Atlanta — Jalen Hurts spent most of the season watching from the sideline, cheering on the guy who took his job and hoping for one more chance to lead the Alabama Crimson Tide.
He didn’t pout. He didn’t gripe. He didn’t transfer.
On Saturday, Hurts got the call.
Boy, did he respond.
Hurts threw for one touchdown and ran for another with just over a minute to go, rallying No. 1 Alabama to a 35-28 victory over No. 4 Georgia in the Southeastern Conference championship game. It was a stunning twist on the scenario that played out less than 11 months earlier on the very same field.
“I’ve probably never been more proud of a player than Jalen,” coach Nick Saban said.
If they had pitched this script to Hollywood, it would’ve been laughed out of the room for being too implausible. In last season’s national title game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, between these same teams, Tua Tagovailoa replaced an ineffective Hurts at the start of the second half with Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0. The replacement threw three touchdown passes, including a 41-yarder in overtime that gave the Tide a stunning 26-23 victory.
Tagovailoa won the starting job outright heading into this season and performed brilliantly before Saturday, throwing 36 touchdown passes with only two interceptions.
The SEC title game took a different path. Georgia put quite a beating on Tagovailoa, who was picked off twice, spent much of his spare time in the medical tent and was largely ineffective as the Bulldogs built a pair of two-touchdown leads.
Finally, with just over 11 minutes remaining, Tagovailoa went down for good after one of his own linemen stepped on his right foot as he attempted to throw.
Enter Hurts, who posted a 26-2 record as the starter before Tagovailoa claimed the job.
He calmly guided the Crimson Tide (13-0, No. 1 CFP) to a tying touchdown with a 10-yard pass to Jerry Jeudy, capping a 16-play, 80-yard drive that consumed more than 7 minutes .
After Georgia (11-2, No. 4 CFP) was stuffed on a fake punt near midfield , Hurts took matters into his own hands for the winning score. Spotting an opening up the middle, he took off on a 15-yard TD run with 1:04 remaining .
“It’s unprecedented to have a guy that won as many games as he won … start as a freshman, only lose a couple of games the whole time that he was the starter, and then all of a sudden he’s not the quarterback,” Saban said. “How do you manage that? How do you handle that? You’ve got to have a tremendous amount of class and character to put team first, knowing your situation is not what it used to be.”
Hurts completed 7 of 9 passes for 82 yards, to go with five carries for 28 yards in less than a quarter of action.
“It kind of feels like I’m breaking my silence,” Hurts said.
He spoke loud and clear against the Bulldogs. And when he trotted off the field after the winning TD, Tagovailoa was one of the first teammates to greet him. Afterward, they stood side-by-side on the podium in the middle of the field while Alabama received its SEC championship trophy.
“When he went into the game,” linebacker Mack Wilson said, “I was telling Dylan Moses, ‘Man, it’s like deja vu.’ I was like, ‘Watch him go in and bring us back and win the game.’ I knew he was going to do that and I’m pretty sure everybody else did, too.”
The Crimson Tide is headed back to the College Football Playoff, looking for its second straight national title and the sixth of the last decade under Saban.
“I know at Alabama, there’s always an opportunity to win,” Hurts said. “I’m so happy, so happy for everybody.”
Georgia can make a pretty good case for the playoff, too, but the Bulldogs will likely get left out. Big 12 champion Oklahoma avenged its only loss by beating Texas, and No. 6 Ohio State still had a chance to make its case in the Big Ten title game.
This was another galling loss for Saban’s former assistant, Kirby Smart. He’s quickly built Georgia into a national powerhouse, but he keeps coming up short against his ex-boss.
For the second time in less than a year, the Bulldogs squandered a double-digit lead to the Crimson Tide. While this one didn’t end with the suddenness of that national title game, it hurt just as bad. The Bulldogs had another chance to knock off the team that had been No. 1 in the polls all season.
“With a team like that, you’ve got to be able to put them way because they keep hanging on,” Georgia tight end Isaac Nauta said. “They’ve been doing it for a lot of years.”
No. 2 Clemson 42, Pittsburgh 10: At Charlotte, North Carolina, Travis Etienne ran for 156 yards and two touchdowns, Trevor Lawrence threw two short scoring passes to Tee Higgins and Clemson became the first team to win four straight Atlantic Coast Conference championships. Clemson (13-0, CFP No. 2) is expected to face third-ranked Notre Dame, which was idle Saturday, in the College Football Playoffs on Dec. 29.
The Tigers ran for 301 yards and four touchdowns and averaged 9 yards per carry on a dreary, rain-soaked night in which Lawrence was limited to 118 yards passing.
Clemson forced three turnovers, including two in the first half that gave the offense the ball inside the Pitt 10 and led to 14 points. The Tigers limited Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett to 8 yards passing and had nine tackles for a loss.
The Tigers joined the Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators (1993-96) as the only Power Five teams to win four straight conference titles. The historic win comes exactly 10 years after Dabo Swinney was hired as Clemson head coach.
The Tigers entered the game as a 27 1/2-point favorite and Swinney’s team looked as if it would put Pitt away early after Etienne scored on his first two carries.
The ACC player of the year took a handoff on the first play from scrimmage, ran to the right, cutback and raced 75 yards for his 20th touchdown of the season – the quickest TD in the conference championship history. He added a second scoring run a few minutes later after Isaiah Simmons stripped Pickett of the ball and Christian Wilkins return it to the Pitt 3.
Etienne had 78 yards on his first two carries, equaling Clemson’s rushing total from last year’s ACC title game win over Miami.
Pitt (7-6) would show signs of life though, scoring 10 straight points behind a 1-yard TD run by Qadree Ollison to cut the lead to 14-10.
