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Six True Freshmen Spark Saban’s Sixth Title

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Prior to the 1972-73 academic year, true freshmen were ineligible to play college football, instead confined to the sideline as a form of a mandatory redshirt season. 45 years later, six true freshmen propelled Alabama to their fifth national title in nine years, and sixth overall for head coach Nick Saban.

Prior to the 1972-73 academic year, true freshmen were ineligible to play college football, instead confined to the sideline as a form of a mandatory redshirt season. 45 years later, six true freshmen propelled Alabama to their fifth national title in nine years, and sixth overall for head coach Nick Saban.

As some things change, some things never change.

Georgia appeared well on its way to snapping its 37-year national championship drought Monday night in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Atlanta, racing to a 13-0 halftime lead and a 20-7 edge midway through the third quarter. The ‘Dawgs defense was relentless, and a true freshman of their own, quarterback Jake Fromm, was playing unflappable football against the most intimidating defense in the sport.

Alabama had even benched its former All-SEC quarterback, as sophomore Jalen Hurts finished an ineffective first half just 3-of-8 for 21 yards. The Crimson Tide needed a spark, and it got it, in the form of not one, not two, but six true freshmen.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa got things started, conducting a masterful eight-play drive on the team’s second possession of the third quarter, connecting with classmate Henry Ruggs on three consecutive passes – the last of which a six-yard strike to cut the Georgia lead to 13-7.

If Hurts was seen as the most important player on the Alabama offense coming into the game, the second might have been All-SEC left tackle Jonah Williams. After struggling against Georgia’s edge rushers, Williams left the game with a leg injury in the third quarter. In came true freshman Alex Leatherwood, who stabilized the Alabama front, which helped the team gain nearly 300 yards after halftime.

Trailing 20-10 with under 12 minutes to play, Alabama was backed up against inside its own 30-yard line. Time was of the essence for the first time all night, and rather than handing the ball to veterans Damien Harris or Bo Scarbrough, Saban and his staff rolled the dice with true freshman tailback Najee Harris, who had just 55 carries in the team’s first 13 games. Harris promptly broke off runs of 16 and 35 yards in a span of four plays to put Alabama in scoring position. An Andy Pappanastos field goal brought Alabama within one score for the first time in the second half with nine minutes to go.

The ‘Bama babies weren’t done yet. A quick Georgia three-and-out gave Alabama the ball back needing a touchdown to level the game with seven minutes remaining. The most highly regarded of the Tide’s 2017 signing class had been relatively quiet all night, but Jerry Jeudy wasn’t going to stay silent any longer. Jeudy came up with a critical 20-yard reception to move Alabama into the red zone. A fourth-down touchdown pass four plays later from Tagovailoa to, gasp, an upperclassman – wide receiver Calvin Ridley – brought the Crimson Tide even.

Harris added an 11-yard run after another defensive stop, helping the Tide reach field-goal range in the final minute. Fortunately for Pappanastos, his game-winning field goal attempt as time expired in regulation that went as wide as a six-lane Atlanta interstate became a footnote in the story of this game, as his young teammates came through to bail him out in overtime.

A Georgia field goal gave Alabama a chance to win with a touchdown, but Tagovailoa made his only big mistake of the night, getting sacked for a 16-yard loss on the first play of Alabama’s overtime possession. One play later, the game was over.

Tagovailoa, using the short memory required of any successful quarterback, found, you guessed it, a true freshman, this time wide receiver DeVonta Smith, in stride on a streak route down the left sideline for a 41-yard touchdown.

Ballgame.

Just like that, Alabama had stolen the national championship from Georgia, a program known for having its hand slapped over and over just as it was reaching into the cookie jar, in a city whose professional team is just 11 months removed from seeing a 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl evaporate in an overtime defeat.

Tom Brady crushed the souls of many Georgians last February. A sextet of Alabama players less than half of Brady’s age did the same to the state’s flagship university on Monday night.

It was a historic night for Saban, matching Paul “Bear” Bryant with six national titles, more than any other coach to ever stroll the sidelines. It wouldn’t have happened without his true freshmen, however, who, less than a half-century ago, wouldn’t even have been eligible to play this season.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.