ATLANTA — It was the ultimate staring match between the teacher Nick Saban and the pupil Kirby Smart.
And Smart made Saban blink first in turning to freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to start the second half after the Bulldogs defense dominated Jalen Hurts and the Tide offense while building a 13-0 lead.
But Saban did not blink twice, staring on as his defense and that freshman caught Georgia and extinguished its championship hopes.
Tagovailoa, who had not played a snap since Nov. 13 against Kentucky, came on to throw for 166 yards and three touchdowns, including a perfect 41-yard strike to DeVonta Smith in the first overtime that lifted the Crimson Tide to a thrilling 26-23 victory Monday night in the College Football playoff championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
It was a gut-wrenching ending for the Bulldogs, who had lived by the overtime just the week before in a 54-48 victory over Oklahoma in the semifinals.
"In overtime we didn't finish when we had to and Alabama did," said a disappointed Smart afterwards. But he added a light to the Bulldog Nation as well, saying, "I think everybody can see that Georga's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Georgia looked down-and-out as Alabama had taken the final drive of the fourth quarter to the Bulldogs' 19, setting up a 36-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos, who was a perfect 13-for-13 on kicks from 36 yards or less in his career and the score tied at 20.
But Pappanastos shanked it left as time expired giving Georgia new life. It was his second miss of the game.
However, Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who was brilliant for much of the first three quarters going 15-of-29 for 225 yards and one touchdown, suffered a deep sack on third down of the Bulldogs' first overtime drive. That set up a 51-yard Rodrigo Blankenship field goal for a 23-20 Georgia lead.
Smart said Fromm proved why they never doubted he could lead them to the promised land.
"Jake's a special kid. He's a gamer," Smart said. "He understands the game of football. He sees spacing on the field. He continues to grow. He made some freshmen mistakes. You can't take a sack in that situation. But he certainly kept us in the game with his decision-making."
The Bulldogs' defense responded with a combination sack from Davin Bellamy and Jonathan Ledbetter of Tagovailoa for 16-yards to push the Tide back to the Georgia 41. But Tagovailoa redeemed himself with a beautiful throw that Smith caught in stride for the game-winner the very next, and last, play of the game.
"Tua did a great job and gave us a little spark," Saban said. "The defense picked it up. To overcome adversity of missing a field goal in regulation and then win the game in overtime, it was a great football game."
Saban, who ran his amazingly bizarre streak of wins over his former assistants to a perfect 12-0, was quick to praise his prize protege.
"You have to give Georgia a lot of credit. They played really well. Kirby did a great job of having them prepared, which we knew he would," Saban said.
Georgia controlled the first half almost from the beginning, forcing Alabama into five punts and the Tide’s first shutout in a first half since 2007.
Blankenship booted field goals of 41 and 27 yards and Mecole Hardman capped a 9-play, 69-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run with just 7 seconds left in the half for a 13-0 lead.
The lack of production and the big deficit caused Saban and his staff to make the unconventional move in the biggest game of the season.
"I felt like that we've had this in our mind that, if we were struggling offensively, that we would give Tua an opportunity, even in the last game," Saban said. "The absence of a passing game and not being able to make explosive plays and not being able to convert on third down, I just didn't feel we could run the ball well enough, and I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did."
But Georgia still took a 20-10 lead into the fourth quarter following an 80-yard bomb from Fromm to Hardman in the third quarter. But the Georgia defense began to wilt in the fourth quarter as Alabama used a pair of 8-play drives, one finishing with a 30-yard Pappanastos field goal and the second with a 7-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to Calvin Ridley to tie the game at 20 with 3:44 left.
Georgia’s vaunted rushing attack amassed 133 yards, which looked like it would be just enough. Senior Sony Michel pounded out 98 yards on 14 carries while fellow senior Nick Chubb was held to just 39 yards on 18 carries and no touchdowns.
Both Michel and Chubb said they came back for their final year instead of opting to turn pro in part to help pass the torch to the younger Bulldogs.
"We tried to set the standard high so the younger guys know where to take it from here," Michel said. "We fell short today but I think the guys coming back understand what it's going to take, plus more, to get back here."
"It's a special place, Georgia," Chubb said. "There's a lot of support. It's great to play for good coaches and meet amazing people. It's something I know we'll never forget."
But Alabama, which had just 73 yards on the ground at halftime, controlled the fourth quarter with 68 yards behind Najee Harris, who had 66 yards on just 6 carries with fresh legs.
For the Crimson Tide, it was a historic title as well. It gave them five titles in the past nine seasons, a first in the modern poll area going back to the 1930s.
The Bulldogs are still looking for their first title since 1981 when Herschel Walker led them to a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl.