Monday Down South's SEC Year in Review: Another Bama-Georgia classic, another round of Georgia heartbreak
1. Alabama 35, Georgia 28: An instant classic
How could it have been any other way? Right from the start, the 2018 regular season was defined by the inevitable Bama-Georgia blockbuster at the end, and for as long as that fuse took to burn, the payoff delivered on every level. Unless you live and die with the Bulldogs — or you happened to put money on Bama to cover the 13-point spread — there’s not much more you can ask from a football game.
That begins, of course, with the winner-take-all stakes, and ends with a Hollywood-ready twist courtesy of Jalen Hurts. In between, though, the drama was driven by the same sense of disbelief that always prevails when Alabama finds itself in a real fight, the slow realization as the game wears on that wait, this is really happening.
For this team, especially, one of the most consistently dominant in the modern history of the sport, the prospect of losing at the most inopportune point on the schedule was surreal. For most of the third quarter the Crimson Tide were clearly losing that fight, saddled with their largest deficit in any game (14 points) since a September 2015 loss to Ole Miss. By the start of the fourth, Georgia had outgained Bama by more than 100 yards (376 to 266), racked up a two-to-one edge in time of possession, and put itself in perfect position to throw the Playoff race into chaos.
You know what happened next: The same thing that happened the last time, only with the two quarterbacks in crimson and white swapping the roles they played in January’s National Championship Game. Combined with that loss, an all-time heartbreaker in its own right, the eerie turnabout over the final 10 minutes must have felt for Georgia fans like their own personal Curse of the Monkey’s Paw.
In the last meeting, the Bulldogs held the lead for more than two-thirds of regulation and never trailed until Tua Tagovailoa’s championship-clinching heave in overtime; in the rematch, they led for a little more than half the game never trailed until Hurts’ go-ahead touchdown run with just over a minute to go. Out of 290 total plays in those games, the final nine on Georgia’s last-gasp drive on Saturday are the only ones that commenced with Alabama in the lead.
Taking all of that into account, it should go without saying that this rivalry is a much more compelling and competitive one than Alabama’s 5-game winning streak in the series would suggest. Georgia has more than held its own athletically in the past two meetings, arguably looking like the better team for long stretches in both of them. Kirby Smart is poised to sign another star-studded recruiting class later this month that rivals Bama’s as one of the best in the nation for the third year in a row. Neither side looks like it’s going to relinquish its grip on its respective division any time soon — the starting lineups on Saturday featured a grand total of six seniors — potentially setting up Bama-Georgia in Atlanta as an annual ritual for the foreseeable future.
UGA obviously has the pieces in place to get over the hump and has come painfully close to doing so now twice in the same calendar year. All that’s left is to actually finish the job.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs’ pain is the SEC’s gain. Between Bama’s down-to-the-wire win over Georgia in 2012 (another Monkey’s Paw defeat for the Dogs) and the latest thriller, the intervening five SEC Championship Games were barely watchable romps decided by an average margin of 23.8 points.
Saturday’s edition not only lived up to the hype as the most anticipated college football game of the season; it was also the highest-rated, coming in just behind the 2009 collision between No. 1 Florida and No. 2 Alabama on the list of most-watched SEC title games to date. More than 10 million people tuned in to watch the demise of the Bama Death Star improbably morph into a feel-good story for the Death Star, none of whom will ever forget it.
2. Jalen Hurts is a legend …
The skies are going to get a little darker and the hole a little deeper each time the story is retold, so let the record show that Alabama was far from doomed when Tagovailoa exited the game with an injured ankle; the Tide were down just a touchdown, 28-21, with a little more than 11 minutes still to play. But it’s not an exaggeration to say desperation was in the air: The offense was sputtering badly by its usual standards, having gone 0-for-6 on third-down conversions and failed to score on seven of its 10 possessions to that point.
And Hurts, who’d yet to take a really meaningful snap this season, did in fact turn the tide immediately: His first two completions both moved the chains on third down — Alabama’s first third-down conversions of the game — and he capped the drive with a clutch, 3rd-and-10 strike to Jerry Jeudy that evened the score.
JALEN HURTS. TIE GAME.
Football is awesome. pic.twitter.com/NyiEWREIaC
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 2, 2018
On Bama’s next possession, Hurts converted on 3rd-and-8 with a 19-yard connection to Irv Smith Jr., hit Jaylen Waddle for a 16-yard completion along the sideline, and called his own shot on the decisive touchdown run on consecutive snaps. He was on the field for all of 18 plays, and altered his legacy in Tuscaloosa forever. There will be a painting.
