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Alabama Dethrones Georgia, Kick-Starts the Great Playoff Debate

The Crimson Tide threw a wrench in the Bulldogs’ hopes for a three-peat, while also giving the Playoff committee plenty to think about going into Sunday’s final selection.

ATLANTA, Ga.—Nick Saban is tired. He’s so tired that his postgame speech to his team after they beat Georgia in the SEC championship game was only one word: celebrate. He said they danced, even though he declined to break down his moves, after Alabama emerged victorious, 27–24.

There is obviously much to be jubilant about. Saban and his Crimson Tide have beaten the Dawgs and the allegations. The ones that said he had lost his fastball and that he’d been forever supplanted by Kirby Smart. That his quarterback situation was untenable for a team with championship expectations, and that multiple losses were coming due to an offense that doesn’t have the playmakers it once did.

“We had a lot of naysayers early in the year. So we wanted to show people what we could accomplish and what we could do,” Saban said. “There wasn’t a better stage to do it, to play the number one team in the country who had won 29 games in a row. And because that’s the endpoint that says, you really got to where you wanted to go. We were able to go out there and compete in the game, play for 60 minutes, which it took all 60 minutes, and to win the SEC championship, which is, in my opinion, really, really significant. It means a lot to me. This is a tough conference.”

Alabama handed Georgia its first loss in 29 straight games and 728 days with Saturday’s SEC championship victory.

Gary Cosby Jr./USA TODAY Sports

The Tide lost to Texas, and beat USF in a game in which Jalen Milroe did not play (Saban prefers you to not say that Milroe was benched). And then they got better. Week-by-week they built to become the Bama that could knock off Georgia just like they did in 2021. But have they won a Playoff berth in the process? Bama’s win sets up the diciest, or perhaps second diciest, decision the Playoff committee has had in the history of the four-team format. The key decision lingers about what to do with Texas, considering the Tide lost to the Longhorns in September. Will the committee put Texas and Alabama in? Can you put Bama over Texas? As soon as the game was over, the politicking began from both Saban and Georgia coach Kirby Smart.

“The message that I would send is, we won the SEC, and we beat the number one team in the country, which everybody thought on the committee was the number one team in the country and they won 29 straight games. So if we needed to do something to pass the eye test, I guess that probably contributed to it significantly,” Saban said. “... We're not the same team we were when we played Texas and we aren't the same team that we were when we played South Florida, so I don’t think we should be considered as that team right now. And I think people should look at the whole body of work in terms of what the team was able to accomplish.”

The message from the Tide side of the ledger is simple: move the goalposts and conveniently ignore a decisive loss because it happened early in the season. From Georgia’s end it boils down to Georgia people saying trust us, we’re really good. It is the circular reasoning of the SEC: we’re really good and even when we lose we’re still good because we lost to each other.

“[Executive director of the Playoff] Bill Hancock said, it’s not the most deserving. He said simply, it’s the best four teams. So you’re gonna tell me somebody sitting in that committee room and doesn’t think that Georgia team is one of the best four teams, I don’t know if they’re in the right profession, because it’s a really good football team. It’s a really talented football team. It’s a really balanced football team. So they have to make that decision.”

Smith provided one of the few highlight plays for Georgia in a day full of self-inflicted mistakes.

Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

As good as Alabama was, these Dawgs played a part in their own demise. A false start late in the first half backed up what should have been a 45-yard field goal. The 50-yarder by kicker Peyton Woodring hit the goalpost and fell to the turf, no good. A fumble in the third quarter on a routine play set up Bama in the red zone and resulted in three points. The Dawgs were basically unable to run the ball, recording a season-low 78 yards on the ground (and only 86 when you adjust for sacks). Smart said they were “whipped” up front. They were stoned up by the Tide, and it’s even more impressive considering Alabama’s defensive game plan changed to feature more coverages with two safeties deep instead of one after Georgia’s first drive. It kept the lid mostly on Georgia’s passing game with only one truly deep ball—a 51-yard completion from QB Carson Beck to Arian Smith. The Dawgs weren’t able to get Alabama out of those coverages because they couldn’t run the ball, some of which was due to offensive line shuffling after right tackle Amarius Mims went down with an injury. It added to what Beck called a “gruesome” season because of all the injuries. Ladd McConkey and Brock Bowers haven’t practiced in 15 days, and were visibly not 100% on Saturday, particularly Bowers who had tightrope surgery on a high ankle sprain mid-season.

Whether both teams make the Playoff or not, the fact that it is conceivable that Alabama and Georgia would be playing in the Orange or Cotton Bowls rather than the Rose or Sugar semifinals is just a strange sentence to put together. The SEC has never missed a four team Playoff. Now, they may miss the last one.

Georgia, like most football teams, preaches controlling the controllable. All of it sets up a Sunday of deep uncertainty for two SEC powers. Commissioner Greg Sankey will continue his PR blitz to get one or both of these teams in, even at the expense of a future SEC team: Texas. Georgia players aren’t even coming into the building until the afternoon. Smart would rather address them when he has information on what their prep is going to entail. The Dawgs always control their own destiny because they always win. But it’s no longer in their hands. It feels foreign; as Smart noted there are two full recruiting classes worth of Georgia players who have not lost a football game.

About an hour after the game was over, Beck was out on the field, incognito in a black sweatshirt with the hood up. Probably the only Georgia fans still left in the building yelled from section 105 “We love you, Carson.”

He hugged his mother and headed for the team bus. She wiped her eyes after the emotional interaction and said “that was hard,” to a woman she was with. It had been 29 straight games and 728 days since Georgia last lost. The Georgia faithful leaving the stadium looked bewildered. Many more than Mrs. Beck had shed a tear. 

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