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Alabama and Georgia played a flawed classic

Nick Saban’s machine broke and forced the Tide to win unforgettably.

CFP National Championship presented by AT&T - Alabama v Georgia Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Remember this: Rodrigo Blankenship almost saved Georgia singlefootedly. The kicker with the rec specs and the name straight out of an indie rock witness protection program kept rescuing the Bulldogs in a national championship game against Alabama with three field goals, including a bomb of a 51-yarder in overtime. It is really not often someone gets to describe a field goal this way, but Rodrigo was on fire so here goes: It was a scorching kick bordering on the erotic, even for those without a field goal fetish.

Georgia would lose just a few plays later, a result that seems almost irrelevant to anyone watching the game because for so long this was just that: A game, an actual competition. It was a surprising comeback win from an Alabama dynasty that never has to come back, all done against a team that has so rarely put it all together to get here in the first place, Georgia. It started with a surprise, ended with a walkoff shocker, and in between had moments of unstaged brilliance for almost everyone — even the normally forgotten kicker.

Georgia’s kicker only stepped into the overtime spotlight because Alabama kickers remained the best running gag in college football. If there is one relief for people tired of Alabama winning everything, it can be that Andy Pappanastos — who missed a 36 yarder to win the game at the end of regulation — did not wake up in Tuscaloosa this morning as a pariah with Georgia as national champions. All the greasy breakfast food and strong coffee in the world wouldn’t burn off that emotional hangover.

But fortunately for Alabama, the breakdown of Saban’s machine designed to digest opponents over 60 minutes of grinding football sparked a confusion that produced something much more captivating and memorable: A team of outrageously good individual players playing catch-up on offense, desperate, intense effort on defense, and a sideline so emotional that Mekhi Brown took his on-field tussling with Georgia to his teammates and coaches. Brown would retake the field and immediately tear Mecole Hardman down by the shoulder pads on a kickoff return. He did this with one arm, and arrested an accelerating Hardman to a full, spinning halt in about three-tenths of a second.

Those little one-on-one reversals were happening all over the field, for both teams, all the time and at every single matchup. To continue the thread: Hardman got caught like a toddler running into traffic by Brown. Hardman also incinerated his man on an 80-yard TD catch in the third quarter. Alabama DB Tony Brown got beat on that play, but opened the game for Alabama by absolutely bullying Javon Wims out of the ball on a strip following a long completion from Georgia QB Jake Fromm. Wims would go on to make a contortionist’s catch around Anthony Averett, hooking his leg around the Alabama DB to stay in bounds.

A turn for one, then another, and another. I can’t remember a game where so many little individual plays and players could be named offhand and with such ease. I just can’t, and that’s before even getting to Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne’s night demolishing the middle of Georgia’s offensive line. Payne was a one-man gravitational distortion field — and even he had plays where the Bulldogs line stymied him. (Especially in the first half, when Alabama’s vaunted line stunts got nowhere against the Bulldog offensive front.)

Tua Tagovailoa got the last word, but the phrasing matters here. Tagovailoa came in for a faltering Jalen Hurts, threw three TDs, and in between extremely freshman-type moments jolted Alabama’s offense back into the game. He also eclipsed what would have been the story of the game had Georgia won: Freshman Jake Fromm’s fearless night against the Bama defense. Fromm hit five third-down conversions longer than third and six against Alabama, including the 80-yard bomb to Hardman in the third quarter.

A freshman did that against an Alabama defense that knew what was coming. Facing him for the next two or three years in the SEC will ... hold on, let us find just the right word ... it will suck. It will absolutely, positively suck.

It will also, for lack of that better word out there, suck to face Tua Tagovailoa. It will suck because as a freshman Tagovailoa made the kind of play freshmen make to lose games. He took a 16-yard sack on first down in his first possession of overtime, a bad play for any team, and a nearly disastrous play for one with a badly malfunctioning kicker.

Then a freshman quarterback somehow diagnosed cover-2, looked off a safety like only a few seniors can, and dropped a gift-wrapped, perfectly accurate, and beautifully thrown touchdown into the hands of another freshman, DeVonta Smith.

There are a lot of ways to look at Alabama winning a 26-23 game. I wanted to start by saying that I had been right in saying that Alabama would win, because being right is a cheap way of feeling good about yourself. But being right by betting on Alabama is the cheapest way of feeling good about yourself. It’s almost cheating, because betting on Alabama in college football is betting on the house in a casino. Over time and with enough games, they always win. Nick Saban is the Saturn of the sport, turning his children loose into the world only to eat them later when they come for the crown. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart came real close, and in this story he ended up on the dinner table with an apple in his mouth like the rest of Saban’s former assistants.

That’s not where this game ended up. The adults in the room, if they had their druthers, wanted control, processes, a game decided by kickers and sacks and field position. They got some of that, sure. But once a game broke out, a bunch of recent children had to play sometimes erratic, sometimes brilliant football at the very limit of their capabilities live on the biggest stage the sport has to offer. Their mistakes were huge, but so were their recoveries, and their counter-mistakes and counter-recoveries, until in the end someone had to accept the formality of a victory.

In the end, the last play came off the hand of an 18-year-old and landed in the hands of a 19-year-old. According to the plan, that wasn’t supposed to happen, but youth has always been the first and best hope for redeeming the dull, faulty plans of old men.

That’s why you watch otherwise structurally rotten college football, after all. If there are the fumes of exhilaration still lingering from watching what should have been a sluggish, extremely professional exchange of football propositions, it is because of the players. The teams may be good or bad or indifferent, but the kids are, and always have been, absolutely brilliant.