Given Hurts’ wildly successful track record in his first two years on campus (not to mention his quietly stellar performance this season as Tagovailoa’s backup), his heroics didn’t exactly come out of the blue. As a plot twist, though, the narrative symmetry of the moment — coming on the same field, against the same opponent, in an eerily similar situation to the one that got Hurts exiled from the starting lineup in January — was almost overwhelming. Hurts hugged it out with Tua on the sideline. Nick freaking Saban got emotional. The cliché is true: If somebody tried to sell this script as fiction, it would be rejected as maudlin and unrealistic.
Beyond the sentiment, it was also a testament to Alabama’s ruthless efficiency and depth. Before Saturday, Hurts’ season was spent in a kind of limbo, under a cloud of speculation over his redshirt status, his transfer options, and his health. But the point of his presence this season was always that distant, unforeseeable moment when Bama was suddenly forced to switch to the backup engine again in mid-flight.
As the season wore on, and Tagovailoa’s star power easily eclipsed his predecessor’s, it looked less and less likely that moment would ever arrive. When it did, though, Hurts took full advantage of it when anything less could have sent the Tide’s perfect season careening wildly off the tracks. For that alone he’ll never buy another beer in the state of Alabama the rest of his life.
3. … but Tua is still the man
Yes, Tagovailoa likely let the Heisman slip away on the worst afternoon of his young career, by far. His final output (10-of-25, 164 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) left him trailing Kyler Murray in every relevant statistical category, and that only tells part of the story: He was hit repeatedly, missed routine throws, and looked as rattled and indecisive under pressure as he has at any point all year. (A surprise, considering Georgia’s pass rush was considered a weak link coming into the game against Alabama’s typically stellar o-line.)
He aggravated a nagging knee injury on the first series, and was clearly bothered by it even before he was forced out of the game. The two picks — both coming in the red zone — were arguably Tagovailoa’s two worst throws of the season, the second of which left the Bulldogs tasting blood with a 2-touchdown lead late in the third quarter.
GEORGIA SMELLING UPSET. pic.twitter.com/D2O8U9keZp
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 1, 2018
All of that said, the most relevant word in the preceding paragraph is Heisman, an honor he still has a plausible chance of winning. Despite his demotion to mere mortal over the final month of the season, Tagovailoa’s sophomore campaign remains among the best ever by an SEC quarterback, and he remains a 5-star, first-round talent with an overall skill set unmatched in college football. As unthinkable as Hurts’ halftime demotion was back in January, the odds of him displacing a healthy Tua at this point are even longer. Tagovailoa is expected to miss two weeks rehabbing his ankle; assuming he’s ready to go against Oklahoma on Dec. 29, it’s his offense, end of story.
There is a chance Tagovailoa’s recovery will exceed the reported two-week window, leaving the door open for Hurts to fill in again against the Sooners. Otherwise, Hurts’ long-term prospects haven’t changed: If he plans on being a starting quarterback in 2019, he almost certainly will have to transfer to another school to do it. His stock as a grad transfer was already high; after his star turn in Atlanta, he’ll likely be the most sought-after free agent ever to hit the offseason market, just like his father predicted in August. He’s earned the distinction. And if he’s going to have any chance of proving himself as a draftable prospect at the next level, free agency is the path to making good on it. Bama fans should give him as warm a send-off when the time comes as they did on Saturday night.
4. Jake Fromm levels up
In retrospect, it’s ridiculous that Fromm’s QB1 status at Georgia ever seemed to be in doubt: He came into the weekend with a 23-3 record as a starter and per-capita production that placed him among the most efficient passers in the nation. But his performance in Atlanta was on a different level. Fromm defied his “game manager” rep from the get-go, finishing 14-of-18 for 139 yards and 2 TDs — not far off his season averages for a full game — in the first half alone. Altogether, he set a career high for attempts (39), completed passes to nine receivers, and dropped more yards (301) and touchdowns (3) on Alabama than any opposing passer since Deshaun Watson in the 2016 national title game.
