ATLANTA —The emotions were all on full display at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and covered the full spectrum.
Laughing; crying. Joy; shock. Pride; disbelief.
That was the University of Alabama football team after it pulled off maybe the most stunning, incredible and unbelievable national championship game even played. So many words could be used to describe it, yet none of them were good enough.
“Best feeling in the world,” was all senior cornerback Levi Wallace could offer while quietly watching the Crimson Tide fans celebrate their 17th national title. “Nothing like it.”
Nor was this game, which one had to watch to fully understand. After a horrendous first half for the Crimson Tide, in which the offense managed just 21 passing yards and no points, Nick Saban pretty much turned his team over to his true freshman and asked them to win the national championship against Georgia.
As incredible and improbable as that sounds, they did.
It was more than Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, who sparked the offense after sophomore Jalen Hurts was pulled at halftime. Wide receiver DeVonta Smith caught the winning touchdown in overtime. Running back Najee Harris led the ground attack and Alex Leatherwood was at left tackle after sophomore starter Jonah Williams left the game with an injury.
There was also a missed field goal at the end of regulation, and Tagovailoa was sacked on the play before he threw the 41-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline. That’s what kind of a whirlwind it was with Alabama pulling out the dramatic 26-23 victory.
There was even a postgame marriage proposal by senior center Bradley Bozeman (she said yes).
Lost in the excitement was Saban winning his sixth national championship, fifth over the last nine seasons at Alabama. He’s tied Paul “Bear” Bryant for the most ever, but three by the legend were considered spilt titles including the controversial 1973 title when the coaches’ poll named the Crimson Tide No. 1 before it lost to Notre Dame.
Additionally, there’s no longer any doubt that this is the greatest that college football has ever seen. Miami (1983-92) and Notre Dame (1941-50) can both claim four titles over a 10-year period, but neither was able to maintain it, or stay on top with this kind of consistency.
“This is a great win, a team win,” Saban said. “Someone tried to give me a game ball. I don’t think you give anybody a game ball. It has to be a team ball, and that’s exactly what we’ll do with it.”
He told ESPN: “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.”
A play for the ages … pic.twitter.com/wci42trRS5
— Christopher Walsh (@WritingWalsh) January 9, 2018
Yet no one was talking about that after the game, or that how Saban’s been so dominating that he was arguably two plays away, against Clemson and the Kick Six game in 2013, from having two more titles.
This was oh-so-close to being a third near-miss, only Alabama rallied in the second half from down 13-0. Tagovailoa’s first possession didn’t go anywhere, but his second did as four straight completions peaked with freshman Henry Ruggs III snaring a 6-yard touchdown.
Alabama seemed to finally be on its way, but Georgia quickly countered with a controversial 80-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mecole Hardman, who had fans and officials zooming in to try and see if he stepped out of bounds at the 16.
It could have ended Alabama, especially when Tagovailoa answered with an interception on a play there was a missed signal. Yet somehow it didn’t.
This team, which had long so many players due to injuries, knew some things about resiliency.
The comeback was anything but pretty. It seemed like after junking the original game plan offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was all but diagramming plays in the artificial turf. A key turnover in the second half happened when a pass deflected off senior defensive end Da’Shawn Hand’s head and to sophomore lineman Raekwon Davis for an interception.
“All I know is that it hit my hand and I caught it,” Davis said. “It was crazy, but I did it. I didn’t know I could run like that.”
He returned it 19 yards to help set up an Andy Pappanastos 43-yard field goal to bring Alabama within 20-10.
With the defense playing better as the game progressed, the fourth quarter was all Alabama. A 71-yard drive resulted in a 30-yard field goal, and following a Georgia three-and-out, a 66-yard possession ended in a fourth-down 7-yard touchdown catch by junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley — who until that point had been outperformed by his brother Riley, who had six catches for 82 yards for the Bulldogs.
Tied at 20, Alabama had a golden chance to win after the defense forced yet another three-and-out, with Tagovailoa leading a drive from his own 35 and putting Alabama in place to win with a time-expiring field goal. Only the 26-yard attempt sailed wide left.
Georgia, which beat Oklahoma in double-overtime at the Rose Bowl to advance, could only get a field goal during its turn in the extra frame. The Bulldogs thought they were on the cusp of victory following the sack, only to see the perfect throw into the end zone.
“When they called the play I looked at Tua and I said, ‘Trust me,’” Smith said about the mind-numbing final play that ended the college football season.
Even then no one knew how to react. They were everything from dumbfounded to overjoyed.
“I think everyone had turned their TVs off,” junior defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs said while shaking his head.
“This is amazing,” exhausted senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said while slumped in front of this locker. “We went through so much.”
“They said we weren’t supposed to be here,” junior running back Damien Harris yelled. “Now look.”
That was after Harris had shed a few tears on the field only to later run out of the locker room yelling to reporters, “I love you. I love all of you. Thank you!”
He didn’t care that Alabama had outgained Georgia in the fourth quarter 155-41, or that his offense had only converted 3 of 14 third-down opportunities. Tagovailoa going 14-for-24 for 166 yards will raise a lot of questions about the quarterback position moving forward, but those were things to be figured out another day, along with how Saban might be able to top this.
“We’re national champions!” Davis screamed into the night. “We’re No. 1.”
— Christopher Walsh (@WritingWalsh) January 9, 2018