ATLANTA — What happened in Mercedes-Benz Stadium early Saturday evening didn’t seem to hinge on the usual football fate and prowess. No, it seemed as if some goofball scriptwriter mandated the events of the 35-28 win No. 1 Alabama wrung from a pair of 14-point deficits against No. 4 Georgia. Whoever this was seemed to write with an embellished sense of drama and the ludicrous idea that life can be fair.
Somehow in this far-fetched theater, the quiet man reappeared. He did so implausibly upon the same 100-yard Atlantean stage he had exited 327 nights earlier and against the same pugnacious opponent. He reappeared to replace the actor who had materialized in January in the 2017-18 championship game to replace the quiet man. It seemed far too neat, but yes, the quiet man returned and played the role of hero. He said, “It kind of feels like I’m breaking my silence.”
Jalen Hurts, the Alabama quarterback with a 26-2 record as a starter who spent the entire season as a bit player with a voice unheard, walked on to spell Tua Tagovailoa, the Heisman Trophy contender who had two attendants help him off with Georgia leading 28-21 and 11:15 left. He had sprained his ankle in the first half but continued. He had stepped on somebody’s foot on his final play. On the same field where Tagovailoa rescued Alabama from a 13-0 halftime deficit in the national championship game Jan. 8, Hurts would come on to rescue him.
With an absurd dose of fairness in a life said to be unfair, this ended up serving as some sort of reward for the pinnacle of teamwork and sportsmanship Hurts exhibited all season as the sudden understudy to Tagovailoa in Hurts’s third Alabama season. He converted four third downs across the 69 yards that tied the game at 28, pulling the Crimson Tide even with a pinpoint 10-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Jeudy after rolling out with 7:08 left.
On the next possession, he converted another major third down with about three minutes left on a 19-yard pass to Irv Smith Jr., then made another primo throw to the right sideline for 16 yards, then . . .
Then he took off on a 15-yard run to win the game 64 seconds from its ending, bringing Alabama to a 13-0 record, to an SEC championship, to an unmistakable spot in its fifth straight College Football Playoff.
That’s an annual routine, yet it happened in a way that seemed just shy of eerie.
“I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” Alabama Coach Nick Saban said. “It’s unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won, I think 26 or something, over a two-year period, start as a freshman, only lose a couple games this whole time that he was a starter and then all of a sudden he’s not the quarterback. How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of character and class to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be, and for a guy that’s a great competitor, that takes a lot. It’s not easy to do.”
Said Smith: “He showed the world what he was capable of doing. He’s a great player, and I’m so proud of him.”
Said offensive coordinator Mike Locksley: “He wanted to continue to develop. I mean, we’ve got a great coach in Dan [Enos]. He does a tremendous job developing quarterbacks. Jalen bought in. Once he made the decision, he wanted to develop as a player and a quarterback, and I think it showed today.”
Said Hurts: “I haven’t said anything all year, but this team has worked really hard — in the offseason, last spring. We know what adversity looks like. Sometimes we’re going to get hit in the mouth, but we know that we’re going to be fine. We did a great job of getting it done today.”
The whole inverted poetry of it left Georgia in a wanting heap, the way the national championship game 327 days before had left it in a wanting heap. It left third-year Georgia Coach Kirby Smart stating emphatically his intent to surmount these last little hurdles left at the verge of the top of college football, just as he had in January. He said: “Give that coach across the sideline [Saban] a vote on who he doesn’t want to play. He’ll start with us. I promise you, you don’t want to play us.”
And he said of the playoff: “We knew we’ve got a good football team. We’ve got a really physical football team. We’ve got a talented football team. And we most definitely have one of the best four teams in the country.”
He pleaded: “Well, it boils down to one thing. Do you want the four best teams in or not? It’s that simple.” He lamented: “We couldn’t close the deal. I don’t know what it is. We’re going to figure it out, though, I can promise you that. We’re a few plays away. . . . It’s inches, and we didn’t get the inches tonight. We’ve got a damn good football team.” He bemoaned that the fake punt he tried from around midfield with 3:04 left looked open, but Georgia just couldn’t get it snapped hurriedly enough.
Defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said: “You can’t say we didn’t go out there and fight. You can’t say we didn’t put it all on the line. You can’t say we’re not one of the best teams in college football. Just watch the tape. If they watch it, they should put us in.”
Saban said, “I sure as hell don’t want to play them again, but that’s the best compliment I can give you or give them.”
Somehow all this familiar talk stemmed from an opposite, Hurts replacing Tagovailoa instead of Tagovailoa replacing Hurts. As Georgia had made Hurts look limited in January, it made Tagovailoa look limited Saturday. He arrived completing 70.3 percent of his passes. He completed 40 percent (10 of 25). He arrived averaging 265.75 passing yards. He got 164. He arrived having thrown two interceptions all season. He threw two more.
He arrived with a passer rating of a celestial 212.51.
He got 92.3.
Yet in the end, the game left him sidelined and left Hurts operating the offense 15 yards from victory with the clock waning. It had Hurts saying: “I had an option, had to find my movement key and see what would trigger the decision I’d make. My guy went out, so I took it in and had really good open lanes and found a way to get in the end zone.”
It had Hurts ushered onto the field afterward for a TV interview. Then it had Hurts exiting that field yet again, stopping off to spot a single young boy in the front row of the stands, then detouring over to give the boy — grammar-schooler Wyatt Bloom from Huntsville, Ala. — his wristbands and towels. Who in the world thought up this?