TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — A positive COVID-19 test ultimately couldn't keep Nick Saban off the Alabama sideline, and Georgia's heralded defense had scant hope of keeping the Crimson Tide's playmakers out of the end zone.
Mac Jones passed for 417 yards and four touchdowns as the second-ranked Tide picked apart No. 3 Georgia's heralded defense in the second half of a 41-24 victory Saturday night. It ended up being a decisive result in a collision of the Southeastern Conference's last remaining unbeaten teams.
The Tide (4-0), with Saban stalking the sideline after all, rallied with three touchdowns in a 10-minute span starting late in the third quarter. The nation's top scoring offense ultimately got the emphatic upper hand in a battle with the Bulldogs (3-1) and one of the nation's best defenses.
"This was an obvious great win against a very, very good football team," said Saban, who was cleared early in the day to coach at Bryant-Denny Stadium after a COVID-19 test from earlier in the week was ruled a false positive based on subsequent testing.
"I was very proud of the way our guys fought in the game. I sort of knew it was going to be a 15-round fight and we wouldn't be winning until the late rounds."
Georgia had no answer for Jones and star receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, especially with Alabama's own beleaguered defense grabbing two second-half interceptions and three overall. Freshman Malachi Moore had one at the goal line and returned it 42 yards.
Smith caught 11 passes for 167 yards and two touchdowns, including one in the fourth quarter that effectively put it out of reach. Waddle caught a 90-yard touchdown pass and gained 161 yards in all on six catches. Jones completed 24 of 32 passes and was strong after an interception on the opening play.
"The goal was just to win the game," Jones said. "You can look at their defense. They have good players in the secondary, they have good linebackers, they have good defensive linemen, but so do we."
Then there was some old-school, ground-and-pound football, too. Najee Harris gained 152 yards on 31 carries carries with a touchdown during that game-clinching span. He did it against the nation's top run defense, which came in allowing averages of 38 rushing yards and 12.3 points per game.
Stetson Bennett completed 18 of 40 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns, including an 82-yarder to James Cook, but he threw three interceptions.
Bennett was angry with himself over his mistakes, especially that final interception thrown across his body, calling it "just stupid."
"I was frustrated with myself," the former walk-on said.
Georgia led 24-20 deep into the third quarter and gained a solid 410 yards, but a defense that had been so suffocating more than met its match.
Alabama got a boost about seven hours before the game when the SEC cleared coach Saban to return to business of usual. He tested negative Thursday, Friday and Saturday, meeting the league's protocol.
"That was very emotional," he said.
Said Jones: "It was very crazy. We were in our little quarterback meeting, and he just showed up."
A maskless Saban was seen yelling at a referee after an intentional grounding call in the second quarter.
Alabama won the past six meetings with Georgia, including a 3-0 record against Saban's former defensive coordinator who is now the Bulldogs' head coach, Kirby Smart. The first two came in the College Football Playoff title game for the 2017 season and the SEC championship game the following season.
This was the first one that didn't go down to the wire. Georgia's defense allowed 564 yards.
"Just frustrated we couldn't get anything going in the second half, especially that opening drive," Smart said. "I thought we were going to be able to run the ball, and we stalled out and lost momentum after that point, especially after they hit the big long bomb to Waddle."
Saban is now 22-0 against his former assistants, and he will try to make it 23-0 next Saturday with a trip to Tennessee to face the Volunteers coached by Jeremy Pruitt, another former Tide defensive coordinator.
The Bulldogs left hoping for a rematch in the SEC championship game, certainly a strong possibility with Georgia still in charge in the East.
"That's what everybody was saying in the locker room," Bennett said. "Our destiny is still controlled by us. We win out, we'll be in the SEC championship. Everything is still ahead of us."