Alabama Beats Georgia, Back to Playoff

An epic but improbable win.

The 2020 Crimson Tide football team was one for the ages. Alabama won its 6th championship under Nick Saban, cementing his legacy as the greatest coach in college football history. In a pandemic-shortened season that probably shouldn’t have happened, the team went undefeated through an all-SEC schedule and then dominated Notre Dame and Ohio State in the playoffs.

But that was a special collection of talent. DeVonta Smith, the second-best wide receiver on the roster at the start of the season, won the Heisman Trophy. His quarterback, Mac Jones, and running back Najee Harris were on the virtual stage with him. Those three and three others—the aforementioned better-than-the-Heisman winner wideout, Jaylen Waddle, who got injured early in the season, corner Patrick Surtain II, and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood went in the first round of the NFL draft. Offensive lineman Landon Dickerson and defensive tackle Christian Barmore went early in the second. That’s eight players in the first 38 picks of the draft.

While we had high hopes for this team, it’s hard to replace that many stars, including the heart of the offense. But, after a dominating 44-13 over a highly-ranked Miami team in the opener, we thought we hadn’t missed a beat. A close 31-29 win over Florida a couple weeks later gave us pause but they were a tough opponent. (They collapsed afterward, so much so that they fired their head coach.) And, after a 42-21 blowout over Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss team, we thought we were going to cruise to another title.

The next week, though, a tough road loss to Texas A&M brought us crashing to reality. While it ended 41-38, with the Aggies needing a last-second field goal to clinch the win, Bama had seemed lost most of the night. It ended a 100-game streak of wins over unranked opponents (although, ironically, they turned out to be a good–and ranked—team). It ended a ridiculously-long unblemished streak of Saban when facing teams coached by his former assistants. But, hey, maybe it was the wake-up call that the team needed to get into high gear.

Blowout 49-9 and 52-24 wins over Mississippi State and Tennessee followed, giving us the impression it had. Then, the team had a bye week before hosting an LSU Tigers team that had already fired its head coach. It took everything the team could muster to pull out a 20-14 victory, ending a ridiculously long string of games scoring 30 points or more. After blowing out a New Mexico State team we had no business playing, we limped to a 42-35 win against Arkansas and clinched the SEC West and a spot in the SEC Championship Game.

Then, Saban unleashed one of his epic rants. He called out “self-centered” fans for complaining about close wins. That this went against everything Saban had been preaching since arriving in Tuscaloosa—it’s about the Process, not the scoreboard—was immaterial. He was sending a message to his players that he had their back and knew they were working their tails off to win.

The next week, it took a comeback for the ages and four overtimes to knock off in-state rival Auburn, 24-22.

That set up yesterday evening’s game against Georgia, who was having its own magical season. Led by Kirby Smart, who was Alabama’s defensive coordinator for the first three of its Saban-era championships, it had dominated opponents with the best defense college football had seen in years. And its offense had steadily improved.

I had been telling people for weeks that I thought Bama had “a puncher’s chance” to win the game. But, if I’d had to bet my house on it, I’d have gone the other way. In a Zoom call yesterday morning with a gang of Alabama fans, I predicted a 27-24 win, but allowed it could easily go 27-24 the other way.

Instead, after falling behind 10-0 a play into the second quarter, Alabama put on a show. It completely dominated Georgia, putting up 41 points to the Bulldogs’ 24. First-year quarterback Bryce Young set new SEC Championship Game records and almost certainly locked up a Heisman of his own.

The selection committee is meeting as I write and will announce the bracket for the four-team Playoff that kicks off on New Year’s Eve at noon. Most expect Alabama to be the #1 seed and face #4 Cincinnati. Michigan and Georgia will likely be #2 and #3 but the order only determines which will be the nominal “home” team and select their jersey color. If that’s the way it lines up, the odds strongly favor an Alabama-Georgia rematch for the national championship in Indianapolis on January 10. Beating Georgia twice with everything on the line will be daunting, indeed. But I’m definitely not counting Saban and company out.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    Boosterism is you 🙂

    A nice distraction from our hellish world. And yes, Saban is the man.

  2. Mikey says:

    I think you mean Michigan and Georgia at 2 and 3, respectively.

    Don’t sell the Wolverines short. We may well see them meet Alabama for the national championship.

