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5 things we learned from Alabama’s win over Georgia

David Wunderlich

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Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide player celebrate after defeating the Georgia Bulldogs 26-23 in overtime in the 2018 CFP national championship college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Alabama Crimson Tide won the 2017 college football national championship in a dramatic 26-23 overtime win over the Georgia Bulldogs. Here are the five biggest lessons we learned from the game.

You must put Alabama away when you have the chance

Georgia dominated the first half of the game in many ways. The most visible was the 13-0 score at intermission, but the Bulldogs had a healthy lead in yardage and time of possession as well. On Georgia’s touchdown drive that closed out the half, Alabama defenders were gassed with their hands on their hips between plays.

Clearly, it wasn’t enough. Despite the big deficits in so many ways, Alabama did hold a field position edge that helped it not fall behind by too much. Georgia’s field goal drives started 79 and 80 yards from the end zone, far enough to give the Alabama defense a chance to catch up to the Georgia offense and stop it short.

Georgia didn’t have what it took to put the Tide away if Alabama managed to get a spark on offense. Speaking of …

Jalen Hurts might’ve started his last game for Alabama

Hurts’ rushing was basically the only thing going right for the Tide’s offense in the first half. He had 10.6 yards per carry on five non-sack rushes, with a long of 31 and a 60 percent success rate. The running backs combined for a success rate of zero, while Hurts was 3-of-8 for a measly 21 yards through the air. The Alabama offense looked stymied in a way it hasn’t since its 10-0 win over LSU in 2016.

Rather than muddle through with Hurts, Nick Saban put in true freshman Tua Tagovailoa to begin the second half. The lefty true freshman was a high-risk, high-reward player. He proved himself to be a true freshman with a pick, some iffy decisions and a ghastly sack on his first snap of overtime. He also got the offense moving in a way it never did with Hurts behind center.

Though Tagovailoa completed less than 60 percent of his passes for a modest 6.9 yards per attempt, he was doing it against a fierce Georgia defense after having no experience in any college game that was still in doubt. The Alabama passing game had a bona fide vertical element worth respecting that’s basically never been there with Hurts, and though Tua’s not as good a runner, he proved to be more than adequate on that front given the gains in the pass game.

There undoubtedly will be a formal competition for the starter’s job this offseason, but it seems likely that the job is Tagovailoa’s to lose. I wouldn’t bet on him losing it.

Kirby Smart’s Georgia is for real

There was some talk before the game that Smart’s program is ahead of schedule. Given how upperclassman-heavy the Bulldogs roster was, it’s hard to support that sentiment.

What isn’t hard to argue is that he took a bunch that was mostly recruited by Mark Richt and turned it into a team that could stand toe-to-toe with Saban’s Death Star. There was never a time where Georgia looked like a lesser team, and the fact the game went to overtime shows how even the squads were.

Georgia probably won’t reach these heights again in 2018 because of how much the team will lose, but it very well could be there in 2019 given Smart’s amazing recruiting. Georgia being in this game wasn’t a fluke, and it almost winning the contest wasn’t a fluke either.

Alabama still isn’t going away anytime soon

Tagovailoa was and should be the story of the game, but he’s far from the only true freshman to make a big impact.

Henry Ruggs caught three consecutive passes to complete the final 29 yards of Alabama’s first touchdown drive. DeVonta Smith caught the game winner in overtime. Jerry Jeudy had a nice 20-yard snag. All of them caught their passes from Tagovailoa, as Hurts didn’t even target any of the trio of true freshman receivers in the first half.

Najee Harris was the bell cow down the stretch, rushing for 64 yards on six carries with a long of 35. All of his rushes happened in the fourth quarter, a period in which future NFL running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough combined for a single attempt (that Harris had).

Helping out with all of this was left tackle Alex Leatherwood, who replaced Alabama’s best offensive lineman, Jonah Williams, when he went down to injury. All these guys are in their first years out of high school, and all played pivotal roles in the national championship game.

Any reports of the demise of Alabama’s dynasty are greatly exaggerated.

The 2017 season ended appropriately

This year was not a classic year for college football, as there just weren’t any dominant teams. The fact that we had a pair of squads being led by true freshman quarterbacks — very good ones, but still true freshmen — in the second half illustrates that fact.

In that sense, Alabama with all of its recruiting titles as the default champion fits. When in doubt, the team with the best roster of players won. Georgia had plenty of great players, too, but it couldn’t keep pulling more potential playmakers off the bench as Alabama could.

I can’t shake the feeling that last year’s Alabama or Clemson would have won this game by a comfortable margin. They were more complete teams, with Deshaun Watson throwing to Mike Williams as the difference-makers for the Tigers and the absurdly good defensive front with Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Ryan Anderson and all those guys the secret sauce for the Tide.

Just as Alabama will be back and reloaded next year, so will a lot of other teams. There will be no winning a title by default in 2018.

But in 2017, the seventh or eighth-best squad Saban has had at Alabama was good enough to win the national title. A team doesn’t have to be all-time great to be crowned champion, only the best of that particular year.

This Crimson Tide outfit was the best team, but only by a hair. An overtime win to take home the trophy, then, is a fitting conclusion to the season.

David Wunderlich is a University of Florida graduate who has been writing about the SEC since 2009 and the Gators for years before that. You may have seen his work at SB Nation’s SEC site, Team Speed Kills.

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