INDIANAPOLIS — Georgia won its first national championship since 1980 behind a quarterback who some wanted benched earlier in the season and a hard-hitting, stifling defense that refused to let up.
Stetson Bennett shook off a questionable call to throw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, lifting the Bulldogs to a 33-18 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game before 68,311 at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Bennett’s 40-yard touchdown pass to Adonai Mitchell with 8:09 remaining put Georgia ahead to stay 19-18. Then, after a Georgia defensive stop, Bennett found tight end Brock Bowers on a 15-yard touchdown pass with 3:13 remaining.
Georgia sealed the win when Alabama quarterback Bryce Young threw his second interception, which freshman Georgia defensive back Kelee Ringo returned 79 yards for a TD with 54 seconds remaining.
The much-maligned Bennett, who threw three interceptions in Georgia’s 41-24 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game last month, completed 17 of 26 passes for 224 yards and two TDs to earn offensive player of the game honors. Zamir White added 84 yards rushing and one TD for the Bulldogs (14-1).
Georgia coach Kirby Smart picked up his first win in five tries against his mentor, Alabama coach Nick Saban, and avenged an overtime loss to Saban and Alabama in the 2017 CFP title game. Smart was defensive coordinator at Alabama from 2008-15 before taking the Georgia job.
“You are so proud of your players,” Smart said. “You look at 41 years, you are playing for the fans, but most of all you are playing for the young men in that locker room. Someone told me that before the game, and that really touched me. That’s what it’s all about.”
Alabama (13-2) was unable to repeat as national champion. Young, who won the Heisman Trophy last month, completed 35 of 57 passes for 369 yards with one TD and two interceptions. Georgia’s defense made Alabama one-dimensional, holding the Tide to 42 yards rushing while recording eight tackles for loss and three sacks.
“I have tremendous respect for Kirby,” Saban said. “If I was to lose a national championship game, I would want to lose to a former assistant who did a great job for us.”
Bennett overcame a controversial call in the fourth quarter, when he was ruled to have fumbled the ball when his arm appeared to go forward while avoiding a sack. Replay review upheld the decision of the officials, allowing Alabama to take over at Georgia’s 16-yard line.
“All year we’ve been talking about resiliency, staying connected,” Bennett said. “I knew if our guys had my back, I was going to have theirs.”
It took just four plays after the fumble for Alabama to score its first touchdown, a 3-yard TD pass from Young to tight end Cameron Latu that put the Tide up 18-13 with 10:14 remaining.
Alabama, already down leading receiver John Metchie, lost second-leading receiver Jameson Williams to a knee injury in the first half. Williams and Metchie combined for 23 of Alabama’s 47 receiving TDs on the season. Saban said Williams will undergo an MRI later this week to reveal the extent of the injury. Williams wanted to play in the second half, but Saban said the medical staff wouldn’t clear him.
“Jamo is a great player, and any time you lose a player of his ability it’s going to have an impact,” Saban said.
The sea of red-clad Georgia fans and crimson-clad Alabama fans arrived at the stadium gates on a chilly evening more than three hours before kickoff. Georgia fans, eager to witness the school’s first national championship in more than 40 years, outnumbered Alabama fans close to 2-1 inside the stadium.
“Dawg Nation showed up here with tremendous belief,” Smart said.
Smart leaned over the railing to celebrate with fans postgame, then kissed the CFP trophy as confetti fell over him.
“There’s going to be some property torn up in Indianapolis tonight, baby!” Smart told the crowd, stealing a line legendary Georgia radio play-by-play announcer Larry Munson used following the 1980 Florida-Georgia game.
Later, Smart hugged 89-year-old former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, who was in attendance. Dooley guided Georgia to its previous national title in 1980.
The game began with another controversial call. On the fourth play of Alabama’s opening drive, Young appeared to lose the ball on a strip sack by Jordan Davis, which was recovered by linebacker Nakobe Dean and returned 37 yards for a called touchdown. But the play was overturned and changed to an incomplete pass because it was ruled Young’s arm was going forward when he lost it.
Alabama continued on a 14-play, 56-yard drive, which ended with a 37-yard Will Reichard field goal that put the Tide up 3-0.
After going three-and-out in its first two drives, Georgia solved Alabama’s defense on its third possession. Bennett connected with George Pickens on a 52-yard pass, with Pickens making a diving grab of the well-timed bomb downfield, which energized the Georgia faithful.
The Bulldogs continued the drive into the red zone but were unable to get into the end zone on first-and-goal from the 8, settling for a Jack Podlesny field goal that tied the score 3-3 with 12:35 left in the second quarter.
On Alabama’s next drive, Young found Williams downfield for a 40-yard catch. But at the end of the play, Williams’ knee buckled on the turf, forcing him out of the game. After the injury, Alabama continued the drive, but a costly false start penalty on a third-and-1 moved the Tide back, resulting in the drive stalling at Georgia’s 28-yard line. Reichard connected on his second field goal, from 47 yards, to put the Tide back up 6-3.
After a Georgia three-and-out, Young connected on another big play for Alabama, a 61-yard pass on a catch-and-run by Latu down to Georgia’s 8-yard line. But Georgia’s defense stiffened inside Alabama’s 10-yard line. Latu dropped a potential touchdown pass on second-and-goal from the 6. Then, on third down, Georgia linebacker Channing Tindall came on a blitz, sacking Young for a 15-yard loss. Reichard was summoned again and connected on his third field goal of the half, from 37 yards, which put Alabama up 9-3.
“It’s my job to get the ball into the end zone, and I wasn’t able to do that tonight,” Young said of Alabama’s red-zone struggles.
Georgia responded with a nine-play, 34-yard drive, on which Bennett connected for passes over the middle to Kenny McIntosh for 10 yards and Mitchell for 10 yards. It ended with a 49-yard field goal from Podlesny, which cut Alabama’s lead to 9-6 with 3:58 left in the half.
After forcing Alabama to punt on its next defensive series, Georgia was content to go into halftime trailing 9-6, which drew some boos from Bulldog fans. Smart decided to run the ball four straight times on a Georgia drive that started at its own 10-yard line. With Georgia facing a third-and-5, Alabama called timeout with 22 seconds left, but Georgia converted the first down with a 10-yard run from White, then ran out the clock.
Alabama had a chance to pad its lead late in the first quarter, after driving 69 yards from its own 2-yard line to the Georgia 28. But Reichard’s fourth field goal attempt, from 48 yards, was blocked by Georgia’s Jared Carter, keeping the score at 9-6.
Georgia took advantage of the momentum, with running back James Cook racing 67 yards on the next play down to the Alabama 13-yard line. The Bulldogs needed just four plays to score the game’s first touchdown, with White plunging in from a yard out to put Georgia up 13-9 with 1:20 left in the third quarter.
Alabama put together a 10-play, 72-yard drive, but failed to score inside Georgia’s 10-yard line, settling for a 21-yard field goal from Reichard that cut Georgia’s lead to 13-12 with 12:57 remaining.
“Really it was the defense that won the game for us,” Bennett said. “We were bumbling around for most of the first half and to start the second half before finally putting together some drives at the end.”