by Chad Peltier
Stop me if you've heard this story before: Georgia's double-digit lead over Alabama slips away in the second half due to the improbable, incredible play of a Crimson Tide backup quarterback.
Actually, maybe you've heard this one: Georgia's double-digit lead over Alabama slips away due to a go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes, and the Bulldogs' final drive comes up just a little short.
Saturday's SEC Championship Game, which Alabama won 35-28 despite trailing for the majority of the contest, marks the third time in the last seven years that Alabama has crushed Georgia's national championship hopes. Last year's National Championship Game, which was infamously decided on a second-and-26 touchdown pass in overtime, is still fresh in the minds of the Bulldogs. But the ghost of the 2012 SEC Championship Game, where Georgia came up 5 yards short as time ran out, also continues to haunt the streets of Athens.
For almost a year, the national narrative has been that Kirby Smart is assembling a genuine Alabama competitor -- that the groundwork had been laid for annual championship contention at the very least, and that the Bulldogs would eventually surpass the Crimson Tide at the top of college football. But in back-to-back seasons, Nick Saban and Alabama have shown that they're not ready to relinquish that title yet, demonstrating just how rare championship opportunities are in modern college football. Smart's Bulldogs are still likely to be an annual championship contender -- they've built up a roster that nearly equals Alabama's and has maybe only two peers in Ohio State and Clemson. But any passing of the torch from Tuscaloosa to Athens will have to wait.
However, the Bulldogs' disappointment shouldn't crowd out Jalen Hurts' truly amazing story. Georgia had been able to keep Alabama at arm's length ever since picking off Tua Tagovailoa's pass near the end zone on Alabama's first drive. The Bulldogs scored on three consecutive first-half drives, combining efficient passing-downs performance from Jake Fromm (who would finish 11-for-17 for 179 yards on passing downs alone) with explosive runs from D'Andre Swift to lead 21-14 at the half. They then scored on just three plays on their first drive of the third quarter, with Elijah Holyfield gaining 28 yards on two carries and Fromm hitting Riley Ridley on a fade for 23 yards and a touchdown. Georgia's 28-14 lead, which they would hold for the majority of the third quarter, was their second two-score lead of the game.
To that point, Tagovailoa had been ineffective, with normally reliable receivers dropping multiple passes, and Georgia's pass rush leading to two sacks and two interceptions -- Tagovailoa's first multiple-interception game in his college career. He would finish 10-for-25 for 164 yards (5.3 yards per attempt, including sack yardage) and two interceptions. But multiple ankle injuries, combined with his already-injured knee, would force him out of the game with under 12 minutes to go.
Georgia had already faced Hurts in 2018, shutting him down almost completely in last season's National Championship Game. But Hurts replaced Tagovailoa on Saturday and found immediate success, hitting passes of 13, 23, and 10 yards on his first drive, then scoring from 15 yards out to go ahead with just over a minute left in the game. Like many have pointed out, you really couldn't script something like this for Hurts -- being pulled from the National Championship Game for a freshman, then losing the starting job the following year, then leading the comeback against the same opponent, in the same stadium, nearly a year later.
Prior to the Hurts-led go-ahead touchdown drive, Georgia had the ball with just over five minutes left in the game. Fromm completed a beautiful touch pass to Swift, who took it down the sideline for a 26-yard gain to midfield. With under four minutes left, it seemed like Georgia had enough momentum to get another score and potentially finish the game. But after two incomplete passes and a rush for a loss of 1, Georgia could have punted with three minutes left. Instead, the Bulldogs called a fake punt that gained 2 yards, the latest of three notable failed fake field goals and punts, including one in their loss to LSU. As a result, the Tide's game-winning touchdown drive started at their 48-yard line.
The Tide's defense, which had allowed Georgia to average between a 44 and 50 percent success rate in the first three quarters, held the Bulldogs to a 35 percent success rate in the fourth, while the Hurts-led offense averaged a 50 percent success rate. The Tide surged at the right time, leading to another heartbreaking loss for the Bulldogs.
The SEC Championship Game obviously wasn't the only Power 5 conference championship game, although it was the one with the highest risk of an upset. The Pac-12 started things off on Friday night with a defense-heavy 10-3 win for Washington over Utah. On Saturday, Oklahoma scored 39 to Texas' 27 in a Red River rematch in the Big 12; Clemson had no trouble with Pittsburgh, winning 42-10 in the ACC; and Ohio State eventually ran past Northwestern 45-24 in the Big 10.
Let's start with the Red River Rematch. In their first meeting of the season, Texas won 48-45 thanks to nearly eight points of turnover luck -- the Sooners had a 92 percent S&P+ postgame win expectancy and were 11 points better in offensive success rate. The Sooners allowed Sam Ehlinger to throw for 314 yards (8.4 yards per attempt) with a 54 percent passing success rate. He and Keaontay Ingram also ran for 4 or more yards per carry on 61 percent of their runs. But this time, Oklahoma's defense stopped the run much more effectively, with the Longhorns ending with just a 41 percent opportunity rate. The Sooners still allowed big passes -- Ehlinger finished with even more passing yards thanks to Collin Johnson's eight catches for 177 yards -- but held Texas to a less efficient passing day overall (45 percent to their 54 percent passing success rate in October). Nevertheless, Texas was within a field goal with eight minutes left when Ehlinger was sacked for a safety. Oklahoma scored on their next drive, then an Ehlinger interception in the red zone ended any hope of a comeback.
