ATLANTA — Most of the time in November, Alabama barely held on. It started December by routing Georgia, the nation’s top-ranked team.
And Alabama, the reigning national champion suddenly cast into an underdog’s existence after escaping three games last month by a touchdown or less, gave itself another chance to contend for a repeat title.
Georgia, its nationally sterling defense dented Saturday in ways not seen this season, will almost certainly be in the field, too, when the final College Football Playoff rankings are announced on Sunday. It will just not be there as the Southeastern Conference champion, that potential squandered time and again during an evening that ended with an Alabama win, 41-24.
For the No. 3 Crimson Tide, it was a victory plenty of its faithful had figured would not come, not after it took four overtimes to beat Auburn, not after Alabama wheezed to a win over an Arkansas team that Georgia had held scoreless.
For Georgia, which has not beaten Alabama since 2007, it was a bruising comeuppance and a blemish on a shining autumn for big teams in its state. After all, almost every savant, soothsayer or mildly observant Atlanta sports fan of the last quarter-century had figured the Braves would flame out well before winning the World Series.
Ordinarily mighty, but oftentimes this season teetering toward ordinary, Alabama appeared ripe to become a trophy, too.
Georgia scored first, with a 38-yard field goal just more than midway through the first quarter. The early advantage felt like a prelude to more. A tight end, Brock Bowers, had turned a leap into an 18-yard gain. James Cook and Zamir White had contributed 34 yards on the ground. But the quarterback, Stetson Bennett, had taken a pummeling of a sack on third down in the red zone.
Georgia found a dose of offensive wizardry late on its next drive. Bennett, a few steps behind the 50, unleashed a throw with enough of an arc for George Pickens, a wide receiver, to have time to swivel back toward the thicket. He leapt and landed on his back with the ball, 37 yards closer to an interim prize.
A 5-yard touchdown catch two plays later by Darnell Washington gave Georgia a 10-point lead — the kind of deficit that Nick Saban’s Alabama has only sporadically faced.
In the second quarter’s opening seconds, a game that plenty envisioned could be a Georgia blowout seemed on the brink of becoming that.
The Georgia kickoff went for a touchback. The Alabama drive was soon threatening to sputter, but Jameson Williams lurked, his fearsome speed twitching within just a week after his ejection for targeting on a punt during a rivalry game at Auburn. He raced toward midfield, into the crook of the “C” on the SEC logo, as Bryce Young, the quarterback and Heisman Trophy contender, looked for an option and a hope.
Williams’s eyes lurched from backfield to end zone as the ball arrived. He cut across the field, steering toward the goal line’s pylon. A defensive back gave chase but could be forgiven for concluding by about the 15, and quite possibly sooner, that it would be a fruitless pursuit.
He was a few yards behind as Williams danced in for a touchdown. Williams had gone 67 yards on the play, more than Alabama’s offensive production in the whole of the first quarter. The entire possession had lasted 44 seconds.
The two-score game had shriveled to one.
Georgia responded with a three-and-out.
And so not even 90 seconds after it had started to silence much of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, about 70 miles from Georgia’s campus, Alabama’s offense swaggered back to the field beneath the bright lights.
Georgia’s defensive fortress tried to regroup, but quickly crumbled.
But that is somewhat unfair. Football teams are only sometimes asked to defend plays more often seen on basketball courts.
Faced with a swarm of white-clad Bulldogs, Young tucked his head and stormed ahead. Just before the line of scrimmage, he looked to the right and spied Brian Robinson Jr. He flipped Robinson the ball.
Georgia surrendered 13 yards on the play. It was lucky no Bulldog turned an ankle.
A rush that picked up a yard set Alabama on Georgia’s 13. Never mind that John Metchie III had a pair of shadows as he darted across the end zone. Young tried him anyway.
Add another touchdown. In less than five minutes, Alabama had gone from being shutout to semifinal lock. Alabama fans think that way. (So do plenty of Georgia fans.)
Another Georgia three-and-out did nothing to dim whatever riot was inevitably starting to bubble up in Tuscaloosa. An Alabama field goal pushed the Tide lead to seven, and Young transformed into a tailback for a rushing touchdown just before halftime.
Alabama led, 24-17, at the break. That is what happens when you find 319 yards in 15 minutes, when your quarterback sets an SEC championship game record for first-half passing yards.
In a suboptimal arrangement for Georgia, Alabama got the ball first after the intermission and in the second half, cemented its rout with highlight reel touchdowns, including another catch by Williams and an interception by Jordan Battle that was returned 42 yards into the end zone.
Bowers helped Georgia narrow its daunting margin somewhat with a touchdown with just less than 10 minutes to play.
But Alabama had already summoned its magic, dark or otherwise. Georgia’s losing streak against Saban, whose team would add a field goal a little later, would stick at least a while longer.
The only mystery left was when, or whether, the teams might meet in the playoff.