INDIANAPOLIS — Georgia‘s agonizing 41-year wait is over.
With 54 seconds left in Monday night’s College Football Playoff National Championship Presented by AT&T, Georgia cornerback Kelee Ringo intercepted Alabama quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young and returned it 79 yards for a touchdown — the longest pick-six in championship game history — cementing the No. 3 Bulldogs’ 33-18 win over the No. 1 Crimson Tide and the program’s first national championship since 1980.
The play brought Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, a former walk-on, to tears on the sideline, and as soon as the clock expired, Georgia’s assistant coaches and staff bolted to the elevators in the shaking press box at Lucas Oil Stadium, with one yelling, “Hell yeah!” as they thundered out cheering together.
On the field, coach Kirby Smart said he hugged 89-year-old Vince Dooley’s neck — the last coach at Georgia before Smart to win the national title — and they were both in tears.
“I told the guys in the locker room, just take a picture of this, because I think back to the ’80 championship picture and seeing all those players and the Frank Walkers and the Herschel Walkers and all these people that have reached out and said things,” Smart said. “Our guys have accomplished that, something special, and as they say, they’ve become legendary, and I want that for them.”
Georgia fans lingered longer following the trophy presentation, chanting “Kir-by! Kir-by! Kir-by!” as the players and coaches celebrated on the field in an explosion of glittering confetti.
“I hadn’t cried in — I don’t know, years — but that just came over me,” said Bennett, who overcame a slow start to lead the Bulldogs’ fourth-quarter charge and was named the offensive player of the game. “That’s what — when you put as much time as we do into this thing, blood, sweat, tears, it means something.”
While it was a familiar matchup featuring two teams that faced each other in the 2018 national title game and again in this year’s SEC championship game — both Alabama wins — it was a wildly different outcome before an announced crowd of 68,311. In the 2018 national championship, Alabama beat Georgia in overtime 26-23.
Some things do change.
“That was the group that was crying in the locker room,” Smart said, referring to the 2018 team that included former players Nick Chubb, Richard LeCounte and D’Andre Swift. “This group made it right for them.”
Georgia finished the 2021 season with a 14-1 record, the most wins in school history.
Alabama’s streak of seven wins in the series — a streak that began in 2008 — was broken. Alabama coach Nick Saban is now 25-2 against his former assistants, with both losses coming this season — Monday night against Georgia’s Smart, who served under him at Alabama, and during the regular season against Texas A&M‘s Jimbo Fisher, who was Saban’s offensive coordinator at LSU.
Saban said he congratulated Smart after the game.
“I love Kirby,” Saban said. “I think Kirby has a lot of respect for us. He did a great job for us for a long time. If we had to lose a national championship, I’d rather lose one to one of the former assistants who certainly did a great job for us and has done a great job for his program and his team.
“I’m really proud of him. And I’m proud of the way he’s been able to coach his team and the consistency that they’ve played with all year.”
In spite of the critics who lamented the rematch, there was no shortage of drama or entertainment between the all-too-familiar foes. What began as a defensive slugfest with no touchdowns in the first half — Georgia’s six points at halftime were its fewest this season — evolved into a showcase of big plays, with both teams trading touchdowns and missing two-point conversions in the fourth quarter. They delivered a thriller that was 180 degrees different from their game a month ago in the SEC championship, when Alabama manhandled Georgia up front for a resounding 41-24 win.
Smart said that since the December loss, the Bulldogs practiced a lot more man-to-man coverage and “simplified some things.” They didn’t want top Bama receiver Jameson Williams, who left the game in the first half because of a left knee injury, to beat them. They wanted to get more pressure on Young, which they did. They also wanted to get off the field on third down so they could stay fresh and “have a chance to rush better.”
“They switched some things up,” Young said. “We knew that we might get some different looks. Some looks took me a little bit just to get down. … And I have to process that faster, just make the right play for the team better than I did tonight. So they changed some things, and I wasn’t able to execute.”
Both quarterbacks struggled, especially early in the game. Bennett was sacked a total of four times, Young three. Bennett, who was criticized following his two interceptions in the SEC title game, improved as the game went on and overcame a costly fumble. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 224 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Five years ago he was delivering passes like Baker Mayfield against the scout team,” Smart said. “There’s a lot of guys that saw him on that scout team make plays with his feet, his arm whip and decision-making, and we were very impressed. But again, to think that it would come this far from that national championship he was a part of [in 2018] to this one, man, what a story.”
Smart said he got off the elevator on the 15th floor at the team hotel earlier this week and saw Dooley sitting on a bench, locked out of his room.
“I thought, God put him there for me to see him the night before his game, and he was waiting on his key to come up to his room,” Smart said. “I just knew that meant something. It was a special, special win.”