The latest bout between neighbors not only became Alabama’s sixth straight win over No. 3 Georgia from 2008 to now; it also featured a pile of skillful plays so high that it buried the drama of its run-up. That whole swirl ended Saturday midday with Saban’s latest test result, a third straight negative, which by SEC protocol allowed him to coach the game from the sideline rather than seething through it from his mansion.
So at 6:28 p.m. Central time, the big screens in Bryant-Denny Stadium showed him leading his team through the hallways toward the field. Out he jogged to face his mentee, Kirby Smart, whose fifth season heading his alma mater at Georgia coincided with his first return to the theater where he conducted the defense for a long, long spell.
Unfittingly, the seats groaned four-fifths empty, also by novel coronavirus protocol.
Smart looked like he could become the first SEC East coach to defeat Alabama since South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier in 2010, until he didn’t. As in the national championship game of January 2018 and the SEC championship game of December 2018, both in Atlanta, Georgia thrived until it didn’t. In a set-to between the nation’s No. 1 yards-per-play offense (Alabama, 8.66) and its No. 1 yards-per-play defense (Georgia, 3.7), Georgia’s offense spent the first half gushing competence, until it didn’t.
Then it led 24-20 with the third quarter mostly gone, and Alabama had a muddled second and nine while moored at its own 10-yard line.
Then old reality struck anew.
Quarterback Mac Jones, the junior who filled the evening with pretty passes, began by looking right while the left side of the field saw significant goings-on, a fact he did seem to realize. It had Jaylen Waddle, the junior wide receiver faster than your average blur, mano-a-mano against Georgia defensive back Tyson Campbell. Campbell stumbled trying to catch up to Waddle, as would we all, and a mammoth 90-yard touchdown pass needed only a pass that met its target in a flow.
The pass met its target in a flow, and Alabama led 27-24, and barrage sprang from there.
Alabama twice intercepted Georgia first-year starting quarterback Stetson Bennett — Malachi Moore once, Daniel Wright once — and Jones et al helped themselves to two more touchdowns to nix the promise of a thrilling first half.
That half, which ended with Georgia ahead 24-20 on points while behind only 298-268 on yards, couldn’t even get its final second done without a little drama set to last through the ages of piqued discussion.
After Georgia snared a 24-17 lead 23 seconds before halftime on Bennett’s third-down, five-yard pass to a crossing Jermaine Burton in the back of the end zone, Alabama used those 23 seconds wisely. It gobbled up 41 yards on five staccato plays until Waddle caught Jones’s pass for 13 yards to the Georgia 34-yard line. The clock showed 0:03.
Jones ran up, got set behind the offense and spiked the ball as the clock hit 0:00 and Georgia players began leaving the field. The officials ruled that one second remained, an amount of time that conjured haunted Alabama memories of two trips to Auburn last decade.
This time Will Reichard, the sophomore kicker from Hoover, Ala., nailed a 52-yard field goal, leaving one-fifth of a full stadium to wonder how that might matter later on.
After all, Georgia once again had made enough plays against Alabama to tantalize its long-longing fans. It more than offset the usual Alabama offensive prowess that flowered with Jones throwing a pretty 40-yard touchdown pass to John Metchie III, Jones throwing a pretty 17-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith, Jones throwing six first-half times for 86 first-half yards to Smith. No, the Bulldogs had, among other competent offensive things, an 82-yard touchdown pass to James Cook; the running back went out to line up wide on the right in the formation and took along his middling two catches for 10 yards in three games.
Soon, he took along the long pass he hauled in at the Alabama 47-yard line, and he took that right along the right sideline to the end zone. That made it 14-7 and cemented the second of Georgia’s four straight scoring possessions after a stalled start. Near the end of the fourth of those possessions, there came something close to farce. Georgia lined up for a fourth and one from near the Alabama 10-yard line, and Bennett’s count appeared to draw an Alabama defensive lineman offside. When the officials didn’t buy it, it happened again unmistakably, and the offside penalty brought a first down and some sort of displeased expression behind the mask of Saban.
Georgia seemed to have something of a handle on things, until then it didn’t, quite, as it goes.