ATLANTA — Once a rollicking Monday night had drifted past midnight into Tuesday, the human minds that occupied Mercedes-Benz Stadium began processing the feast of whiplash shifts they had both played and witnessed. The processing could prove painstaking. In this latest, dazzling College Football Playoff national championship game, Alabama's 26-23 overtime win over Georgia came stuffed with enough hairpin turns to wreak decades of discussion.
Alabama seemed imperiled, its offense barely budging as Georgia led 13-0 at halftime. Georgia seemed challenged as Alabama pulled to 13-7. Alabama seemed doomed as Georgia quickly stretched out to 20-7 with an 80-yard touchdown pass that looked magical enough to last for decades. Georgia seemed beaten as Alabama lined up for a 36-yard field goal on the last play of regulation.
In short, everything that seemed, ultimately wasn't, all the way to that final goose bump of a play, when Alabama seemed trapped, 41 yards from the end zone on a second down and 26, until somehow, on the 148th offensive play of this highbrow match of cave-man football, a receiver boomed free up the left sideline.
"I could not believe it," Alabama Coach Nick Saban said.
"When the ball was in the air," this freshman, DeVonta Smith, said, "I was like, 'This is it right here.'"
That was it right there, with 77,340 mouths dropping, streamers falling, Alabama's sideline scrambling to celebrate and Smith strategizing: "I was just trying to avoid the big people." By the time the football left the left hand of a budding freshman star who came on in relief, Tua Tagovailoa, and arced through the indoor air, enough peculiarities had occurred that Alabama — Alabama! — had taken on the role of the upstart. That's Alabama, which just won a fifth national title in the last nine seasons. That's Alabama, coached by Saban, who just won a sixth in his career, pulling up alongside Bear Bryant atop the list across these last, scintillating, 148 years of the sport.
Alabama had run onto the field with the giddy posture of those whose victory has sprouted out of doubt, and Georgia would have the sullen locker room. Georgia, which spent so much of the night resembling the latest beast from the Southeast, unshackled and stomping around the land, had the locker room with the long, consoling hugs and the occasional pounding of the metal lockers.
"I was hoping he'd drop it," defensive back Deandre Baker said, "because he was wide open, by himself, which was heartbreaking."
"It's something to learn from," the foremost receiver Mecole Hardman said, "something you've got to keep inside you."
Yet the rigorous processing of this preposterous game, while leaving room for Andy Pappanastos's missed 36-yard field goal that ended regulation for Alabama, to Rodrigo Blankenship's 51-yard field goal that began overtime for Georgia, must include more than all the stem-winding of its plot. It must find room for a momentous halftime decision by a momentous coach.
Having constructed his Alabama dynasty on toil and smarts and might and a protracted war against human complacency, Saban summoned something else on a fickle Monday night in January. He went digging into his own, vast supply of intestinal fortitude, and even that proved to be pivotal. He replaced a decorated, two-year starting quarterback in Jalen Hurts, whose late-stage, 30-yard run had graced the title game of January 2017, and he went with a freshman in Tagovailoa, who came from the same Hawaii high school as his hero, Marcus Mariota.
With his enviable left arm and his runs and his scrambling that ventured into the outrageous, Tagovailoa gave Alabama some sort of transfusion. His presence altered the game's tenor and amped up Alabama's sideline. By the time he led Alabama on four scoring possessions, he looked like a budded star. "I just pray for peace," he said of his approach to drives, and the drives went 56, 15, 71 and 66 yards, for two touchdowns and two field goals, the last one closing with a fourth-down, seven-yard, on-the-run, zinging touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley to make the score 20-20 with 3:49 left.
That forced everyone to process that Alabama had caught up, even after Georgia had answered Tagovailoa's first touchdown pass, six yards to Henry Ruggs III, with a play that seemed to come right out of 1980. In that tiptop Georgia year, its national title rested on a play against Florida that has stayed aloft in Georgian minds ever since, Lindsay Scott's 93-yard catch and run from Buck Belue, which provided unlikely escape.
This time, with a third and 11 and Alabama nibbling at 13-7 midway through the third quarter, Hardman looked willing to run all the way to Athens to get under freshman quarterback Jake Fromm's pass up the right sideline. Hardman got there, and the throw nestled into his gut, and as he covered the last 40 yards himself, it appeared that play might prove deathless through these ensuing Georgia decades.
It looked that way at 20-7. Then it looked that way when Tagovailoa took a 16-yard sack from Davin Bellamy to start overtime, of which Saban said Tagovailoa "probably couldn't have thrown that [last] pass if I could have got a hold of him after he took the sack, but I couldn't get out there fast enough." It looked that way all the way to the last throw of the game, the 147th offensive play, past midnight on a night that defied assumption and ended with a receiver running alone.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Alabama's potential game-winning field goal from 36 yards occurred on the last play of overtime.