As we continue this countdown series on My 15 Favorite Sports Assignments, as was the case four weeks ago when I detailed the clash of the undefeated 1971 Georgia and Auburn football teams, my No. 6 selection also involves a Bulldog loss.
But this has to be a game that ranks high among all the UGA games that I covered because, you see, it was the CFP National Championship game between SEC champion Georgia and perennial national champion Alabama.
As we all know, the date was Jan. 8, 2018 and the site was Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
While Kirby Smart’s 2017 Bulldogs entered the national title clash coming off a stirring 54-48 overtime victory over Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl semifinal playoff game, Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide was fresh from a 24-6 semifinal win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl.
Georgia came into the big game at 13-1, having avenged its only season loss with a 28-7 win over the Auburn Tigers in the SEC championship game at this same Mercedes-Benz venue. And ‘Bama was 12-1, being upset by Auburn in the annual Iron Bowl season finale.
Although the Bulldogs had to endure a 6-hour, across-the-country night flight back to Athens from Pasadena and then have barely a week of preparation for the championship game the Crimson Tide, conversely, had only a short flight hop back from New Orleans to their Tuscaloosa campus.
But the way the game started, Georgia hardly resembled a weary football team at all, shutting out Alabama 13-0 in the first half and then building another 13-point lead at 20-7 with 6:52 left in the third quarter when Jake Fromm hit Mecole Hardman on an 80-yard touchdown bomb down the right sidelines.
But at this juncture is when the, well, Tide started to turn against the Bulldogs. Saban, who had replaced starting and ineffective quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second half with precocious freshman Tua Tagovailoa, saw his team take control of the game for the rest of the third period and all of the fourth quarter as, just maybe, the Bulldogs began to feel the effects of the emotional win over Oklahoma seven days earlier on the west coast, and long flight home.
Georgia’s offense couldn’t score the rest of the regulation game and Alabama, as all Bulldog Nation painfully recalls, rallied mightily to send the game into overtime all deadlocked at 20-20. And the tying touchdown was a dagger for the Georgia defense, coming on a fourth-and-four play at the Bulldog 7-yard line when Tagovailoa scrambled to his left and hit Calvin Ridley for the score. Andy Pappanastos’ extra point enabled the Crimson Tide to catch Georgia for the first time all night and came with just 3:49 remaining.
Then, came the even more painful OT period.
Up to bat first at the 25-yard line, the Bulldogs took a 23-20 lead when Rodrigo Blankenship drilled a 51-yard field goal.
Now, here came ‘Bama with its possession at the 25. When Bulldog senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa for a huge 16-yard loss on Alabama’s first snap, back to the 41, it appeared Georgia was in good shape to slam the door on the Crimson Tide and claim the program’s first national crown since 1980. But now, facing a 2nd-and-26 situation, there it came … Tagovailoa hitting wide-open freshman receiver DeVonta Smith on a 41-yard scoring strike as Smith sped into the left corner of the end zone.
Final — Alabama 26, Georgia 23.
And while the joyous Tide had delivered Nick Saban the 6th national championship of his storied coaching career, tying the legendary Bear Bryant as the all-time leader, the sudden bitter and stunning defeat checked UGA fans into Heartbreak Hotel once again … the same fate Bulldog Nation suffered at the end of the 2012 SEC championship game against this same opponent.
And as we also all know, the heartbreaking losses to Saban and the Crimson Tide would continue for the Georgia faithful last December in Mercedes-Benz when the Bulldogs let a two-touchdown lead on Alabama in the SEC championship game evaporate in a 35-28 loss to the Tide.
But, for Georgia, sweet revenge against Nick Saban’s team has to come sometime, doesn’t it? These 2019 Bulldogs, which have been constructed by three consecutive years of powerful recruiting classes by Smart and his staff, should fear no opponent, certainly not Alabama whom the Dawgs have played off their collective feet the past two seasons. Of course, this Georgia team has to first overcome the likes of Florida, Missouri, Auburn, and Texas A&M to make it back to the SEC title game.
Indeed, whether it’s another confrontation with the Tide in the SEC championship game or in the CFP National Championship game once again against ‘Bama, it’s the feeling here that it’s Bulldog Nation that will be celebrating the next time the final seconds tick off the scoreboard clock!
Next Week in Missouri Issue: No. 5, An Interview With a Legendary Center Fielder