Before the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game arrived, the previous 21st-century epic involving the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Georgia Bulldogs also unfolded in Atlanta… but not in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
By Matt Zemek
Preceding the 2017 season’s dramatic denouement, the previous Bama-Georgia thriller to grace the current century was a Georgia Dome duel between A.J. McCarron and Aaron Murray. This was the 2012 SEC Championship Game in which Georgia got a first down just inside the Alabama 10 with 15 seconds left, trailing by four points without a timeout.
With a timeout, there is obviously no point in spiking the ball. Without a timeout, spiking the ball isn’t always the right play — not with 30 or 35 seconds, an ample amount of time in which to allow five or six seconds to drip off the clock before starting a play. Even if the play ends at around 17 or 19 seconds, there is more than enough time left for three snaps, enabling a team to retain a full series of four downs.
However, with only 15 seconds left, spiking the ball IS the right play. Why? 15 seconds is generally not enough for four plays. At that point, you are likely to have only three snaps, and even then, the time squeeze begins to be tight. Because you are not going to have enough time for four plays, you have to make sure you can get three plays. Spiking the ball sacrifices one of the four downs, but it offers the best and most reasonable chance of giving a team three plays with 13 or 14 seconds.
In that moment, with 15 seconds left in the 2012 SEC title game, Georgia needed to clock the ball… but it did not. Murray allowed six whole seconds to expire from the clock. As said above, with 30-35 seconds on the clock, that would not have been a problem. With 15 left — dwindling down to nine seconds at the time of the snap — it was a HUGE problem.
The problem became much bigger when the pass was tipped and then caught by a Georgia receiver near the 5-yard line well in bounds with no hope of getting out of bounds. As soon as the catch was made and the receiver was down on the ground — the play dead, but the clock still moving — there were only five seconds left, and everyone on the field instantly knew the game was over. It was one of those passes which the receiver needed to avoid catching.
Final score: Alabama 32, Georgia 28.
The Crimson Tide defended their 2011 national title by beating a team they might soon face in this 2018 playoff: Notre Dame.
How about that? Six years after an Atlanta encounter which is impossible to forget, Alabama and Georgia might be playing for the right to make the playoff semifinals and possibly meet Notre Dame for the national title, just as the Tide and Dawgs tried to do in 2012.
That possibility lends a feeling of familiarity to this reunion in Atlanta… but it’s the other subsequent meeting in Atlanta which is even more firmly imprinted upon Alabama and Georgia fans.
The 2012 game was memorable on a large scale, but that was “merely” an SEC Championship Game in the Georgia Dome. The 2017 season ended with Bama and UGA contesting the national title in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, one month after Georgia had won its first SEC championship in that building — and the Dawgs’ first SEC title since 2005 — by beating Auburn.
If the 2012 Bama-Georgia ending was unforgettable, the January 2018 conclusion was “unforgettable squared.”
2nd and 26.
That’s all you need to mention to Tide and Dawg partisans. Second and twenty-six.
A small number of words unleashes a tidal wave of emotions.
Georgia thought it had Alabama cooked and beaten. The Dawgs had kept the Tide in check for most of the night. A young quarterback named Tua Tagovailoa was finally unwrapped by Nick Saban after being kept behind Jalen Hurts much longer than he needed to be… but not too late to save the Tide.
Tua was inserted into the lineup just in the “Nick” of time for Saban, the coach who has lived a charmed life this decade. Yet, on 2nd and 26, it seemed that Tua would have to endure a learning experience before entering the 2018 season at the height of his powers.
Georgia’s defense wasn’t playing a veteran quarterback such as Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, who rang up huge numbers against the Dawgs in the Rose Bowl semifinal. This was a wide-eyed freshman who — while better than Hurts — was being abruptly thrown into a high-stress situation and needed to adjust on the fly. Tagovailoa made a number of mistakes, mixed with several high-quality plays which fueled a late-game Alabama comeback. He was living on the knife’s edge of very small margins, and on 2nd and 26 from the Georgia 41 in overtime, it seemed likely that Tua was going to fall off that edge.
Instead, he transformed everything about that game and how it will be remembered.
Tagovailoa hit DeVonta Smith in stride down the left sideline. Georgia endured a coverage bust at exactly the wrong time.
Final score: Alabama 26, Georgia 23.
The nature of the endings was profoundly different. In 2012, Georgia failed to score. In January of 2018, Alabama scored one of the most fabled touchdowns in its history. What was the same? The Crimson Tide won in Atlanta — narrowly.
Now, another Georgia team — one which is very different from the 2017 iteration — tries to avenge last season’s loss. It enters this game without the huge confidence boost provided by a rousing 17-point comeback victory against the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback (Mayfield) in college football’s greatest setting (the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California). It enters this game without the knowledge of having won a heavyweight fight against the SEC West champion (Auburn) on the same field a month before playing Bama for all the marbles.
No, this time Georgia doesn’t know what it has. This time the Dawgs haven’t climbed to the same lofty perch of their predecessors a year ago. Georgia is trying to scale great heights, but it doesn’t have the kind of performance which points to a level of quality on par with the 2017 team. UGA has to find that level in this game.
Georgia’s biggest test over its previous 12 games came at LSU, a team which — even now — can’t reliably throw the ball in normal game conditions. (It can do so in seven overtimes against an exhausted Texas A&M defense, sure, but not in regular circumstances.) Yet, LSU reared back and punched Georgia in the mouth. The Dawgs’ Jake Fromm got rattled by the LSU pass rush. Georgia rebounded from that 36-16 defeat to win the rest of its games this season, but with Auburn regressing and Florida going through its own rough patch in late October, no opponent in the final six weeks of the season tested UGA the way LSU did.
Guess what LSU managed to achieve when playing Alabama on that same piece of Tiger Stadium real estate Georgia couldn’t handle?
The Bayou Bengals were shut out, 29-0.
If you do the quick math, Georgia lost to LSU by 20 in Baton Rouge, and LSU lost to Bama by 29 in the same city. That’s a 49-point difference between Bama and Georgia against a common opponent in the same stadium. That’s hard to push away from the mind in these final hours before kickoff, even if the Tide have looked a lot less imposing in late November than they did against LSU or at other points earlier in the season.
Alabama has always known that this game is the one it really wanted to win. This was the game to prepare for. This — not The Citadel or Auburn or even Mississippi State — was the game which would demand the Tide’s very best. If you think Alabama has been saving up its energy and its focus for this game, I wouldn’t blame you one bit. I’m in that same camp.
Georgia, on the other hand, hasn’t shown its might or muscle on a level remotely close to what Alabama has demonstrated. All the trust lies with Bama here, and all the doubt lies in Georgia’s corner. This doesn’t mean Georgia has no chance — in fact, if Bama continues to play first halves the way it has over the previous few weeks, a moderately good Georgia performance should create a close game. Nevertheless, the burden falls on Georgia to show it belongs on the same field. The Bulldogs have to show that capacity first and foremost. They have to make this a real fight heading into the fourth quarter, something no Bama opponent has yet managed to do this season. Then, if able to be there in the final 15 minutes, can Georgia make the handful of plays it failed to make in 2012 and then this past January?
Alabama and Georgia return to the scene of the crime. Their previous two meetings in Atlanta have been impossible to forget… and have been decided by fewer than five points.
Georgia has no interest in losing a close game, but the Dawgs have to at least create a close game before they can entertain realistic notions of winning. It is up to them to prove they belong… and to determine if channels won’t flip to other games before the fourth quarter begins.