O'Gara: Regardless of Alabama's Playoff status, let's appreciate what the Tide just did to the 2-time defending champs
ATLANTA — Before Nick Saban made it to his postgame press conference to address the media and deliver a pitch to the College Football Playoff selection committee, he addressed his team with 1 word.
As in, Alabama should celebrate the fact that it ended Georgia’s SEC record 29-game winning streak. Celebrate the fact that the 2-time defending champs aren’t the ones on that podium because Alabama came out and executed at a higher level for 60 minutes. Celebrate the fact that all this Alabama team did after that Week 2 loss was slowly but surely crawl its way out of that mid-September hole to keep its national championship hopes alive.
Now, it’s out of Alabama’s hands. The selection committee will have to weigh whether that Week 2 head-to-head loss against Texas will be the thing that keeps the Tide out of the last 4-team Playoff.
But for now, as Saban said, Saturday’s showing deserves to be celebrated.
“I couldn’t be prouder of a bunch of guys,” Saban said afterward.
And sure, this team has probably pushed Saban in more ways than he’ll let on. “You know how tired I am right now?” Saban quipped. The well-documented USF “win” and even last week’s Iron Bowl had plenty of “pull your hair out” moments.
But you know what Saturday didn’t have? Any reason for Saban to pull his hair out. Alabama only committed 3 penalties for 36 yards, and while it wasn’t necessarily an offensive clinic, there wasn’t a single Tide turnover.
Georgia was the team that did that. The Dawgs did that backed up in their own territory in a 7-point game. That was the type of back-breaking sequence that UGA usually found a way to overcome. Instead, Alabama pounced on Carson Beck and Dillon Bell’s fumbled exchange, made it a 2-score game and put things on ice.
It was Milroe who did that. Georgia had no answer for the Alabama quarterback on a final drive that included runs of 30 and 9 yards to pick up first downs. There wasn’t even a chance for Beck to do his best Stetson Bennett IV imitation because Alabama never gave the ball back in the final 2:52 with a 3-point lead.
Shoot, even the sequence to allow Georgia’s final score of the night felt like a win for the Tide. It took UGA not 1, not 2, but 3 attempts to punch it in from the 1-yard line, which wasted precious time in what was a 2-score game. Never mind the fact that Alabama lost both Dallas Turner and Kool-Aid McKinstry to injury on the same play in the third quarter.
It was that kind of day for Georgia. The immovable force finally came head-on with an immovable object. The post-September version of Alabama was the immovable object, regardless of whether that Playoff spot will be clinched on Sunday.
Turner and Jalen Milroe were asked about their Playoff pitch. Turner gave the answer you’d expect an Alabama player to give — he’d rather let the play on the field do the talking. Milroe went a different route.
“I got something to say,” Milroe said. “Georgia’s No. 1, right? You beat the No. 1 team. What does that consider us?”
At the very least, it makes Alabama one of the best teams in America. There won’t be a better win in college football this season. There also isn’t a better in-season turnaround story than Milroe’s. Whether he was benched or not against USF, what’s not up for debate is that Saban wanted to see what his quarterback room beyond Milroe looked like. As it turned out, it was pretty awful. And as it turned out, Milroe was pretty awesome.
Instead of having conversations about the Tide finally having a drop-off at quarterback, Milroe made his closing argument to get to New York. Like Alabama’s Playoff status, to be determined on that.
An emotional Milroe channeled his inner Jalen Hurts in Atlanta. From benched quarterback to SEC Championship hero, Milroe used a phrase from the former Tide signal-caller.
“Before anybody had an opinion of me, I had my purpose already,” Milroe said on the postgame broadcast.
“Before anybody had an opinion of me, I had my purpose already.” @AlabamaFTBL QB and SEC Championship Game MVP Jalen Milroe spoke w/ @JennyDell_ after the Tide rolled to another SEC title ? pic.twitter.com/qOkBI8lTjh
— CBS Sports College Football ? (@CBSSportsCFB) December 3, 2023
If your opinion of Milroe is anything but complementary, you haven’t watched his 2023 maturation. The predetermined reads are a thing of the past. He might get off to a slow start like he did on Saturday — he was 1-for-6 for 9 yards in the first quarter — but there’s no panic in his game. Whether that was delivering a dart to Jermaine Burton in the back of the end zone or uncorking a perfect throw to Isaiah Bond on a corner route before he even turned around, Milroe settled in nicely against the No. 6 defense in America.
Unlike last week, this wasn’t some last-ditch play against a 6-6 team. This was a convincing, “we’re better than you” showing against a Georgia team that hadn’t lost a game in 729 days.
And sure, UGA was banged up at the pass-catcher spots. Perhaps if Ladd McConkey and Brock Bowers had been at 100%, the Dawgs wouldn’t have been held to less than 3 yards per play in the middle 30 minutes of the game. But that happened because Alabama did a better job of overcoming its injuries than Georgia did. Louisiana transfer Trey Amos was excellent in McKinstry’s place and Georgia transfer Trez Marshall recovered the all-important fumbled exchange by Beck and Bell.
Execution? Discipline? Poise?
Alabama had all of those things in spades on Saturday. Maybe that was the byproduct of having 5 halftime deficits — a Saban-era record in Tuscaloosa — and still going 4-1 in those games. Or perhaps Saban’s squad just needed the thing he made famous after his team beat Georgia in the SEC Championship the last time — “yummy” rat poison.
Rest assured that if Alabama does get into the Playoff, feasting on outside doubt won’t be on the table. Saban talked about how now with Georgia in the rearview mirror, his team has to learn how to handle success. The Tide earned the right to no longer be considered “underdogs” after Saturday’s performance.
There was no doubt who the better team was. Any notion that Kirby Smart had Saban’s number faded with his 5th loss in 6 attempts against his former boss. For at least another year, predictions of Saban’s demise were premature.
It was the 4th time in the last 15 years that Alabama wasn’t the preseason pick to win the SEC. Fittingly, all 4 of those teams won SEC titles. The first 3 went on to win national titles, too. To be determined if this year’s squad will get the chance to do the same.
For now, celebrate.