  3. James Joyner says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I pretty much relegate myself to posts when Bama wins the national championship but this was probably as excited I’ve been in back-to-back weeks in a long time. We’d gotten wound so tight that we were pissed off after solid wins. We hadn’t been an underdog since 2015—also against Georgia—and won that game and this one in blowouts.

    @Mikey: Typos fixed. Michigan is a really good team and I’m really happy Harbaugh, who’s a hell of a football coach and seems like a genuinely good dude, finally beat Ohio State and win the Big Ten. They’ve got a solid change against Georgia but I’d imagine the Bulldogs are anxious for redemption after last night.

  4. JohnMcC says:

    It’s always great when the home teams win. And real fans love their teams when they lose, too. And other lines that are cliches because they’re so close to true.

    I salute the Tide.

    JohnMcC, UT-K (’73)

  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    No need to excuse yourself. I’ve relatives and acquaintances who are big time boosters of schools from Boston College to Minnesota that contribute and raise lots of money for the programs. It brings them pleasure, keeps them in touch with old friends and likely helped their careers along.

    If they win the championship, consider changing your avatar to one wearing a bama cap.


  6. Michael Cain says:

    For the people who express concern at the lack of a broad national character to the playoff system, I’ll just note that when the next rankings come out (today? tomorrow?), it is likely that no Pac-12 team would make the playoffs even if the field were expanded to 12 teams.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Cain: The fact Oregon shat the bed in the title game didn’t help. But most of the expanded playoff scenarios guarantee the Power 5 champions a slot.

  8. Mister Bluster says:

    @Sleeping Dog:..If they win the championship, consider changing your avatar to one wearing a bama cap.

    Or Katie and Ellie in ‘Bama 2021 National Championship Tee Shirts would do just fine.

  9. Stormy Dragon says:

    We don’t have a college football playoff, we have a SEC invitational

  10. SC_Birdflyte says:

    Of course, in a fairy tale world, Cincinnati would upset Bama and then face the winner of Michigan-Georgia for the national title. Alas, fairy tales so seldom happen.

  11. Mister Bluster says:

    Alabama v Cincinnati
    Georgia v Michigan

    I’ll go with the Crimson Tide since James and his girls are the only ‘Bama fans that I know.

  12. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The SEC has been widely considered the best conference in college football for a number of years. But any four-team tournament culled from 130 teams that have disparate schedules is a beauty contest. This system has only been in place since 2014 and the SEC has never missed it and has had two entrants twice (2017 and 2021, Bama and Georgia in both cases). The ACC nominally had two entrants (Clemson and Notre Dame) last year.

    Of the 7 completed tournaments, Bama has won 3, Clemson 2, and Ohio State and LSU 1 apiece. That’s 4/7 SEC.

  13. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    The SEC has been widely considered the best conference in college football for a number of years.

    Is this because they’re actually better? Or because too many people in the system have a vested interest in creating the perception they do?

    e.g. Why is the “CFP Ranking Reveal Show” on ESPN, which owns 80% of the SEC network, instead of being released to all media sources simultaneously?

  14. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    There’s also a bigger problem in college football that certain schools are considered better simply based on their history and so their failures get ignored in a way other schools never do. Thus Alabama remains high enough in the rankings to stay in the playoff race after losing to an unranked school in a way another school would never get away with. Or, to burn down my own house, Penn State jumps over three better ranked Big Ten teams to go to a New Year’s day bowl game.

  15. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Alabama has played in 8 of the last 12 national championship games. It has won 6. In all but two instances, it won the SEC Championship Game. In no instance did it have more than one loss going into the game; often it had none.

    No Power 5 conference champion with 1 or fewer losses has missed the playoff.

  16. Stormy Dragon says:

    @James Joyner:

    You’re kinda making my point: how Alabama performed in past playoffs should be irrelevant to whether they deserve to be in this one. In the NFL right now, Washington is just out of playoff contention behind Philadephia. No one would go “well, really Washington should go instead, because they have a much better Super Bowl record than Philadelphia”.

    That’s how College Football should work: objective criteria on who goes and who does, not a bunch of hand-waving because some people in a telecon get misty thinking about a game 5 years ago)

  17. James Joyner says:

    @Stormy Dragon: The NFL has 32 teams. A systematic playoff is easy. There’s just no way to do it with 130 teams that play wildly disparate schedules. The game needs a super tier with maybe 64 teams. A 12- or 16-game playoff would work then. With the current configuration, though, you’d penalize the SEC and Big Ten for having superior talent.