Second-half surge lifts Georgia to first national title since 1980

Georgia's Stetson Bennett celebrates after the College Football Playoff championship football game against Alabama Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, in Indianapolis. Georgia won 33-18. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

College football has a new top dog.

The Georgia Bulldogs ended a national championship drought that had surpassed four decades by finally overcoming Alabama in a sluggish-turned-thrilling 33-18 victory before 68,311 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Stetson Bennett's 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell with 8:09 remaining put Georgia up 19-18, and the vaunted Bulldogs defense that was torched by the Crimson Tide in last month's Southeastern Conference championship contest got its biggest three-and-out of the season.

Georgia then began pounding Zamir White up the middle before Bennett connected with tight end Brock Bowers for a 15-yard touchdown and a 27-19 lead with 3:33 left. Euphoria wasn't sealed for the Bulldogs, however, until Keelee Ringo intercepted a Bryce Young pass and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown with 54 seconds to play.

"This is a special moment for the University of Georgia and a special moment for this team," Georgia coach Kirby Smart told ESPN immediately after the game. "I hope it doesn't take that long again."

(READ MORE: Georgia expecting roster turnover, but as a national champion)

Georgia's triumph ended a seven-game losing streak to Alabama and clinched the program's second Associated Press national championship and the first since 1980. The Bulldogs finished their memorable season with a 14-1 record, the most single-season wins in program history, and sent their senior class out with 45 triumphs, which also set a school mark.

Bennett completed 17 of 26 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. He was not intercepted after throwing five in his last two games against Alabama.

"I wasn't going to be the reason we lost tonight," Bennett told ESPN.

The Crimson Tide (13-2) were seeking a seventh national title in Nick Saban's 15 seasons and will forever wonder what might have been had junior receiver Jameson Williams not suffered a knee injury on a 40-yard catch early in the second quarter. Alabama was already playing without junior receiver John Metchie, who tore his ACL in the SEC championship, and Williams entered Monday with 1,507 yards and had 65 more on four catches before going down.

When asked by ESPN at halftime about what was left of his receiver position, Saban said, "They don't have the experience, but they're going to get it tonight." Alabama's youth at that spot showed in the second half, as the Crimson Tide had no answers to combat Georgia's closing surge.

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The Crimson Tide did take an 18-13 lead with 10:14 remaining on Young's 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Cameron Latu. Latu's score capped a 16-yard drive that was set up by Christian Harris causing a Bennett fumble that Brian Branch recovered.

Monday's game had been dominated by field goals until James Cook's 67-yard run to Alabama's 13-yard line with three minutes remaining in the third quarter set up White's 1-yard touchdown run 13-9 lead. Alabama drove to Georgia's 3-yard line with its ensuing possession before settling on a 21-yard Will Reichard field goal.

Alabama had a 14-play drive to open the game that covered 56 yards and reached Georgia's 19-yard line before Reichard connected on a 37-yard field goal to give the Crimson Tide a 3-0 lead. The biggest play of the inaugural drive was a Young incompletion, which replays showed after officials initially ruled that Jordan Davis sacked Young, causing a fumble that linebacker Nakobi Dean scooped up and returned for a lengthy touchdown.

(READ MORE: Top Dogs: Georgia celebrates title, looks ahead to 2022)

The Bulldogs were shaky on their opening possession, with Bennett getting sacked by Harris for a 14-yard loss and then recovering his own potentially disastrous fumble before committing a delay of game penalty.

Georgia went three-and-out on its first two possessions, and the Bulldogs began their third drive on their own 8-yard line. Tight end Darnell Washington's 9-yard reception out to the 19 resulted in Georgia's initial first down of the night, and that was immediately followed by a 52-yard connection from Bennett to George Pickens to the Alabama 29.

The play to Pickens was the big gain of an 11-play, 87-yard drive that ended in a Jack Podlesny 24-yard field goal that knotted the score with 12:35 remaining in the second quarter.

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.