Nick Saban made the boldest call of the greatest coaching career in college football history. It won him a sixth national championship.
Out came 2016 SEC offensive player of the year quarterback Jalen Hurts. In came true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, a five-star recruit who had previously played only in blowouts in his rookie year. Tagovailoa's task was merely to lead Alabama back from a 13-point halftime deficit to win the national championship against Saban's protégé, Kirby Smart, and a Georgia defense that dominated the first 30 minutes of the game.
Tagovailoa did just that, in a legendary performance in what will go down as a legendary college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Monday.
Tagovailoa sparked the Alabama passing game, shook off a few rookie mistakes and finished with one of the most dramatic game-winning plays in sports history, a 41-yard walk-off touchdown pass to fellow true freshman DeVonta Smith to give the Crimson Tide a 26-23 overtime victory over the Bulldogs and the College Football Playoff national championship.
It's Saban's sixth national title overall, tying him with fellow Alabama great Bear Bryant, and it's his fifth at Alabama since 2009. It happened after the Crimson Tide found themselves in an unfamiliar position: all but written off.
Georgia, under the ex-Bama defensive coordinator Smart, looked a lot like a typical powerhouse Crimson Tide team, beating Bama at its own game in a way that so few teams have been able to do over the past decade. After a scoreless first quarter, Georgia kicked a pair of field goals in the second, then got creative on a one-yard touchdown run by Mecole Hardman just before halftime, giving the Bulldogs a 13-0 lead.
Well well well ...- ESPN (@espn) January 9, 2018
At the half: Georgia 13, Alabama 0 pic.twitter.com/4ppd0vvkjd
Alabama ran only 24 plays for 94 yards in the first half. Hurts, who came so close to leading Alabama to the national title as a true freshman last season, was 3-for-8 for 21 yards as a passer. Recognizing that Alabama needed a better, more polished arm to give the offense a chance to come back from a rare double-digit deficit, Saban turned to Tagovailoa, the blue-chip recruit from the same high school as Marcus Mariota in Hawaii. Tagovailoa had thrown only 53 passes all season, almost exclusively in garbage time of Alabama's numerous blowout victories, but Saban put his faith in the untested freshman anyway.
The talented lefty passer lived up to every bit of his recruiting hype, in the most high-profile, high-pressure situation imaginable, a relief appearance with the national championship on the line and zero points on the scoreboard.
Georgia sacked Tagovailoa on third down on his first possession. But even with left tackle Jonah Williams exiting with an injury, Tagovailoa proceeded to lead Alabama to its first points on his second drive. He missed a deep ball to Calvin Ridley, then pulled off a third-and-seven scramble, a few more key passes and a six-yard touchdown to Henry Ruggs to get the Tide back into the game.
Alabama's newfound spark was briefly extinguished. Georgia's own true freshman, Jake Fromm, launched a gorgeous 80-yard touchdown pass to Hardman just four plays later to put the Bulldogs back ahead by 13. When Tagovailoa was intercepted on the second play of Alabama's ensuing possession, on a clear miscommunication, hopes for some second-half magic appeared to be slipping away. It appeared that Fromm was on his way to becoming the first true freshman quarterback to lead a team to a national championship since Oklahoma's Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
But Fromm's next pass bounced off an Alabama player's helmet and into the hands of Raekwon Davis, and Saban kept his trust in his own true freshman. A 43-yard Andy Pappanastos field goal trimmed the Georgia lead to 20-10 in the third quarter. Alabama chipped away at the lead again with a 30-yard Pappanastos kick with 9:24 left, and after the defense held Georgia to a three-and-out, Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide on a dream drive to tie.
Tagovailoa hit Damien Harris for 17 yards. He got help from a Georgia pass interference penalty, then connected with Jerry Jeudy for 20 yards. A few plays later, Alabama faced fourth-and-four at the seven-yard line, under four minutes left, championship potentially on the line. Tagovailoa was forced to scramble to escape pressure. He rolled left. He fired a pass into traffic in the end zone, and what happened next will be debated forever: Was he throwing for a covered Najee Harris? Was he aiming for Ridley?
Wrong target or not -- it seems likely that Najee Harris was the intended recipient -- the ball sailed just past the outstretched arm of a defender and into the hands of Ridley for the tying touchdown, 20-20.
Once again, Da'Ron Payne and the Alabama defense rose to the occasion, quickly forcing a second straight three-and-out. Tagovailoa and Najee Harris were five-star recruits, but they entered the night as freshman backups. With the national championship on the line, they took over the game on the final possession of regulation, with the help of a face-mask penalty, too. But when Pappanastos -- who missed his first kick in the first quarter -- lined up for a 36-yard field goal to win, he pushed it far left, no good, sending the game into overtime and continuing Saban's ongoing kicker frustrations.
OVERTIME pic.twitter.com/Sh2RuLPUoj- ESPN (@espn) January 9, 2018
Georgia started overtime with Fromm making a freshman mistake, taking a 13-yard sack on third down. Rodrigo Blankenship stepped up and cooly hit a 51-yard field goal anyway for the 23-20 Georgia lead. At first, Tagovailoa followed Fromm's lead, taking a 16-yard sack that pushed Alabama to the 41-yard line and put it in a perilous situation, especially given the state of its kicking game.
All those worries were abruptly alleviated: Tagovailoa fired a flawless pass to Smith, who hauled in the championship-winning touchdown on only his eighth reception of the season, an instantly iconic play that delivered Alabama yet another memorable championship moment and Georgia yet another dose of heartbreak.
For two years, Hurts helped continue Alabama's staggering rate of success in one of college football's greatest dynasties. The Crimson Tide went 14-1 last year, losing to Clemson with one second left after Hurts' go-ahead touchdown run. They were 12-1 this season entering the title game, making the playoff despite not winning the SEC. Hurts came so close to being the quarterback to deliver the title, but Tagovailoa tagged in to carry the Crimson Tide over the finish line.
In a potentially precarious quarterback situation, what did Hurts tell Tagovailoa when the quarterback switch was made?
"'Ball. Play your game. Ball,'" Hurts told ESPN's Tom Rinaldi on the field afterward. "He's built for stuff like this. He has the 'it' factor. And I'm so happy for him, happy for this team."
Hurts couldn't have handled the moment any better. Handful of mistakes aside, Tagovailoa couldn't have delivered a much better performance, regardless of the circumstances. The freshman completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, and he rushed for 27 yards. He did this all after halftime, against a talented Georgia defense that stifled the Alabama offense throughout the first half.
Is that right, coach? pic.twitter.com/sHmHL79w1N- ESPN CollegeFootball (@ESPNCFB) January 9, 2018
"I felt like that we've had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game," Saban said afterward. "No disrespect to Jalen, but the real thought was, you know, they came into the game thinking we were going to run the ball and be able to run quarterback runs, which we made a couple of explosive plays on. But with the absence of a passing game and being able to make explosive plays and being able to convert on third down, I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did.
"I couldn't be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him. We played him a lot in a lot of games this year, and he did very well. He certainly did a great job tonight."
As a coach, Saban had seemingly seen it all. He had already won five national championships. He had lost a chance for a sixth in what seemed like the most heartbreaking fashion imaginable, until he inflicted an even more heartbreaking defeat on Georgia and his former top assistant.
Saban did so by handing the keys to an unproven true freshman to pull off the seemingly impossible in the second half of a national championship game. It paid off. The quarterbacks bought in, the team bought in and Tagovailoa rewarded Saban's trust.
Together, Saban and Tagovailoa made history that we've never seen before and may never see again.