Wed. Feb 21st, 2024

Alabama beats Georgia to win SEC title and complicate playoff picture


ATLANTA — From his left, from his right and in front of his face, Jalen Milroe had defenders closing in, the pocket shrinking into a straitjacket. Alabama, the team on his 20-year-old shoulders, needed a first down in the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game Saturday to bury Georgia with a touchdown instead of giving it late life with a field goal.

So Milroe hung in there. He scanned the field in Georgia territory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. And while those defenders reached for him, he flipped a pass to Isaiah Bond, the ball landing softly in the wide receiver’s waiting hands. Three plays later, eighth-ranked Alabama scored that touchdown to extend its lead to 10, the padding it needed in a 27-24 win that snapped No. 1 Georgia’s 29-game winning streak.

In the moment, it meant another conference title for the Crimson Tide and Nick Saban, who has won only 11 of them (nine in Tuscaloosa). But the promise of an Alabama win was always chaos for the College Football Playoff selection committee ahead of Sunday’s decision.

Chaos activated, then.

“The message that I would send [to the committee] is we won the SEC,” Saban said. “We beat the number one team in the country, which everybody on the committee thought was the number one in the country, and they won 29 straight games. So if we needed to do something to pass the eye test, I guess that probably contributed to it significantly.”

Your turn, Kirby Smart.

“[CFP executive director] Bill Hancock said it’s not the most deserving,” Georgia’s coach said. “He said, simply, it’s the best four teams. So you’re going to tell me somebody in that committee room doesn’t think that that Georgia team is not one of the best four teams, I don’t know if they are in the right profession.”

Before Saturday, Georgia’s last loss was in December 2021, in this very building in this very game. Oh, it was also against Alabama, because who else? But that year, the Bulldogs still made the playoff and won their first of back-to-back national titles. A defeat in the SEC championship game wasn’t the end. In some ways, it was the beginning.

This year, though, the path to another playoff berth for Georgia (12-1) is littered with Alabama (12-1), Texas (12-1) and undefeated teams. No. 3 Washington (13-0) beat No. 5 Oregon in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night. One-loss Texas, which won the Big 12 title Saturday, remains in the picture after edging Alabama in September. And Saturday night, as Atlanta turned into Tuscaloosa East, two more undefeated teams were set to kick off with conference titles on the line: No. 2 Michigan in the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis and No. 4 Florida State in the ACC title game in Charlotte.

After Michigan beat No. 16 Iowa and Florida State beat No. 14 Louisville to both improve to 13-0, the committee has some hard choices. Ditch an undefeated conference champion, probably Florida State, to clear space for two of Alabama, Texas and Georgia? Leave out Georgia? Georgia and Alabama in favor of three unbeaten conference champs and the team that beat Alabama head-to-head? Push aside Greg Sankey’s repeated pleas for the SEC, which by Saturday included multiple allusions to a lesson from Sesame Street? (“One of these things is not like the other.”)

The SEC commissioner has a point. His conference is the best in the country. But the talent at the top of it — spread across Georgia and Alabama — meant that, at the very least, one blue blood would be cannibalized by the other Saturday. Georgia met the wrong end of that reality, putting its fate in someone else’s hands.

When Alabama’s players were asked to stump for a playoff spot, linebacker Dallas Turner deferred to what they did on the field. Milroe took the offer.

“No, I got something to say,” he said, leaning into his microphone. “Georgia is number one, right? You beat the number one team, what do they consider us?”

When the game was over, when Milroe finished the Bulldogs with a 30-yard run, when Alabama closed the win with kneel-downs, the team ran toward its fans. Their chants and screams nearly drowned out the band, no matter how hard the musicians blew on their horns. That they could yell still, that their lungs could produce so much noise — let alone celebrate at Georgia’s expense — was a minor miracle in itself.

In the hours before the gates opened, they cut through the fog, kept their legs moving, killed time in the shadows of a stadium that could cosplay as an airplane hangar. Maybe they visited the big tent selling Georgia gear (with a small sign out front saying Alabama shirts were available, too). Maybe they packed in behind the “College GameDay” set.

Or maybe they just walked aimlessly, because all that nervous energy had to go somewhere.

And when it was time, they flooded the concourse, the bright red and crimson bleeding into one another. If there were shirts without logos on them, they could have probably been counted with two hands. A pair of older men, both wearing Georgia onesies, slung plastic wrestling belts over their shoulders. A young woman squinted at a concessions stand, crinkled her nose, then reminded anyone in ear shot where they were.

“A chicken sandwich?” she said, an Alabama sticker on her cheek. “If I’m going to eat a chicken sandwich, it’s going to be from Chick-fil-A.”

Nevertheless, no matter how much the food and stress weighed them down, they all screamed for four hours straight, from when the special teamers jogged out for pregame warmups to when the clock showed zeros in the fourth. In between, Georgia cruised to a touchdown on its first drive, Alabama punched back with a 10-play, 92-yard touchdown drive to take a 10-7 lead early in the second, and the Crimson Tide then widened the gap with a score before the half, when Milroe fit three straight passes into tight windows, the third a 15-yard strike to Jermaine Burton.

Burton, a transfer from Georgia, stared at his old sideline before disappearing in a crowd of teammates. His touchdown catch built a 17-7 lead before the break. On the other side of it, the gap slimmed to seven when Peyton Woodring knocked through a 34-yard field goal for the Bulldogs. But Alabama answered, turning a turnover — a fumble recovery deep in Georgia’s territory — into a chip-shot field goal for Will Reichard.

That brought the game to the fourth quarter, to Alabama having 15 minutes to defend a 10-point lead and upend Georgia’s season. And after Bulldogs quarterback Carson Beck lunged in from a yard out, making it 20-17, Alabama had to hold on for 10 more minutes. That’s when Milroe rallied his offense, flipping that third-down pass to Bond, going right back to him for 11 more yards, then handing to Roydell Williams for a one-yard score.

The last 10-point advantage was enough. It was safe in Milroe’s hands. But the playoff picture — a tidy one, at least — was certainly not.

If this game happened a year from now, there would be 12 teams in the upcoming playoff instead of four. Saban and Smart probably wouldn’t have kicked off their news conferences with pleas. Alabama and Georgia would have played for seeding, not to fuel their biggest dreams.

The end of something, of the tension and stakes that filled every last inch of Mercedes-Benz Stadium until the final whistle? Saban, kicked back, a grin tugging at the corners of his mouth, didn’t quite see it that way.

“I think when we have 12 teams, you all will still make a case for 12 more,” he said to a room of reporters. “That’s kind of your job. Just like the basketball tournament. I mean, how many teams do they put in? Sixty-eight? And then you have a two-hour show on who else should have gotten in or who got in that shouldn’t have?

“That’s always going to be part of it.”

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