None of it came cheap. On his first scoring pass, Fromm zipped a play-action dart to tight end Isaac Nauta that exploited a man-to-man mismatch vs. linebacker Dylan Moses and a rapidly closing window between Moses and safety Xavier McKinney. (Later he found Nautu streaking down the middle of the field for 55 yards, the longest gain of the day for either team.) On his second TD, he exploited pre-snap confusion in Alabama’s secondary to connect with D’Andre Swift for an easy catch-and-run in the left flat. On his third, delivered a hand-written note to Riley Ridley in the front corner of the end zone on what might have been the throw of Fromm’s life.
ABSOLUTELY. PERFECT. THROW. pic.twitter.com/fyMlRLKhH7
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 1, 2018
At that point Fromm was the indisputable MVP; although Georgia failed to score again, he accounted for almost twice his usual share of the Bulldogs’ total offense and went a long way toward erasing doubts that he’s capable of playing the leading role against a top-shelf opponent. The arrow on his 2020 draft stock should be pointing straight up.
Fromm’s plans beyond next year are highly relevant to his backup, massively touted true freshman Justin Fields, who was limited to the occasional cameo in competitive games but doesn’t appear to be any closer to pushing Fromm for snaps at the end of his debut season than he did at the beginning. Fields deflected the inevitable transfer question after the game, which came with the implicit assumption that Fromm is entrenched for at least one more year. If Georgia can figure out a way to get him more involved as a sophomore on a regular, non-garbage-time basis, it might be worth it for Fields to continue biding his time with an eye toward taking over as a junior if Fromm enters the draft early. If not, then he might be looking at a very long, not very productive wait.
5. Georgia’s ill-fated fake punt was as dumb as it looked
Fields’ most notable contribution to Saturday’s game came on the Bulldogs’ disastrous decision to run a fake punt from midfield on 4th-and-11 with just over three minutes remaining in a tie game. He lined up as the upback, received a direct snap, feigned an option to the left (with punter Jake Camarda serving as an unconvincing pitch man), briefly scanned the field for an open receiver to the right, and, finding none, decided to cut his losses by ducking into the scrum for a 2-yard gain. It looked even worse than it sounds.
On 4th and 11, Georgia dialed up this fake.
Alabama was not fooled. pic.twitter.com/FBB8DuG2Kp
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 2, 2018
Alabama’s offense took over on its own 48-yard line rather than inside its own 20. The rest is history.
Dialing up a calculated gamble in that situation is not exactly a high-percentage move in the first place; actually going through with it after lining up and seeing Alabama’s regular defense in a punt safe formation clearly devoted to defending a fake is mind-boggling. The Crimson Tide did leave a safety deep to field a punt, but still covered every eligible receiver while keeping seven defenders in the box against six would-be Georgia blockers:
I have to admit, I admire the chutzpah of this call, if nothing else; it’s the kind of play that, on the off-chance it works, has the potential to make the coach who called it look like a freewheeling genius. (For his part, Smart insisted after the game that the Bulldogs “had a guy wide open” initially but took too long to snap the ball, allowing Alabama to account for everyone. OK, Kirby.) But the other half of that maxim is there for a reason, too, and ideas like staking the season on an off-chance are it.
The best of the week year…
Offensive Player of the Year: Tua Tagovailoa
Obviously. Even accounting for the nagging injuries and a couple of human-looking outings against the best defenses on the schedule, Tua vastly exceeded the hype: His presence in Alabama’s offense was electric and his production historic. Hardware aside, Tagovailoa has reigned as the most intriguing talent in college football from the moment he stepped on the field in January’s championship game, and with two games to go to clinch a repeat he looks like a lock to retain the title.
Defensive Player of the Year: Quinnen Williams
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) December 1, 2018
Williams, a first-year starter who garnered minimal hype coming into the year, quickly emerged as the irresistible force in the middle of Alabama’s d-line, breaking the mold for the typical stand-your-ground nose tackle in Saban’s defense and most others. At (officially) 6-4, 295 pounds, Williams more than held his own against double teams, but also wasted no time establishing himself as a frequent nuisance in opposing backfields, racking up a staggering 18 tackles for loss with 8 sacks. In a season that began in relative obscurity, Williams graded out as the best defensive player in the nation according to Pro Football Focus and a likely top-five draft pick according to pro scouts at just 19 years old.
Most Valuable Player: Benny Snell Jr.
Snell logged the heaviest workload among SEC backs with the thinnest support: Kentucky attempted fewer passes for fewer yards than any other team in the league, leaving Snell to account for nearly 40 percent of the team’s total offense in conference games. That’s an old-school ratio by the standards of the modern, spread-friendly game, and it helped produce Kentucky’s first winning record in conference games (5-3) in more than 40 years.
