I will admit right off the bat that I—like many others, I’m pretty sure—was a tired cynic heading into Monday’s national title game between Georgia and Alabama. I had Crimson Tide and Nick Saban fatigue. I had just seen this game a month ago in Atlanta, and it didn’t exactly demand a rematch. The Dawgs’ beatdown of my Michigan Wolverines in the semis (coupled with Bama’s dismantling of the little Group of Five team that could) stifled my enthusiasm for the finale. And, more seriously, the surge of omicron across the country had me drawing depressing parallels between how I’m feeling this January and how I felt last January, as Alabama won another championship.
I felt proud of and secure in my pessimism and self-pity throughout the entire first half of this ball game, as both teams collaborated in an extended reenactment of the slow beginning to their SEC title tilt. Five field goals between the two teams allowed Bama to take a 9-6 lead into the half, as big plays that penetrated enemy territory consistently gave way to defensive stands. But like their prior meeting, when the scoring finally picked up, it picked up fast, and when the dust cleared Georgia could enjoy revenge, winning 33-18 in a game much, much tighter than that final score would imply.
Even in the third quarter when, after an Alabama missed field goal, Georgia rode a 67-yard James Cook run toward the eventual first touchdown of the game and a 13-9 lead, it was still a bit difficult to believe in anything but the inevitability of Saban. The ensuing Bulldogs possession after yet another three-pointer for the Tide seemed almost to confirm their continued dominance. In a bizarre sequence on Georgia’s side of the field, Dawgs QB Stetson Bennett was ruled to have fumbled while attempting to get rid of the ball during a sack, and Alabama’s Brian Branch—who really seemed to just be retrieving the ball out of politeness because he thought the play was dead—was ruled to have recovered it. The Tide took advantage of this incredible bit of good fortune and scored their first touchdown of the night to open an 18-13 advantage.
But those were the final points Alabama would score this season. An unflappable Bennett needed just three plays to take his Dawgs to the Alabama 32. To cap off the drive, immediately after a sack, Bennett avoided panic in the face of a blitzing linebacker and hurled the ball from the very center of the field all the way to the gigantic “A” in the Georgia end zone. That was only half the battle. While the pass neared the end of its flight, freshman wideout Adonai Mitchell rose off his feet to get above Khyree Jackson, got his hands on the football, and then held on for dear life as he smashed into the turf. This spectacular grab gave the Bulldogs a 19-18 lead, and suddenly even I had to admit that I was having fun.
Alabama did not respond the way we’ve been trained to believe they always will. The Tide had a three-and-out that included a fantastic batted pass on third down by Georgia’s William Poole. The Dawgs marched back down the field and Bennett, again cool under pressure, tossed a screen pass to Brock Bowers for a 15-yard score. Even then, when Georgia kicked the point after for an eight-point lead with 3:33 remaining, I figured Alabama still had it in them to pull off a comeback. But after Bryce Young brought the ball across midfield, he threw a misguided pass into deeply unfriendly territory, creating an exclamation point with which the Bulldogs could punctuate their first championship since 1980.
“I hadn’t cried in—I don’t know, years—but that just came over me,” Bennett said afterward. “When you put as much time as we do into this thing, blood, sweat, tears, it means something.”
More often than not, the hype of the College Football Playoff has been given way to uninteresting blowouts and predictable victors. So when it does unexpectedly emerge with something as singular as the Mitchell catch and as exciting as the final two quarters of this game, it does feel extra-special for the neutral fan. (It’s always going to feel special for the people actually in the game, of course.) Though Georgia-Alabama was anything but a novel matchup, the action down the stretch helped produce a rare, truly worthwhile edition of one of these CFP games.
The unhappy way I opened this blog sort of invites me to end by saying that, for a brief moment, the drama and athleticism on display caused me forget about the serious problems fundamental to both college football and our country. I didn’t. It’d be silly for me to say that I did, and a lie too. But that catch was still pretty damn cool.