ATLANTA — Georgia coach Kirby Smart forced his former boss to make a decision that impacted more than Monday night’s national title game.
Nick Saban benched Jalen Hurts, winner of 25 games in his first 27 starts, for a true freshman.
Tua Tagovailoa made mistakes, but also made plays and did something Hurts couldn’t — lead Alabama to a win in the national title game.
Crimson Tide 26, Bulldogs 23.
Tagovailoa threw three touchdowns with the final one dropping right in the hands of freshman receiver DeVonta Smith for a 41-yard score in the first overtime to give Alabama its fifth national title in nine years under coach Nick Saban.
“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” Saban said. “Ever.”
Tagovailoa threw a pick, but made huge throws in going 14-of-24 passing for 166 yards, key runs and put to rest how good he is. His performance also left little doubt who should be the starter going into next season.
Hurts showed once again in the biggest game he’s limited as a passer. In replacing him, Tagovailoa showed why you need a talent like him at that position to win a national title.
Tagovailoa can ball. Saw it in the spring game. Saw it during the season. Saw it Monday night.
He bounced back from a three-and-out series to start the second half to led a touchdown drive he capped with a touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III. He hit Calvin Ridley on fourth-and-4 on a 7-yard score as Alabama tied the game 20-20 in the fourth.
He’s also a freshman. Saw it in the spring game. Saw it during the season. Saw it Monday night.
Tagovailoa was sacked, intercepted and missed Calvin Ridley on what would have been a big gain, if not a touchdown if he hits Ridley in stride.
He took a sack for minus-16 yards on Alabama’s first play in OT.
On the second play, Tagovailoa connected with Smith for the game-winner.
The players stormed the field and in one play, Tagovailoa became a hero for life in the state of Alabama.
There were reports that Tagovailoa was going to play in last week’s playoff semifinal game against top seed and defending national champion Clemson.
He didn’t as Hurts went 16-of-24 for 120 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions in a game the Tide defense controlled the game.
A week later, Alabama found itself down 13-0 at halftime with Hurts going just 3-of-8 for 21 yards that included him missing Ridley in the back of the end zone in the first quarter.
A connection there gives Alabama a 7-0 lead and possibly changes how Georgia plays. The Bulldogs instead forced a field goal that Andy Pappanastos missed from 40 yards out.
He had 47 rushing yards, but those designed runs weren’t impacting the game enough.
So Saban went the guy some Alabama fans have been calling for. The question is will he keep Tagovailoa his starter going into the 2018 season opener.
They’ll be a quarterback competition, but after seeing how things unfolded Monday night, Saban may have put himself in a position with the decision he made to keep Hurts on the sidelines.
Contact Montgomery Advertiser Sports Columnist Duane Rankin at email@example.com. Twitter: @DuaneRankin.