Funny thing pressure is, It’s a force that is invisible. You can’t taste it or describe it well but we all feel it when it’s there and understand that it can change everything. More on that later.
Alabama’s football team left port several months ago. Like a shiny new battleship she sailed into the ocean blue and sunk the mighty Seminoles in short order, but the victory celebration was cut a bit short when the shiny new battleship never returned… It’s as if she disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle of misfortune. Perhaps damaged, perhaps even adrift. She battled on through the schedule but never “looked” like a normal Alabama team. The defense was damaged and short handed. The powerful run game never was that powerful and the rest of the offense just never seemed in sync. Yet somehow this team persevered beyond all odds to win the 2017 National Championship and did so in the most dramatic fashion possible. So how did we get there?
To talk about this team you have to start with the defense. Alabama’s problems began in week one in which Alabama’s two most effective outside pass rushers Christian Miller and Terrell Lewis both went down with seemingly season ending injuries while Alabama’s best inside linebacker Rashaan Evans was unable to play for several weeks and was never again fully healthy. Fortunately the early season schedule did not provide much in the way of challenge. Alabama shored up the ranks with backups and walkons. Keith Holcombe played inside while former walkon James Mosley played outside along with Anfernee Jennings. Even against lesser competition however it became clear Alabama had no replacements for the players lost. Alabama was in a pickle, and things would get worse.
Defensively Minkah Fitzpatrick, Trevon Diggs, Nigel Knott, Lawrence Hootie Jones, DeShawn Hand, LaBryan Ray, Anfernee Jennings, Terrell Lewis, Dylan Moses, Mack Wilson, Rashaan Evans, Christian Miller, and Shawn Dion Hamilton would all miss part or most of the 2017 season due to injury. That’s 13 players most of whom are starters. It is unprecedented for a team to remain competitive after such a list of losses. It’s no wonder that by time the team showed up in Starkville they could barely hold back a stiff breeze.
Offensively Alabama was chugging along but many who observed were concerned that Jalen Hurts seemed to not be progressing. In fact it seemed that like last season he was actually getting more tentative as the season wore on. The weak schedule somewhat masked that fact since he was always playing with a lead until things got crazy in Starkville. There he managed to come up with some late game heroics to win the game but that would mark the last point at which Hurts was able to function. It seems as the pressure mounted on the season Hurts became more and more paralyzed by it.
The following week against Auburn he completely unraveled. Alabama had in desperation rushed formerly injured outside linebackers Lewis and Miller back into action, (which cost them a red shirt year). The move did not work as both were too rusty and out of shape to be effective. Alabama used a true freshman Dylan Moses at middle linebacker and he showed some promise but the Tigers gashed Alabama for more yards than Miss State and owned Jalen Hurts for a humiliating 26-14 loss. The single loss was enough to keep Alabama out of the SEC Championship.
After Auburn lost the SEC Title match to Georgia and the Ohio State / Wisconsin game demonstrated how both were terrible the playoff committee put Alabama in at #4 as much because they believed in Saban as much as anything else. Plus some felt that if Alabama got some of their injured defensive players back they would once again be one of the best. That theory proved true against Clemson as the rejuvenated Tide demolished the Clemson Tiger without their former trigger man DeShawn Watson calling the shots. In that game however more critical injuries happened. This time to offensive lineman Lester Cotton and Anfernee Jennings.
When the National Title game began Georgia and Alabama traded blows but both defenses were holding strong. Georgia however was moving the ball while Alabama was not. As the half wound down the Alabama defense has been hung out to dry to the point that collapse was eminent. Alabama was down 13-0 at the half, Jalen was utterly ineffective and the defense looked too tired to keep going. Alabama was on the cusp of being run out of the Stadium in a national title match. No doubt many felt like they might be witnessing the passing of a torch from the old Champion to the new one in Kirby Smart.
But there was 30 more minutes and Nick Saban had a choice to make.
At half time Nick Saban made a decision that would prove historic. He decided to bench his starting QB in the middle of a title game. I have never heard of anything like that on any level. It’s just not done, but that’s exactly what Saban did. To be fair this switch should have happend weeks earlier. The weak schedule may have make it seem less necessary but it was clear as crystal now. So down 13-0 against the best football team in America the true freshman Tua Tagovailoa took the field.