The Sooners' win, which avenged their sole loss of the season, was enough to put Oklahoma ahead of the two-loss Bulldogs and Big Ten champion Buckeyes. The College Football Playoff Committee's decision to put Oklahoma in over either Georgia, Ohio State, or Central Florida showed that they lean towards " four most deserving" over "four best," that they penalize losses more than they reward wins, and that Group of 5 schools really don't have a shot in the current model.
Washington and Utah played a sloppy, defense-heavy game that ended in 13 combined points and four interceptions between Jason Shelley and Jake Browning, with neither team averaging more than 3.4 yards per carry (with sacks removed). Utah had ten possessions, but only turned one of those drives into a scoring opportunity. Maybe worse, Washington managed six scoring opportunities on nine drives, but their only offensive points came on a field goal -- Byron Murphy's pick-six was their lone touchdown of the night. The Huskies averaged an abysmal 0.5 points per scoring opportunity. Their scoring opportunities ended in: turnover on downs, interception, field goal, turnover on downs, missed field goal, and a punt (on a drive that started at the Utah 36!).
The Big Ten Championship Game was more lively. The Wildcats had kept every game close this year in both wins and losses -- their largest margin of victory was just 14 points. It looked like this game would follow that trend too. The Wildcats trailed Ohio State just 24-21 for a solid chunk of the third quarter before the Buckeyes would go on to score touchdowns on three of their last four drives.
In the end, Dwayne Haskins and the Buckeyes senior receivers made the difference, as they ended with a 57 percent passing success rate and 499 passing yards (10.5 yards per attempt despite four sacks) with an 83 percent completion rate. The Wildcats had some success running the ball -- they finished with a 48 percent rushing success rate to Ohio State's 45 percent -- and John Moten IV scored early on a 77-yarder down the sideline. But Northwestern's Clayton Thorson also had an explosive day, with seven different receivers catching a pass for 15 or more yards, even though he'd end with just a 38 percent passing success rate overall. In the end, Ohio State's passing offense was just overwhelming for the Wildcats -- much like it was for the Wolverines.
Clemson vs. Pitt had the lowest upset probability of any of the Power-5 matchups, and Clemson shut down the Panthers 42-10. Trevor Lawrence had a very quiet day, going just 12-of-24 for 118 yards (with a 29 percent passing success rate), but Pitt's Kenny Pickett finished just 4-for-16 for a total of 8 passing yards, so the Tigers didn't need an explosive day from Lawrence anyway. On the game, Clemson had a 15 percent margin in success rate, averaged 2.7 points per scoring opportunity more, and had four more scoring opportunities than Pitt. The Panthers' Darrin Hall and Qadree Ollison did bust a few big runs, but that was as much as the Panthers could manage.
Finally, Central Florida capped another undefeated regular season with a 56-41 win over Memphis despite losing star quarterback McKenzie Milton to a devastating knee injury last week. The game was closer than the final score suggests -- they ended with a 66 percent S&P+ postgame win probability -- but the Knights impressively averaged 6.2 points per scoring opportunity and a 62 percent passing success rate to overcome the Tigers' explosive run game. And it was definitely explosive -- Darrell Henderson had 210 yards on 16 carries while Patrick Taylor Jr. added 118 yards on 15 carries. On the whole, Memphis averaged 11.9 highlight yards per opportunity and a 49 percent rushing success rate. The Knights were as efficient on the ground and much more consistent through the air though -- they had a 62 percent passing success rate and Greg McCrae added 206 yards on 24 carries, meaning that the American Conference Championship Game had three 100-yard rushers, two of whom went for over 200. And those three backs had just 55 total carries. Central Florida now gets an interesting matchup with LSU -- and S&P+ will favor them by 4.8 points.
- Dwayne Haskins, QB OSU. Dwayne Haskins has been far and away the most prolific passer to ever play at Ohio State. Including the Big Ten Championship Game, Haskins finished with 4,580 passing yards, completed 70.2 percent of his passes, and averaged 9.2 yards per attempt. The Buckeyes averaged 350 passing yards per game, up from 218 last season. And Haskins threw for just 1 yard shy of 500 against Northwestern with a 58 percent passing success rate.
- Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama. Hurts knows what it's like for a quarterback to come off the bench in the second half of a critical matchup against the Bulldogs. It's just that now he knows what it's like to be the one to lead the comeback. Hurts finished an efficient 7-of-9 for 82 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, and showcased his rushing ability on his 15-yard touchdown run for the go-ahead score. Hurts will be rightly immortalized by Alabama fans, as he'll now seek his third national championship appearance in his three years on campus.
- Darrell Henderson, RB, Memphis. Darrell Henderson had a huge day for the Tigers, scoring on a long run of 82 yards to finish with 210 on just 16 carries. He had 31 carries for 199 yards in his first game this year against Central Florida, meaning that he had over 400 rushing yards on 47 carries against the Knights this season.
- Byron Murphy, CB, Washington. Washington vs. Utah was an ugly, defense-heavy game on Friday night. Byron Murphy was the clear MVP, with two of the Huskies' three interceptions, including one that he returned for 66 yards for a touchdown -- the Huskies' only touchdown of the night.
- Chase Young, DE, Ohio State. Ohio State, which had one of the country's best defensive lines for two games this year, hasn't been nearly as effective without Nick Bosa. Chase Young, a former five-star sophomore, has had his moments, but the Buckeyes defensive line was still a disappointment this season. But Young saved one of his best performances for last, ending with three sacks and a forced fumble against the Wildcats.