But the Panthers, which had a knack for upsetting No. 2-ranked teams under coach Pat Narduzzi – they upset Clemson in 2016 and Miami in the 2017 regular season finale – ran out of magic.
Lawrence found his fellow freshman Higgins on TD passes of 5 and 10 in the second quarter, the latter coming after a 38-yard interception return by A.J. Terrell, to take a 28-10 lead at halftime. Adam Choice and Lyn-J Dixon added fourth quarter touchdown runs for the Tigers.
Big 12 Championship
No. 5 Oklahoma 39, No. 9 Texas 27: At Arlington, Texas, Kyler Murray threw for 379 yards and three touchdowns and Oklahoma beat Texas in the Big 12 championship game, with the Sooners avenging their only loss and making their case for a return to the College Football Playoff.
Murray, the Heisman Trophy-contending dual-threat quarterback, threw two TD passes to Grant Calcaterra. That included an impressive 18-yard score on a third-and-10 play with two minutes left as the Sooners (12-1, No. 5 CFP) won their seventh consecutive game despite being held to fewer than 40 points for the first time in nine games.
Sam Ehlinger was 23-of-36 passing for 349 yards with two touchdowns, and ran for two scores for Texas (9-4), but his final pass was picked off by Tre Norwood at the 1 in the final minute.
Oklahoma is the first Power Five team to win four consecutive outright conference titles since Florida in the SEC in the mid-1990s.
The Sooners went ahead to stay on Austin Seibert’s third field goal, a 31-yarder with 12:37 left that was good after ricocheting off the top of the left upright to make it 30-27.
Two plays after Oklahoma’s only turnover, when receiver CeeDee Lamb fumbled inside the 10 after a 54-yard catch-and-run with nine minutes left, the Sooners got points anyway. Cornerback Tre Brown sacked Ehlinger in the end zone for a safety.
The 114th meeting between the Red River rivals was their first in a championship game – and the first time since 1903 they had played twice in the same season. Every game since 1929 had been played about 20 miles away at the State Fair of Texas, where the Longhorns beat Oklahoma 48-45 eight weeks ago.
No. 7 UCF 56, Memphis 41: At Orlando, Florida, Darriel Mack shrugged off two early turnovers to rush for three second-half touchdowns and rally UCF past Memphis in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
With the red-shirt freshman filling in for injured McKenzie Milton, the Knights (12-0, No. 8 CFP) won their second straight league title and extended the nation’s longest winning streak to 25 games.
Mack also threw for 348 yards and two TDs without an interception.
Greg McCrae ran for 206 yards and a TD for the Knights, who beat the Tigers 62-55 in the 2017 AAC title game and rallied from a 16-point second-half deficit to win 31-30 at Memphis in the regular season.
This time, UCF trailed 38-21 at halftime before scoring touchdowns on five straight possessions in the second half. Darrell Henderson scored on runs of 62, 12 and 82 yards and also throw a 4-yard TD pass to help Memphis (8-5) build its big halftime lead. But the nation’s second-leading rusher only gained 3 yards on six carries in the second half, finishing with 210 yards on 16 carries.
Mountain West Championship
No. 24 Fresno State 19, (at) No. 19 Boise State 16: Ronnie Rivers scored on a 1-yard run in overtime. Fresno State (11-2, No. 25 CFP) won its first conference title since 2013, beating the Broncos (10-3, No. 22 CFP) on their blue turf for the first time in 10 tries.
Rivers scored after Boise State’s Haden Hoggarth made a 23-yard field goal on the opening overtime possession.
Boise State’s seven-game winning streak ended, and both teams’ dreams of crashing the New Year’s Six bowl games died when UCF beat Memphis to complete a perfect season.
With the temperature in the 30s and a constant mix of snow and rain falling, both teams struggled to sustain anything offensively.
An opportunistic Fresno State struck first, turning Brett Rypien’s fumble into a touchdown when Marcus McMaryion hit Michiah Quick on a 15-yard strike,
Rypien atoned for his mistake by driving Boise State and hitting Sean Modster on a 10-yard scoring play to tie it.
The Bulldogs cobbled together a 13-7 lead on Asa Fuller’s field goals in the second and third quarters.
With 8:01 left, Boise State’s Alexander Mattison ripped off a 34-yard run, muscling his way into the end zone with a defender draped on his back. However, Hoggarth’s extra point attempt was blocked by Matt Boetang, leaving it tied.
McMaryion was 20 of 32 for 170 yards and one touchdown, and Rivers led the Bulldogs on the ground with 63 yards. Mattison rushed for 200 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries for the Boise State. Rypien threw for 125 yards, completing 15 of 31 passes with one touchdown.
Boise State’s last overtime game at home was a 69-67 victory over Nevada on Oct. 14, 2007.
(At) No. 24 Iowa State 27, Drake 24: David Montgomery ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns and Iowa State barely survived a near-upset by non-scholarship FCS school Drake.
Brock Purdy had 153 yards passing and a TD for the Cyclones (8-4), who fought through persistent rain and a sloppy field to win their sixth straight home game, tying a school record.
The Bulldogs (7-4) forced turnovers on back-to-back possessions to open the second half. They turned the second one, a pick of Kyle Kempt’s pass, into a 19-yard TD pass from Grant Kraemer to Devin Cates and a 24-20 lead in the third quarter. Iowa State responded with a 7-yard touchdown reception by Deshaunte Jones to jump back on top, and Spencer Benton and JaQuan Bailey came up with sacks to force Drake punts. Montgomery’s 2-yard run on a third-down-and-1 with 1:26 left sealed it.
Kraemer threw for 221 yards and three TDs. Drake outgained Iowa State 279-273.