His first series was 3 and out and he did make some mistakes but his second drive led to a quick score completing a pass that Hurts never could have in the back of the endzone. Alabama fans had a brief moment of hope summarily crushed when Georgia immediately scored again on a long touchdown. This was dejecting for Alabama fans but it would be the last good moment for a Georgia offense that had been dominant prior to that. Alabama’s defense played a lot of plays in the first half but watching the Alabama offense begin to hum energized the defensive players and they began getting stronger with each passing minute.
When Alabama pulled close in the 4th quarter I thought to myself about the Georgia’s freshman quarterback. He had looked like the cat that ate the canary earlier in the game when Georgia had a big lead. Let’s see how he reacts when any mistake could cost him the championship, lets see if his feet start to dance with the game, and the SEASON on the line. The Georgia play calling had changed as well. Gone was the aggressiveness that we saw in the first half. Now each play seemed focused on “Not screwing up” When Alabama milked the clock Alabama’s kicker had a chance to win the game as time expired, but the pressure was too great. He hooked the kick badly. Alabama and Georgia were now locked in a pressure cooker and the world was watching to see who would crack first.
Something else was happening as the game had progressed. With each passing play Tua Tagovailoa was getting more confident in what he was doing. When both teams entered overtime the pressure only increased. The weight of it was clearly showing on Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm. On 3rd and 6 Alabama’s formerly “out for the season” but come back from the dead outside linebacker Terrell Lewis blew by the Georgia offensive line and flattened Fromm for a huge loss. Somehow they made a field goal anyway, something Alabama fans knew was practically impossible for us. It got worse on the next play when Tua took a seemingly insurmountable 16 yard sack putting Alabama literally a mile from any hope of an field goal.
What happened next will likely be the most famous offensive play in Alabama football history. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll called a play called “Seattle”. The play called for four receivers all running streaks, three to the right and Smith alone on the left. In the huddle freshman receiver DeVonta Smith told Tua, “Trust me bro“, Tua just nodded back to him. Smiths meaning was clear. He had something on the Georgia Corner and he was ready to use it. At the snap Tua glanced right, the safety bit on the look and drifted right toward the three receivers to the right. Smith meanwhile got off free from the line of scrimmage. Ideally the Georgia corner should have “chucked” him at the line but Smith avoided that and accelerated full speed into an open slot with a clear path to the goal line. Tua didn’t hesitate, he stepped into the throw and lofted a perfect over the shoulder strike to Smith who caught it in stride as he was crossing the goal line. The play went into the books as a 41 yard pass but Tua launched the pass at the 48 yard line and it landed into Smiths hands just as he was crossing the line.
The play was so unexpected it was almost like a lightning strike. I was recovering from a cold and was standing in the living room wrapped in a blanket because it had gotten a bit chilly in the living room. No one expected that play least of all me. For a moment I was confused. wait… what just happened? Is their a penalty? I began yelling “Is that it!” “Is that it!“. Shawnette who had been in bed hears me yelling and comes into the living room. “Did we just win the game?“. I asked, still somewhat confused. I turned back to the TV and saw the Alabama players erupt off the sideline in celebration and no one stopped them!! I then saw Saban with the biggest smile on his face as he ran from the sideline with arms raised and Reality began to set in. I had just witnessed something historic, something none of us would EVER forget. Alabama had just won the National Championship game IN overtime, on a Walk-off 41 yard touchdown throw by a true freshman, to a true freshman, with a replacement true freshman playing at left tackle after the starter in true 2017 fashion went down.
Alabama has had a number of championships in the last decade but none were anything like this. The 2017 Crimson Tide was a flawed team. They suffered unprecedented injuries. The offense never really worked. The team was not full of big name stars. It was just a bunch of guys who never ever quit, aided by some of the most dynamic looking young players I’ve ever seen in Crimson. These young guys have already cemented their names in Alabama lore, but I can’t help but be excited what the future holds.