ATLANTA—Like the sunrise — or the sunset, depending on your perspective — Alabama football is inevitable.
The Georgia Bulldogs weren’t just battling Alabama on Saturday night in the SEC championship. The Bulldogs were battling the ghosts of past failures against the Crimson Tide, too. And after suffering a thorough 41-24 whupping at Alabama’s hands, the Bulldogs are now facing an entire cemetery’s worth of ghosts.
Georgia will get an invitation to the College Football Playoff; they’ve been the nation’s best team all season, and nothing short of disbanding would have kept them out. But now, so too does Alabama, the team that’s beaten Georgia seven straight times, the team that’s crushed the Bulldogs’ hopes in national championships and SEC championships alike.
This year was supposed to be different. This was supposed to be the year that the student became the master, that Kirby Smart, the Nick Saban disciple, finally took it to the old man. Everything had lined up Georgia’s way, from a roster stacked deep with five-stars to a defense that spent the entire season smothering hopes all across the South. This was supposed to be the year that Georgia broke its 40-year championship drought.
And that could still happen. Georgia could still vanquish Alabama on an even bigger stage. But Alabama robbed Georgia of a crucial weapon: its aura of invincibility and inevitability. Smart will have a month to dream up schemes to replace it.
One of the game’s most crucial pivot points happened 45 minutes before kickoff, when Oklahoma State fell a fingernail short against Baylor in the Big XII championship. That opened up the realistic possibility that Alabama could make the playoffs with a narrow loss to the nation’s No. 1 team.
But Alabama rarely traffics in losses, narrow or otherwise. Despite the fact that they were underdogs for the first time in 93 games, despite the fact that virtually the entire college football establishment was backing Georgia, despite the fact that Alabama fans comprised only about one-tenth of the crowd at Mercedes-Benz Stadium … the Tide rolled.
The game began like a heavyweight fight, with both teams testing one another for weakness. Georgia struck first with a 11-play, 52-yard drive that swallowed nearly half of the first quarter. Alabama relied on a quick-strike offense, but struggled to move the ball in the first.
After an Alabama punt pinned Georgia at its own 3 late in the first quarter, Bennett guided the Bulldogs out from under the shadow of their own goalposts and into a masterful 97-yard touchdown drive. That put Georgia up 10-0, well clear of the game’s 6.5-point spread. Against any other team the Dawgs played in 2021, a grinding, length-of-the-field drive would have been a backbreaker. But it just woke Alabama up.
Georgia possesses an all-world defense, one that allowed opponents an average of less than a touchdown all season. But it never faced anything quite like the passing attack of Alabama. Between the speed of Jameson Williams and the hands of John Metchie — combined with the precision of Bryce Young — Alabama scored twice in less than five minutes of elapsed game clock. Another long drive and a field goal later, and suddenly Georgia was down 17-10.
Bennett, the walk-on turned star, remained calm even as his defense was fracturing. He found Ladd McConkey for a beautiful split-the-secondary 32-yard touchdown pass to tie up the score … but two minutes remained in the half, and that was more than enough time for Young to cement his Heisman credentials. He drove Alabama 75 yards in 100 seconds, recovered a fumble in the face of three Georgia defenders, and ran the final 11 yards into the end zone himself.
That put the exclamation on a first half unlike any Georgia had endured all season. Prior to Saturday night, the most points Georgia had allowed in any game was 17; the most yards, 387 against Tennessee. Alabama dropped 24 points and 365 yards on the Bulldogs in a single half. In that first half, Young threw for two touchdowns and 286 yards in the first half — breaking the entire single-game SEC championship record set by Cam Newton — and rushed for 40 yards and that final score of the first half. And the Tide received the kick to start the second half.
Alabama began the second half with grim news: Metchie, who had torched the Georgia defense for 97 yards and a touchdown, would not return due to a knee injury suffered during Young’s fumble. But Young simply found Williams streaking out past the far reaches of Georgia’s defense and dropped what might be the prettiest pass of his career into Williams’ hands. That put Alabama up 31-17 and Georgia, which had never trailed in the second half of any game this season, in a deep hole.
In what were, at the time, the two most crucial possessions Georgia had all season, the Dawgs came up short twice. Bennett marched Georgia all the way to the Alabama 19, but tried to force a pass after reversing direction and threw an interception, his first turnover of the game, into the hands of DeMarcco Hellams. One possession later — after forcing Alabama into its first punt since leading 3-0 — Georgia stalled out once again at the Alabama 19.
The lone highlight for Georgia in the second half — and it was a big one — was the play of freshman tight end Brock Bowers, who scored two touchdowns, one on the ground, one through the air. Bowers was the one player for whom Alabama had no answer, and the Bulldog offense will likely run through him for as long as he’s in Athens.
This season could still very well end in a national championship for Georgia. But the Bulldogs now have four long weeks to think about the Tide, who aren’t going away just yet.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.