The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

With Nick Saban on the sideline, No. 2 Alabama outclasses No. 3 Georgia again

Alabama Coach Nick Saban, pictured during last week’s game against Mississippi, was on the sideline for Saturday night’s matchup with Georgia.
Alabama Coach Nick Saban, pictured during last week’s game against Mississippi, was on the sideline for Saturday night’s matchup with Georgia. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — As the answer to whether Georgia will ever beat Alabama again seemed to tilt a further notch toward never, the Crimson Tide dynasty spent Saturday night seeming to tilt a further notch toward endless.

The match of the year so far in this misshapen college football season, featuring two of the top three teams, saw No. 2 Alabama rediscover itself after halftime to such degree that both its defensive inability and emotional instability faded to afterthoughts. The former had come seven nights prior against Mississippi with the allowance of a sinful 647 yards. The latter had come Wednesday with Coach Nick Saban's positive coronavirus test. They both went silent Saturday night by 41-24.

The latest bout between these neighbors not only became Alabama's sixth straight win over No. 3 Georgia from 2008 to now. Alabama's surge from a 24-20 halftime deficit also managed to outdo the confusing run-up, which ended Saturday midday with Saban's third straight negative test which, by SEC protocol, allowed him to coach from the sideline rather than seethe from his mansion.

"It was pretty crazy," said Alabama quarterback Mac Jones, the junior who shone again at 24 for 32 for 417 yards and four touchdowns. "We were just in our little quarterback meeting, and he just showed up [after his three days of isolation]. You look over, and Coach Saban's coming in."

"When we saw him walk into our little meeting . . . ," senior linebacker Dylan Moses said, "the energy definitely went up."

"I've got a lot of gratitude myself," Saban said, "for the way they sort of handled all the disruption of the week, with the Wednesday-Thursday-Friday." Among other chaos, the coach with five Alabama national championships had forgotten any pregame injury update because, he said, "I was home taking orders, rather than giving orders."

Of 2020, his 14th Alabama season, he said, "The norm now is disruption."

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Disruption did yield to one norm at 6:28 p.m., when the big screens in Bryant-Denny Stadium showed Saban leading his team through the hallways toward the field. Out he jogged to face his mentee, Kirby Smart, whose fifth season heading his alma mater at Georgia coincided with his first return to the theater where he conducted the defense for a long, long spell.

Unfittingly, the seats groaned four-fifths empty with the patrons judiciously spaced, also by novel coronavirus protocol.

Soon, Smart appeared he could become the first SEC East coach to defeat Alabama since South Carolina's Steve Spurrier in 2010, until he didn't. As in the College Football Playoff national championship game of January 2018 and the SEC championship game of December 2018, both in Atlanta, Georgia thrived, until it didn't. In a set-to between the nation's No. 1 yards-per-play offense (Alabama, 8.66) and its No. 1 yards-per-play defense (Georgia, 3.7), Georgia's offense spent its first half gushing competence, until it didn't.

"I don't know," first-year starting quarterback Stetson Bennett said, right after someone wondered how Georgia wound up spending the second half with 146 yards and zero points. Still, it did have that 24-20 lead with the third quarter almost three-quarters gone, when Alabama had a second and nine while moored at its own 10-yard line.

Then old reality struck anew, as did one member of what Saban called "probably the strength of our team": its frightening wide receivers.

Jones, who filled the evening with pretty passes, took the snap and began by looking right while the left side of the field saw significant goings-on, a fact he did seem to realize. That left side had Jaylen Waddle, the junior faster than your average blur, mano-a-mano against Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell. Campbell stumbled trying to catch up to Waddle, as would we all, and a mammoth 90-yard touchdown pass needed only a pass that met its target in a flow.

The pass met its target in a flow, Waddle caught it at midfield for a lonely run through the open terrain, and Alabama led 27-24.

Barrage sprang from there. Alabama twice intercepted Bennett — Malachi Moore once, Daniel Wright once — and the Crimson Tide (4-0) made yet another "tremendous statement" according to safety DeMarcco Hellams, and Jones et al helped themselves to two more touchdowns, and Alabama gained 564 yards and 7.4 per play, double Georgia's norm, and all of it quelled the promise of a thrilling first half.

That half, which ended with Georgia (3-1) ahead 24-20 on points while behind only 298-268 on yards, bustled enough that it couldn't even get its final second done without protracted drama. After Georgia snared a 24-17 lead 23 seconds before halftime on Bennett's third-down, five-yard pass to a crossing Jermaine Burton in the back of the end zone, Alabama used those 23 seconds wisely, winding up at the Georgia 34-yard line with the clock at :03.

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The offense ran up and got set, Jones took the snap and spiked the ball, the clock hit :00, and Georgia began hurrying off the field. The officials ruled that one second remained, conjuring haunted Alabama memories of two trips to Auburn last decade but leading to Will Reichard's cocksure 52-yard field goal and leaving one-fifth of a full stadium to wonder how that might matter later on.

After all, Georgia once again had made enough plays against Alabama to tantalize its long-longing fans, best of all a bomb. It went from Bennett to James Cook, the running back went out to line up wide on the right in the formation, took along his middling two catches for 10 yards in three games, and found himself in the company of a linebacker. Soon, he zoomed past him, took along the long pass at the Alabama 47-yard line, and he took that merrily along the right sideline to the end zone. That made it 14-7, and Georgia thrived early again, later running an absurd fourth and one from the Alabama 11-yard line on which Bennett's barked signals seemed to draw Alabama offside twice. The officials called the second one to bring a first down and some sort of displeased expression behind Saban's mask.

Soon enough, his side had felled that side again, and he was saying, "It was emotional for me to come back today." He was saying, "I think everybody should have the proper respect [for the virus] because I'm gonna tell you, when they tell you you have that thing, it's not a good feeling," even as he didn't feel sick. And he was saying, "I think they were ready to play this game whether I was there or not."

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