Meanwhile, Alabama sophomore Hurts was just 3 of 8 for 21 yards. Georgia outrushed Alabama 97-73 while holding a 126-21 passing edge.

Their ability to run and pass established, the Dawgs remained aggressive on offense despite an early interception.

That was most evident in a nine-play drive that covered 69 yards at the end of the half. It was a drive that produced the first half’s only touchdown.

Not only did Smart and Fromm, who had been the youthful question marks, get off to good starts. Alabama also was the sloppier team in a largely unremarkable first half.

One of the key near-heroes for Georgia was defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who was the Bears defensive coordinator under Marc Trestman in 2013-14.

Tucker caught a lot of heat during those disappointing Bears seasons, and then moved on to be Alabama’s defensive-backs coach in 2015. When Smart left Alabama for Georgia, he brought Tucker with him as defensive coordinator.

To recap: Tucker is defensive coordinator of college football’s national runners-up. And Trestman coached the Toronto Argonauts to the Grey Cup, Canada’s version of the Super Bowl championship.

In other words, leaving the Bears can be beneficial to your career.

In the first half, Tucker had Alabama befuddled.

You wouldn’t expect Saban to take this lying down—and he didn’t.

He sat down Hurts and sent in Tagovailoa. The athletic Hawaiian led the Tide right down the field.

That closed the gap to 13-7. It also seemed to take the governor off this championship tussle.

``Yeah, absolutely,’’ Smart said when asked if he expected to see Tagovailoa, who brings a passing dimension Hurts lacks. ``We told [our players] at halftime, there was no question they were going to do that. They were struggling. They needed some momentum. He’s a good player. He has confidence in his arm. He’s a really talented freshman. He kept his poise in the pocket. He made plays when he had to.’’

Georgia answered right back, taking a 20-7 lead on an 80-yard touchdown pass down the right sideline from Fromm to Mecole Hardman.

The teams then traded interceptions. Alabama seemed in deep trouble after its giveaway, then it seemed ready to roll after latching onto a tipped ball.

That led to a field goal that cut Georgia’s lead to 20-10, and gave us hope for the kind of dramatic finish that seemed unlikely during that yawning first half.

From there, Alabama kept building momentum. And Georgia kept gasping for air.[/membership]