At the end, despite it all, Nick Saban smiled. Still flush in the emotional backwash of Georgia 33, Alabama 18, a clear shot at another national championship dead, buried and gone, the losing coach arrived at midfield for the postgame handshake and flashed an expression that exceeded the decorum such moments require.
Why was that man smiling, especially in that way at that moment? Only the ranting firebrand with a trail of broken headsets can fully explain, but armchair quarterbacks who moonlight as amateur psychologists can hazard a hypothesis. That gracious display had to flow from a generous helping of pride in his protege. Georgia’s Kirby Smart is the most strikingly similar to Saban of all his coaching sons. After four frustrating meetings, Smart finally had earned the opportunity to console Saban rather than congratulate him, dismissing forever all questions about when or if he would ever get the better of him.
Reached Its Peak
Closer to home, Saban had to know deep in his heart that this Alabama team, with a wealth of talent per usual but a dearth of big-game bona fides, might have reached its peak just by getting here, leading at the half and retaking the lead with 10 minutes to go. This team, riddled by injuries, compounded by the early wounded knee that sidelined gamebreaker Jameson Williams, still put itself in position to hand Saban his eighth big ring, his seventh in Titletown Tuscaloosa to break a tie with one Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Saban didn’t wrestle and pin the shadow of the Bear to become the GOAT by losing national championship games, where he’s 7-3. Another checkered flag was in sight Monday night in the home of the Indianapolis 500. What usually happens at winning time is, well, Alabama happens, but this game was all kinds of upside down.
Maybe role reversal was the logical outcome when two SEC teams had to pack parkas to compete for the College Football National Championship in the cold heart of Big Ten country.
Fueled By 40 Years of National Title Frustration
This was a slugfest that was anything but a snoozefest that turned into a shootout and then a blowout faster than Georgia freshman defensive back Kelee Ringo traveled 79 yards with the final dagger, an icepick-six. It took more than 43 minutes of game time for either team to reach the end zone, but fueled by 40 years of national title frustration, Georgia blazed a trail there when it mattered most.
After Alabama retook the lead with its only touchdown of the game with 10 minutes remaining, the Dogs came off the leash with a vengeance, scoring the final 20 points with three straight touchdowns.
The unexpected architect of the comeback was Georgia’s former walk-on at quarterback. Stetson Bennett made a mockery of every single one of us who’s ever doubted him, overcoming his own potentially lethal fumble to throw two late touchdown passes, outplaying Alabama Heisman prodigy Bryce Young, who flung two critical interceptions.
It was Bennett, the plucky underdog surrounded by five-star show dogs on both sides, the flip-phone aficionado, who went from Tom All Thumbs to Tom Brady and stole the show. The game’s offensive MVP gave you goosebumps when he said, “I was not going to be the reason we lost.”
It was Young who took a beating from the relentless Georgia pass rush, who let his frustration show in a way he hadn’t all season, who pounded the turf after misfiring on a potential scoring toss and later broke your heart with this lament: “I love my guys. I just wish I could have played better for them tonight.”
The Tide Will be Back
As Opposite Day melted into night, as Georgia made the key special-teams play with a blocked field goal and Smart pushed the right button by not benching Bennett for even a series, the sport’s biggest winner in these big moments found a measure of satisfaction even in defeat.
“We played a heck of a game against a heck of a team for the first three quarters,” Saban said. “Nobody can take the SEC championship away from this team, or the Cotton Bowl championship. We just didn’t finish the way we needed to finish.”
If you’re scowling because he smiled at the end, if you’re thinking that Saban at 70 has softened too much and his dynasty has begun its inevitable descent, think again. All he did this season was nurture this fun bunch through its inexperience and its injuries to the brink of another title while stockpiling another stellar recruiting class. When the sun comes up, and it will, that should make you smile, too.