ATLANTA — Most of the time in November, Alabama barely held on. It started December by routing Georgia, the country’s top-ranked team.
The upshot felt as familiar as anything in college football: Alabama, the reigning national champion suddenly cast into an underdog’s existence after escaping three games last month by a touchdown or less, gave itself a chance to contend for another title.
Georgia, its nationally sterling defense dented Saturday in ways not previously seen this season, will almost certainly be in the field, too, when the final College Football Playoff rankings are announced on Sunday. It will just not be there as the Southeastern Conference champion, that potential squandered time and again during an evening that ended with an Alabama rout, 41-24.
For the No. 3 Crimson Tide, it was a victory plenty of its faithful had figured would not happen, not after it took four overtimes to beat unranked Auburn, not after Alabama wheezed to a win over an Arkansas team that Georgia had held scoreless.
For Georgia, which has not beaten Alabama since 2007, it was a bruising comeuppance and a blemish on a shining autumn for big teams in its state. After all, almost every savant, soothsayer or mildly observant Atlanta sports fan of the last quarter-century or so had figured the Braves would flame out before winning the World Series.
Ordinarily mighty, but oftentimes this season teetering toward ordinary, Alabama appeared ripe to become a trophy, too. Instead, Alabama gobbled up 536 yards of offense, averaged nearly 8 yards per play and scored every time it reached the red zone.
“We can’t turn the ball over and give up 60- and 70-yard passes and expect to be successful,” said Kirby Smart, Georgia’s coach. “For the most part this year, we’ve executed well. We didn’t execute well tonight, and that had a lot to do with them. So give Alabama credit, and we’ve got a lot to work on.”
Georgia, though, struck first, with a 38-yard field goal in the first quarter, an early advantage that felt like the start of yet another offensive eruption for a team that had scored at least 40 points in seven games this season.
A tight end, Brock Bowers, had turned a leap into an 18-yard gain. James Cook and Zamir White had contributed 34 yards on the ground. But the quarterback, Stetson Bennett, had taken a pummeling of a sack on third down in the red zone.
Georgia found a grander dose of offensive wizardry late on its next drive. Bennett, a few steps behind the 50, unleashed a throw with enough of an arc for George Pickens, a wide receiver, to have time to swivel back toward the thicket he had fled and search for the ball. He leapt, grasped and then landed on his back, the ball 37 yards closer to an interim prize.
A 5-yard touchdown catch two plays later by Darnell Washington gave Georgia a 10-point lead — the kind of deficit that Nick Saban’s Alabama had only sporadically faced.
Yet the Tide’s Jameson Williams lurked, his fearsome speed twitching within just a week after his ejection for targeting on a punt during the rivalry game at Auburn. On third down, with Alabama on its own 33, he raced toward midfield, into the crook of the “C” on the SEC logo.
Bryce Young, the quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender, looked for an option and a hope.
Williams’s eyes lurched from backfield to end zone as the ball arrived. He cut across the turf, steering toward the goal line’s left pylon. A defensive back gave chase but could be forgiven for concluding by about the 15, and quite possibly sooner, that it would be a fruitless pursuit.
He was a few yards behind as Williams rolled in for a touchdown. Williams had gone 67 yards on the play, more than Alabama’s offensive production in the whole of the first quarter. The entire possession had lasted 44 seconds.
The two-score game had shriveled to one.
Georgia responded with a three-and-out.
And so not even 90 seconds after it had started to silence much of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, about 70 miles from Georgia’s campus, Alabama’s offense swaggered back to the field beneath the bright lights.
Alabama seized 63 yards in short order. Georgia’s defensive fortress tried to regroup, though it crumbled anew after stopping just one rushing attempt.
But that is somewhat unfair. Football teams are only sometimes asked to defend plays more familiar on basketball courts.
Faced with a swarm of white-clad Bulldogs on a second down, Young tucked his head and stormed forward. Just before the line of scrimmage, he looked to the right and spied Brian Robinson Jr. He flipped Robinson the ball.
Georgia surrendered 13 yards on the play. It was lucky no Bulldog turned an ankle.
A rush that picked up a yard set Alabama on Georgia’s 13. Never mind that John Metchie III had a pair of shadows as he darted across the end zone. Young, whose 461 yards of total offense propelled him to the game’s most valuable player award, tried him anyway.
Add another touchdown. In less than five minutes, Alabama had gone from being scoreless to semifinal lock. Alabama fans think that way. (So do plenty of Georgia fans.)
“We all stepped up, and we all answered the bell,” Young said. “We all understood what was at stake.”
Another Georgia three-and-out did nothing to dim whatever celebration might have been starting to bubble up in Tuscaloosa. An Alabama field goal pushed the Tide lead to 7, though Georgia tied the game when Ladd McConkey, a wide receiver, dodged a crimson sea that was closing in fast (no one, in fact, touched him from about the 15).
Before halftime, Young at last got around to scoring himself, when he skirted a pack of Bulldogs, evaded a diving defender and wound up in the end zone.
Alabama led, 24-17, at the break. That is what happens when you find 319 yards in 15 minutes, when your quarterback sets an SEC championship game record for first-half passing yards.
The second half brought a suboptimal circumstance for Georgia: Alabama got the ball first. It took less than two minutes to score.
Williams dashed up the gridiron, and the ball took about three seconds to go from Young’s grip to his. A Georgia junior managed to tackle Williams.
He had already scored.
Soon enough, Alabama’s defense had a touchdown of its own when Jordan Battle intercepted one of Bennett’s passes and ran 42 yards to the end zone.
Bowers helped Georgia narrow its daunting margin somewhat with a touchdown with just less than 10 minutes to play.
But Alabama had already summoned its magic, dark or otherwise. Georgia’s losing streak against Saban, whose team would add a field goal a little later, would stick at least a while longer.
The only mystery left was when, or whether, the teams might meet in the playoff.
And Saban, who customarily condemns glowing forecasts about Alabama as “rat poison” for his team, said he had not been bothered by days of doomsday predictions by fans and pundits.
“The rat poison that you usually give us is usually fatal,” he said, “but the rat poison that you put out there this week was yummy.”
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