Georgia beats Alabama for first national championship since 1980

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The quarterback wasn’t supposed to be good enough. The coach couldn’t win the big game. 

Together, they smashed those narratives to pieces, Stetson Bennett IV and Kirby Smart snapping Georgia’s national championship drought. 

Bennett outplayed Bryce Young, the Heisman Trophy winner. Smart got the better of his former boss, Nick Saban, the record-holder for national titles. And the Bulldogs won it all for the first time since 1980, slaying their Crimson Tide demons after seven consecutive defeats with a thrilling 33-18 victory at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. The 2017 team, which blew a 10-point, fourth-quarter lead to Alabama in the national championship game, can rest easy. 

“There’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baby,” a jubilant Smart said, echoing the call made by the late Georgia play-by-play man Larry Munson after the Bulldogs won it all in 1980. 

Stetson Bennett celebrates Georgia's national championship win over Alabama.
Stetson Bennett celebrates Georgia’s national championship win over Alabama.
Aaron Josefczyk/UPI/Shutterstock

Bennett, a one-time walk-on and junior college quarterback who started this season as the backup, threw two touchdown passes in the final 8:09, responding like a champion after his fumble enabled Alabama to go ahead. The star-studded defense produced a resounding performance just over a month after getting shredded by the Crimson Tide (13-2). It picked off Young twice, the first multiple-interception game of his young career, held Alabama to just one touchdown in four trips into the red zone and Kelee Ringo iced it with his 79-yard interception return for a touchdown. As that play unfolded, an emotional Bennett began tearing up. He was 54 seconds away from being a champion. 

Stetson Bennett
Stetson Bennett completes a 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell in the fourth quarter to give Georgia the lead.
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Kelee Ringo scores on an interception return during the fourth quarter.
Kelee Ringo scores on an interception return during the fourth quarter.
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“I wasn’t going to be the reason why we lost this game,” he said. “It’s the thing that Coach Smart and the whole team has been preaching all year: resiliency, toughness, composure, connection. I knew that those guys beside me had my back, and I had their back, too.” 

A Blackshear, Ga., native, Bennett became the starter when J.T. Daniels suffered a lat injury early in the season, and never gave up the job. He faced steady criticism, none more so than after last month’s SEC Championship game when he threw a pair of interceptions. Smart, the former Alabama defensive coordinator who has elevated the Georgia (14-1) program since arriving in 2016, didn’t blink. He was sticking with Bennett. 

“Man,” Smart said, “what a story.” 

Stetson Bennett fumbles in the fourth quarter.
Stetson Bennett fumbles in the fourth quarter.
USA TODAY Sports

It took a while for the Georgia offense to get going against Alabama. The top-ranked defense kept the Bulldogs in the game, although Alabama losing dynamic deep-threat Jameson Williams to a knee injury in the second quarter certainly was a contributing factor. Just 37 days ago, Young torched Georgia for 421 yards through the air and three touchdowns. Without Williams, and fellow star receiver John Metchie (torn ACL) to contend with, the Bulldogs’ defense flexed its muscles. 

“They won this game for us,” Bennett said of the Georgia defense. 

Kirby Smart celebrates with Georgia's College Football Playoff Championship trophy.
Kirby Smart celebrates with Georgia’s College Football Playoff Championship trophy.
AP
Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, who served as Saban's defensive coordinator at Alabama, embrace.
Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, who served as Saban’s defensive coordinator at Alabama, embrace.
USA TODAY Sports

Alabama seemed ready to take control after halftime, eating up 7:45 of the third-quarter clock with a 17-play, 68-yard drive that finally saw its running game get going. Brian Robinson Jr. ran for 35 yards on the drive, personally converting three third downs, but Agiye Hall let a third-down throw from Young go through his hands and Will Reichard’s 48-yard field goal was blocked. 

On the very next play, James Cook ripped off a 67-yard run — the longest run Alabama allowed all year — setting Georgia up to go ahead on the game’s first touchdown. White took it in from a yard out, giving the Bulldogs their first lead, at 13-9, with 1:20 left in the quarter. Alabama responded with a long drive that ended with a field goal to get within a point. It marked the third time in as many trips into the red zone that the Tide couldn’t punch it in. 

Bryce Young (9) walks off with Chris Owens (79).
Bryce Young (9) walks off with Chris Owens (79).
USA TODAY Sports

They finally broke through, thanks to a gift from Bennett. His fumble set up Alabama at the Georgia 16-yard-line. Bennett was trying to throw the ball away, but as he was being dragged down it slipped out of his hands and it was nonchalantly recovered by Brian Branch just before stepping out of bounds. On third-and-goal, Young found tight end Cameron Latu while under a heavy rush from 3 yards out to give Alabama an 18-13 lead with 10:14 to go. 

Bennett didn’t let his mistake keep him down. He came out throwing darts on the next possession and answered with his best throw of the night, a 40-yard strike to Adonai Mitchell as Georgia reclaimed the lead, with 8:09 on the clock. Bennett dropped the ball in perfectly to his freshman receiver, who came down with the it despite air-tight coverage from Khyree Jackson. The Bulldogs wouldn’t trail again, and Bennett added to the lead with a 15-yard scoring strike to freshman tight end Brock Bowers. 

“If any team deserves it, they deserve it,” Saban said. “They played great all year. We were the only team to beat them in the SEC Championship game. And we just couldn’t finish the game tonight like we wanted to.”

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