Alabama was dead, Nick Saban buried ... until his freshmen resurrected the Tide
Saban's best decision? Turning to 18-year-olds to save the 66-year-old coaching legend
ATLANTA -- It was dead, Alabama as a whole. Or at least it looked that way. Ah, but inside the most talented roster in the sport, they were young, too.
So young that Alabama's freshmen in the incredible 26-23 overtime victory against Georgia in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship perhaps didn't know they were supposed to play dead.
When true freshman receiver DeVonta Smith caught a 41-yard pass from true freshman Tua Tagovailoa to clinch Nick Saban's sixth national championship ... well, there wasn't much analysis.
Just paralysis, the kind that comes when the jaw drops open and no sound comes out.
The kind that comes when teammates look at each other and say, "Did that just happen?" It did and it will live forever.
"When they called the play, I looked at Tua and I said, 'Trust me,' " shared wide receiver DeVonta Smith on the field immediately after the game.
Asked the specific play that launched Nick Saban to his record-tying sixth national championship, left tackle Alex Leatherwood, another true freshman, said: "I don't even know. I was blocking my ass off."
That was topped by Saban himself, who said on camera after a rally from 13 points down, "I've never been happier in my life."
That should be confusingly good news to his children and loyal wife Miss Terry. For the rest of the Crimson Tide world, perhaps this tops them all.
Five of the six Saban championships -- the total ties him with legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant -- have been won at Alabama. But none like this. This one came after it looked like Georgia was not only Cinderella but better.
The Bulldogs were up 13-0 at half when Saban subbed Tagovailoa in for sophomore starter Jalen Hurts. The freshman had seen mop up work in eight games. In four SEC games, he had been inserted where the cumulative Alabama advantage was 142-6.
All the Hawaiian did was lead the Tide back from a 20-7 deficit, tying the game at 20 with a pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:21 left in regulation.
A tale of Tua quarterbacks?
Following Andy Pappanastos' second missed field goal, this one kicked as the final seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter, Alabama was down again 23-20 in overtime before the freshmen struck their final blow.
By that point, Saban had inserted a freshman at quarterback, a freshman at tailback -- former No 1 recruit Najee Harris -- and another at left tackle (Leatherwood) as an injury replacement for Jonah Williams.
The leading receiver for the game, Henry Ruggs III, was another freshman. Tagovailoa was the leading passer. Harris was the leading rusher. Smith had the most receiving yards. Ruggs caught the most passes.
"I don't think we ever have," Saban said.
This was the Kick Six in reverse, mostly because Alabama won this shocker. This was satisfaction for last year's last-second loss to Clemson in the CFP National Championship.
This made Saban's onside kick call two years against the Tigers look absolutely sane.
The result also bailed out Pappanastos. He can not only show his face again in Tuscaloosa, now he can laugh off those two misses. The last one -- a chip-shot 36-yarder right down the middle -- hooked wide left at the end of regulation.
"Everyone, the whole of the offensive linemen, came up and hugged me [when] I missed," he said. "I've just been hooking it a little bit. It's like a golf shot."
Smith had been a regular backup all season when he was sent on a streak up the left side on second-and-26 from Alabama's 41. It was the eighth catch of his career.
Keeping with the theme, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll couldn't describe the game-winning play either.
Who could blame him? In the space of 11 months, he had won two championships -- one with Tom Brady, the other with a true freshman college quarterback.
The Patriots were down by 25 to the Falcons. The Tide were down to their last freshman -- or so it seemed.
Both of those championships were won in overtime after incredible comebacks with Daboll's team never leading prior to the final play.
"It's the philosophy I grew up with under [Bill] Belichick," said Daboll, New England's former tight ends coach. "Next man up, ready to go, no excuses."
The dichotomy of a 66-year-old legend in Saban putting his comeback on the backs of true freshmen added to the drama.
"I trust players," Saban said. "Players that do things the right way. Players who prepare the right way, practice the right way. They're dependable."
At Georgia, they're also the reason Kirby Smart is going to have to wait a bit longer for his first title. Saban assistants are 0-12 against their former boss.
It wasn't the first time Smart choked off and ground down an SEC opponent with a comfortable second-half lead. It was the first time Smart choked off and ground down Saban. Until in a second-half flourish, Alabama might have become that Cinderella.
So much for questioners of the CFP doubting whether this intraconference battle would turn off televisions all over the country.
It was at least the best CFP game in a week.
Try to ride the emotional roller coaster Georgia has been on. The Dawgs beat Oklahoma in a shootout in the Rose Bowl semifinal and then, in a lot of ways, shot themselves in the foot.
"A lot of people didn't think we deserved to be here," tailback Damien Harris said. "We're the kings of college football right now."
A bit more than a month ago, some folks -- especially in the Big Ten -- were questioning Alabama's worthiness.
Now the Tide have five of the past nine championships. Those freshmen are only getting started. They have their first.
"I'm part of history," Ridley, a junior, said. "We're part of history."
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