Breakout Player, Offense: Jerry Jeudy
This one might as well go to Alabama’s entire receiving corps, of which Jeudy was only the most spectacular and high-profile member — Jeudy, fellow sophomores DeVonta Smith and Henry Ruggs III, and true freshman Jaylen Waddle all averaged north of 17 yards per catch with at least 5 touchdowns apiece. (Ditto tight end Irv Smith Jr.) On the most explosive group in the country, Jeudy was the most explosive player, finishing with an SEC-best 12 touchdowns and seven receptions that covered at least 40 yards.
Breakout Player, Defense: Josh Allen
This was the exclamation point on another standout performance by #Kentucky OLB Josh Allen (4 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 FF). His added strength and seasoning in 2018 have made a HUGE difference. pic.twitter.com/kJxhnLVhZ6
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) October 1, 2018
In a league stocked with elite edge rushers Allen quickly rose to the top of the list, finishing No. 1 among Power 5 players in sacks (14) and forced fumbles (5), on a vastly improved unit that ranked among the top 10 nationally in points allowed. He’s versatile enough to run with tight ends in coverage, in a pinch, but it’s his speed around the corner that makes Allen a no-brainer All-American and stands to make him a whole lot of money at the next level.
Newcomer of the Year: Cole Tracy
Normally this slot would be reserved for a freshman, not a senior. But Tracy, a graduate transfer from tiny Assumption College in Massachusetts, was arguably as valuable as a place-kicker as any player on LSU’s offense: He hit all 4 of field-goal attempts in the Tigers’ season-opening win over Miami; went 4-for-4 with the game-winner as time expired at Auburn; connected on all 5 attempts against Georgia, tying a school record; went 4-for-4 against Mississippi State; and kept the Tigers alive at Texas A&M by knocking home a pair of overtime attempts in a seven-OT marathon. At some point LSU fans got the idea to start sending donations to his old school, sealing Tracy’s status as a cult hero.
Altogether, Tracy’s 25 successful kicks (on 29 attempts) ranks second nationally, including three connections from 50 yards or longer and just 1 miss from inside of 40 yards. This week he’s a finalist for the Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s best kicker, which he might very well be.
Comeback Player of the Year: Deebo Samuel
Samuel got off to an explosive start in 2017 before suffering a broken leg in South Carolina’s third game. After a medical redshirt, he was back in fine form as a fifth-year senior, accounting for more all-purpose yards than any other SEC player except Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams. Most of those yards came on offense, where he led the team in catches (62), yards (882), and touchdowns (11), made a highlight-reel grab or two along the way, and capped the season with a career night against Clemson. But Deebo remained a perennial threat on kick returns, as well, in which he led the conference and took one to the house against Ole Miss.
Most underrated: Jachai Polite
Jachai Polite puts LSU's left tackle in the spin cycle. What a player. pic.twitter.com/ckUnrqd1vl
— Fed Scivittaro (@MeshPointScout) October 6, 2018
Polite broke out in a big way in Florida’s midseason win over LSU, finished with 3 sacks against Florida State, and generally looked like a first-rounder in the making despite being, technically, only a part-time starter in the Gators’ d-line rotation. He’s squarely on the radar of NFL scouts; the average fan, not so much. That’s likely not going to be the case by next spring, at which point Polite should be a fixture on mock drafts everywhere.
Game of the Year: Alabama 35, Georgia 28 (SEC Championship)
Bama-Georgia was the climax of an otherwise unremarkable year in the SEC, and thankfully it delivered on its promise. If they make it an annual affair for the next few years, I think that will be just fine with everyone.
Zen Moment of the Year: Texas A&M 74, LSU 72 in 7 OTs
A&M’s exhausting, 7-overtime triumph on Thanksgiving weekend was the first and only great game of the regular season, a surreal exercise in endurance that featured more combined points than in any other game in FBS history. But the records, and even the final result, mattered less than the bizarre sequence of events that produced them — just to force overtime at the end of regulation, the Aggies had to have a game-clinching interception wiped off the board, convert a 4th-and-18 in the dying seconds of regulation, and score the tying touchdown from 19 yards out with no time left on the clock. At some point in that sequence, Ed Orgeron was doused with a celebratory Gatorade bath a good hour-and-a-half before the game actually ended with his team on the losing side.
