ATLANTA — Just when all seemed lost — twice — a pair of freshmen helped Alabama produce one of the most improbable championship comebacks in its storied history Monday night.
On second-and-26, reserve quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a stunning 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith to give the fourth-seeded Crimson Tide a 26-23 overtime victory over third-seeded Georgia in the College Football Playoff national championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Alabama overcame a 20-7 third-quarter deficit and a potentially crushing missed field goal at the end of the fourth quarter. The Crimson Tide also had to come back in overtime after Georgia took a 23-20 lead on a 51-yard field goal by Rodrigo Blankenship.
The winning touchdown pass came one play after Georgia defenders Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss on Alabama’s first play in overtime.
“When they called the play, I looked at Tua and I said, ‘Trust me,’ ” said Smith, who caught the long pass in stride. “It was everybody making plays. No matter what receiver or what quarterback.”
Before a crowd of 77,430, including President Donald Trump, Alabama won its fifth championship in nine seasons and the sixth in the career of coach Nick Saban, who tied the total of Crimson Tide legend Paul “Bear” Bryant.
“Couldn’t believe it,” Saban said on the victory stand when asked for his thoughts on the winning touchdown during the trophy presentation. “I could not believe it.”
After a last-second loss to Clemson in last year’s championship game, Alabama (13-1) claimed its 17th title. “If you can’t overcome hard,” Saban said, “you’re never going to have any great victories in your life.”
For that to happen, the Tide had to benefit from the type of daring decision that will forever be viewed as a signature of the Saban era. Two years after a shocking onside kick helped the Tide take control of the championship game against Clemson, Saban removed struggling sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, who nearly led the Tide to a championship in a rematch against Clemson a year ago.
Tagovailoa, who played at the same Hawaii high school as Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, became the first freshman quarterback to win a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985. But Holieway became a starter during the season after Troy Aikman suffered a season-ending injury. Tagovailoa was sent in as Alabama faced a crisis.
The lefthanded Tagovailoa replaced Hurts at the start of the third quarter and passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, completing 14 of 24 attempts. In eight games as a reserve, his previous career highs had been nine completions, 12 attempts and 134 yards.
Hurts ran for 47 yards but completed only 3 of 8 passes for 21 yards.
“Coach brought the quarterbacks together and said that I was going to start the second half,” Tagovailoa said. “ . . . Our offensive line was blocking and working their butts off. They were the guys that made me look good tonight.”
Georgia (13-2) appeared to take control of the game when freshman Jake Fromm threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Mecole Hardman that gave the Bulldogs a 20-7 lead with 6:32 to play in the third quarter.
But one play after Tagovailoa threw an interception, the Tide got a break when Fromm’s pass was deflected by Da’Shawn Hand and intercepted by Raekwon Davis. That set up a 43-yard field goal by Andy Pappanastos that made it 20-10 with 5:15 left in the third quarter.
“All I know is that it hit my hand and I caught it,” Davis said. “It was crazy, but I did it . . . I did OK. I can’t say that I did an incredible job, but I did OK. We’re national champions!”
Pappanastos kicked a 30-yard field goal with 9:24 left in the fourth quarter and Tagovailoa threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley with 3:49 remaining. Pappanastos’ extra point tied it at 20-20.
Alabama had a chance to win in regulation time, but Pappanastos missed a 36-yard attempt on the final play of the fourth quarter.
Fromm, who became the starter in the second game of the season after an injury to sophomore Jacob Eason, completed 16 of 32 passes for 232 yards.
“They definitely played physical the entire game,” he said of the Tide. “At the end of the day, I think it was more of us and we just didn’t execute. We didn’t make a couple of plays there at the end. They played great and I thought we played pretty great.”