Alabama vs. Georgia: Tide's dramatic triumph proof they didn't 'waste the failing'

ATLANTA -- During a chaotic scene on the field of Mercedes-Benz Stadium in the moments after freshman Tua Tagovailoa hit freshman DeVonta Smith for the 41-yard game-winning touchdown in overtime to give the Alabama Crimson Tide a 26-23 victory against Georgia and their fifth national championship in nine years, there was one message as confetti reigned down. 

It's not how you start, it's how you finish.

It didn't start well for the Tide.

With sophomore Jalen Hurts struggling under center, Alabama managed just 94 yards of offense in the first half, fell into a 13-0 hole and was shutout in the first half, a rare occurrence for the Tide under Saban. In came Tagovailoa, and everything changed. Tagovailoa hit freshman Henry Ruggs for a touchdown midway through the third quarter to make a dent in the scoreboard, and the first person to congratulate him was Hurts.

"As we went into halftime, guys were kind of sad, and we just motivated each other and told each other that we don't need all that arguing in the locker room, just do what you do," linebacker Mack Wilson said. "Do our assignment, and we'll come out on top. Everybody stuck to that, and we're national champions."

One of Tagovailoa's biggest supporters was the man he replaced. 

"It's been like that all year with me and him," a joyous Hurts said immediately after the game. "He had an opportunity to step up, and he did. He stepped up when his team needed him. That's what he does. He's a ball player. I'm so happy for him. Happy for this team."

Hurts started it, Tagovailoa finished it.

When kicker Andy Pappanastos pulled a potential walk-off field goal left as time expired in regulation, the seniors knew it wasn't the end. It was a minor speed bump.

"You can't take anything for granted," senior linebacker Rashaan Evans said. "It's not about how you start, it's how you finish. I'm just so proud of the guys who took advantage of this opportunity and we finished. It's unreal. I really feel like I'm in a dream."

That dream almost turned into a nightmare. 

Overtime for the Tide offense started about as poorly as you could script. After holding the Bulldogs to a field goal in the top half of overtime, Tagovailoa took a sack for a loss of 16 yards on the first play. 

So, of course, Tagovailoa finished it on the very next play with the dime to Smith to end it.

It's the story of the entire Crimson Tide's season. They just kept finishing.

When they lost linebackers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis for the majority of the year in the season-opening victory against Florida State, they bounced back. When fellow linebackers Shaun Dion Hamilton and Dylan Moses were lost in the month of November, Wilson stepped in alongside Evans in the middle. 

When they struggled down the stretch in a sloppy win over Mississippi State in mid-November and lost at Auburn to close out the regular season in a game that decided the SEC West, they regrouped.

The defensive line got its identity back, the offensive line controlled the College Football Playoff semifinal win over Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and the "ferocious" Tide -- how Saban described them -- returned to power. 

The mantra of this year's team after last season's national title game loss to Clemson was "don't waste the failing." Saban said it at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, in July, and opened his press conference early Tuesday morning moments after his sixth national title overall and fifth at Alabama with the same quote.

"When we lost last year on the last play of the game, we said don't waste a failing," Saban said. "That's the lesson we all wanted to learn. I think the resiliency this team has shown all year long certainly proves that they sort of learned something from that. Couldn't be prouder of a bunch of coaches and a bunch of players and the people in our organization who contribute to the success of the University of Alabama."

Alabama failed early and often in the national title game, during the month of November and in the SEC West race.

Then it won one of the most dramatic championship games in American sports history. 

The failure wasn't wasted. It was fuel.

Fuel for one of the most remarkable seasons the sport has ever seen by its most prominent program.

The Tide finished Monday night and into Tuesday morning when it mattered most, even when it looked impossible. It wasn't a dream. It was a fitting end.

College Football Writer

Barrett Sallee has been a member of the sports media in various aspects since 2001. He is currently a college football writer for CBS Sports, analyst for CBS Sports HQ and host for the SiriusXM college... Full Bio

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