Beginning with that drive, there were no fewer than a dozen do-or-die plays to either win or extend the game, each of which had the potential to be the last play of the night. Somehow, none was until A&M’s Kellen Mond found Kendrick Rogers for the game-winning 2-point conversion in the bottom of the seventh OT. Everything leading up to that point was a delirious blur that can never replicated in any other setting outside of college football.
And now, the Monday Down South All-SEC Team
Here’s my personal All-SEC lineup for 2018, based strictly on my own observations and opinions over the course of the season. (That is, it doesn’t reflect the observations or opinions of anyone else at Saturday Down South.) If an obviously deserving player from your favorite team didn’t make the cut, it can only be because I harbor a deep, irrational bias against him personally — especially if he happens to play defensive end or cornerback — and certainly not because some of these decisions were tough calls between more credible candidates than I could accommodate.
Quarterback: Tua Tagovailoa • Soph, Alabama
Running Back: Trayveon Williams • Jr, Texas A&M
Running Back: Benny Snell Jr. • Jr, Kentucky
Wide Receiver: Jerry Jeudy • Soph, Alabama
Wide Receiver: A.J. Brown • Jr, Ole Miss
Tight End: Jace Sternberger • Soph, Texas A&M
Tackle: Jonah Williams • Jr, Alabama
Tackle: Andrew Thomas • Soph, Georgia
Guard: Jervontius “Bunchy” Stallings • Sr, Kentucky
Guard: Deion Calhoun • Sr, Mississippi State
Center: Elgton Jenkins • Sr, Mississippi State
Honorable Mention – QB: Jake Fromm (Georgia); Drew Lock (Missouri); Jake Bentley (South Carolina). … RB: D’Andre Swift (Georgia); Ke’Shawn Vaughn (Vanderbilt); Larry Rountree III (Missouri); Scottie Phillips (Ole Miss). … WR: Justin Jefferson (LSU); Deebo Samuel (South Carolina); Emanuel Hall (Missouri); DaMarkus Lodge (Ole Miss); Lynn Bowden Jr. (Kentucky); Kalija Lipscomb (Vanderbilt). … TE: Irv Smith Jr. (Alabama); Jared Pinkney (Vanderbilt); Albert Okwuegbunam (Missouri) … OL: Lamont Gaillard (Georgia); Ross Pierschbacher (Alabama); Jedrick Wills Jr. (Alabama); Martez Ivey (Florida); Greg Little (Ole Miss); Zack Bailey (South Carolina); Hjalte Froholdt (Arkansas); Erik McCoy (Texas A&M).
End: Isaiah Buggs • Sr, Alabama
End: Jachai Polite • Jr, Florida
Tackle: Quinnen Williams • Soph, Alabama
Tackle: Jeffery Simmons • Jr, Mississippi State
Linebacker: Josh Allen • Jr, Kentucky
Linebacker: Devin White • Jr, LSU
Linebacker: Deshaun Davis • Sr, Auburn
Cornerback: Deandre Baker • Sr, Georgia
Cornerback: Andraez “Greedy” Williams • Soph, LSU
Safety: Grant Delpit • Soph, LSU
Safety: Deionte Thompson • Jr, Alabama
Honorable Mention – DL: Montez Sweat (Mississippi State); Derrick Brown (Auburn); Nick Coe (Auburn); Jabari Zuniga (Florida); Kingsley Keke (Texas A&M); Daylon Mack (Texas A&M). … LB: Dylan Moses (Alabama); Christian Miller (Alabama); Otaro Alaka (Texas A&M); Vosean Joseph (Florida); T.J. Brunson (South Carolina); Erroll Thompson (Mississippi State). … DB: Joejuan Williams (Vanderbilt); DeMarkus Acy (Missouri); Kristian Fulton (LSU); Saivion Smith (Alabama); Chauncey Gardner Jr. (Florida); Johnathan Abram (Mississippi State); Mike Edwards (Kentucky).
Kicker: Cole Tracy • Sr, LSU
Punter: Braden Mann • Jr, Texas A&M
Kick Returner: Deebo Samuel • Sr, South Carolina
Punt Returner: Mecole Hardman • Jr, Georgia
Honorable Mention – K: Rodrigo Blankenship (Georgia); Parker White (South Carolina). … P: Max Duffy (Kentucky). … KR: Lynn Bowden Jr. (Kentucky); Jaylen Waddle (Alabama).