Wasn’t this just a rebuilding year for the defending national champion Alabama Crimson Tide?
After all, it lost to 8-4 Texas A&M and struggled for wins over 6-6 teams Florida, LSU and Auburn?
But suddenly, the Crimson Tide is just two wins away from its seventh national championship since 2009 after disposing of No. 1 Georgia like it was a non-conference rent-a-win, 41-24, in the SEC Championship Game Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The Tide (12-1) will play in its seventh College Football Playoff final four in eight years on Dec. 31 in either the Orange Bowl in Miami or the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas.
The pairings for those two semifinal games will be announced at 11 a.m. central time Sunday on ESPN. No. 2 Michigan (12-1) and No. 4 Cincinnati (13-0) each won Saturday, so the top four will likely remain the same, but with the order different.
“We have a two-game season now, I hope,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “That’s what we’re going to work for. That’s what we want to do.”
The Bulldogs (12-1) are expected to remain in the top four even though they allowed 536 yards of total offense after entering the game No. 1 in the nation in fewest yards allowed a game at 231. Georgia also entered No. 1 in scoring defense with just 6.9 points allowed a game.
“We’ve got that two-game season to prepare for,” said Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who threw for an SEC Championship Game record 421 yards on 26-of-44 passing with three touchdowns and no interceptions and won the game MVP award.
“We took preparation very seriously, and we all understood the magnitude of the moment,” he said.
Early on, the game went along as most had predicted it would. Georgia looked like the touchdown favorite it was as it took a 10-0 lead in the second quarter. But Young threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jameson Williams to get the Tide within 10-7. His 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver John Metchie III put Alabama up 14-10.
Young, who gained 40 yards on three carries and set a championship game record with 461 total yards, dashed 11 yards for a touchdown just before the end of the half for a 24-17 lead. Georgia had given up just 29 points in its first 12 first halves this season. And Young was just getting started.
He found Williams again in the third quarter for a 55-yard touchdown pass and 31-17 lead. Safety Jordan Battle intercepted Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, who came in No. 1 in the nation in passing efficiency but threw two picks. Battle returned his 42 yards for a touchdown and 38-17 lead with 11:59 to go in the fourth quarter.
And it was over.
Williams caught seven passes for 184 yards. Metchie caught six for 97 yards before leaving the game in the second quarter with a left knee injury and is questionable for the playoffs. Alabama tailback Brian Robinson Jr. shook off a pulled muscle to gain 55 yards on 16 carries.
But the most important statistic in the game was clearly the number of sacks allowed by Alabama – zero. Young had been sacked 11 times in his last two games, and the Tide was 112th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed as it had given up 136.
“That was everything,” Young said. “Obviously, that’s a great front, a great defense, and we knew that coming in. I think they (Alabama’s offensive linemen) just kept hearing it and hearing it. They accepted the challenge.”
Young was barely touched as he got rid of the ball quickly and/or moved swiftly a little to his left or right to avoid the rush.
“It started up front. We gave the quarterback time to operate,” Saban said.
And Young was a surgeon.
“He’s soooo good at avoiding the rush,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said, but Young wasn’t a mere week ago amid seven sacks at Auburn.
“The narrative out there was, ‘Well, they just went to Auburn, and they really struggled,'” Smart said.
Alabama rewrote that as Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien chose extra pass blockers over extra pass receivers.
“We didn’t always get as many guys out in the pass route. We did a little bit better job in terms of having some protection multiples,” Saban said.
“He (Young) buys time with his mobility and makes plays downfield. Give him credit. He did a tremendous job,” Smart said. “For the most part this year, we’ve executed well. We didn’t execute well tonight, and that had a lot to do with them.”
Georgia’s Alabama narrative remained the same. The Bulldogs lost for the seventh straight time to Saban. And Smart, who was Saban’s former defensive coordinator at Alabama, fell to 0-4 against his mentor, including the national championship game in the 2017 season after leading 13-0 at the half. This time he lost after leading 10-0. Georgia also lost its third SEC Championship Game to Alabama out of three since 2012. Big Brother is still beating up little brother.
“The outside noise begins now,” Smart said. “We’ve heard it before.”
And he could again soon as Georgia and Alabama could meet in the semis or in the national championship game on Jan. 10 in Indianapolis.
Alabama’s narrative, meanwhile, has turned the page to 2020 or 2017, ’15, ’12, ’11 or ’09, which is Saban’s list of national titles on the Capstone. But this one is different.
“We’ve probably had to overcome more adversity and have more resiliency than probably most of the teams we’ve ever had,” Saban said. “I’m really proud of them for that. To come into this game that nobody thought we had a chance to win and really go out there and perform well against a really good team.”