ATLANTA - For Alabama, it was sweet déjà vu.
For Georgia, it was, "Oh, no, not again."
Less than 11 months after Tua Tagovailoa replaced an ineffective Jalen Hurts at quarterback and guided the Crimson Tide over the Bulldogs in the national championship game of the 2017 season, Hurts replaced an injured Tagovailoa and rallied Alabama to a 35-28 victory in Saturday's scintillating Southeastern Conference title contest.
Hurts took the field before a packed house of 77,141 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium with 11 minutes and 15 seconds remaining and completed seven of nine passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. Four of his completions converted third-down opportunities, including his 10-yard touchdown throw to Jerry Jeudy with 5:19 left that knotted this classic at 28, and his 15-yard scoring run with 1:04 remaining gave the top-ranked Crimson Tide their first lead of the contest.
"I told him, 'This is your time,' and he took advantage of it," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "I've probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen."
Hurts, who went 26-2 as the starter during the 2016-17 seasons and guided the Crimson Tide to two appearances in the national championship game, reminded everyone of his dual-threat talents on his winning score.
"I had an option, so I had to find my movement key and see what would trigger the decision I would make," the 6-foot-2, 218-pound junior from Houston said. "My guy went out, so I took it in and had really good open lanes and found a way to get in the end zone."
Alabama improved to 13-0 and is certain to be the top seed in the College Football Playoff, which will be announced today at noon on ESPN. Georgia dropped to 11-2 and could be debated for the fourth and final spot along with Oklahoma, which improved to 12-1 Saturday with a 39-27 win over Texas in the Big 12 title game.
Tagovailoa injured his ankle in the first half and had his foot stepped on accidentally by left tackle Jonah Williams in the fourth quarter, which resulted in Hurts coming off the bench. Saban said Tagovailoa would be "out for a little while" but added that Alabama would not practice for a couple of weeks anyway.
The Tide's winning drive began at their 48-yard line after Georgia gained just 2 yards on a fake-punt attempt on fourth-and-11 from midfield. Georgia backup quarterback Justin Fields was used as an up back and was supposed to throw the ball, but he ran and was stuffed quickly by Anfernee Jennings.
"We were going to snap the ball quick, but we took too long to snap the ball," Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart said. "They didn't have a guy covered. We had a guy wide open, but we took so long to snap it that they recognized it and got the guy covered late.
"We came to win the game. We wanted to win the game."
Fields explained afterward that his receiver was covered and that "there was nowhere to go." Georgia special teams coach Scott Fountain said the Bulldogs have practiced that fake with Fields for nearly a year.
When Saban was asked about the fake attempt, he said the Tide were in punt safe, so their defense was still on the field.
"Most of the time, when you leave your defense out there, you can defend most of the fakes, and our guys did a good job," Saban said. "It was a big play in the game, because it gave us really good field position."
Alabama posted the largest comeback in SEC title-game history, rallying from 14-point deficits at 21-7 and 28-14. The Tide's win overshadowed a stellar performance by Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns.
His third touchdown toss, a 23-yarder to Riley Ridley at the 12:39 mark of the third quarter, put the Bulldogs up 28-14.
Alabama's first possession of the game started at Georgia's 29-yard line following a 36-yard punt return by Jaylen Waddle, but a first-and-goal from the 6 turned disastrous when Tagovailoa threw incomplete, took an 11-yard sack and was intercepted at the goal line by safety Richard LeCounte. LeCounte returned the ball to Georgia's 45-yard line, but a block-in-the-back penalty brought it back to the 19.
The Tide went three-and-out on their second possession, with tight end Irv Smith dropping a potential huge gain across midfield, and the Bulldogs capitalized with a seven-play, 60-yard drive and took a 7-0 lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from Fromm to Isaac Nauta with 3:08 left in the first quarter.
Georgia held its 7-0 lead after the first quarter, marking the first time Alabama had trailed in any quarter this season, but the Tide pulled even on the first play of the second quarter when a 1-yard touchdown run by Josh Jacobs capped an eight-play, 75-yard drive. The Bulldogs countered by reeling off the next 14 points, including D'Andre Swift's 9-yard scoring run that capped a 13-play drive that consumed seven minutes and 19 seconds.
Swift's 11-yard touchdown reception from Fromm with 4:05 to go before halftime extended Georgia's lead to 21-7, but the surprising gap didn't last long, as Jacobs broke free for a 59-yard run that set up his second 1-yard score and pulled the Tide within 21-14 at the break.
After Alabama went three-and-out to open the third quarter and Fromm and Ridley connected to make it 28-14, things didn't look good for the Crimson Tide. As it turned out, all they needed was their backup quarterback.
"It was eerily similar to last year," Nauta said. "It was kind of odd to watch from the sideline."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.