By Jordan Morey | @JordanAMorey
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — As the Heisman Trophy winner’s pass sailed down the left sideline, Georgia coach Kirby Smart experienced Déjà Vu.
Smart wasn’t taken back to the bludgeoning the Bulldogs received in the Southeastern Conference Championship game against Alabama last month. Nor did he go back to the Bulldogs’ stunning overtime loss to the Tide in the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Instead, Smart flashed back to the place where the nation’s No. 1 defense was built: practice.
Smart had seen redshirt freshman defensive back Kelee Ringo make the play on the same pass “1,000 times” during drills. But as Bryce Young’s interception developed, Smart didn’t know what Ringo would do with it during the biggest moment of their lives.
Rather than acting on the pleas of his coaches to hit the turf, Ringo took fate into his own hands in the waning minutes of the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship.
Weaving through the Tide’s offense for a 79-yard touchdown, Ringo delivered what would be the knock-out blow in a slugfest, putting the final punctuation point on a season that ended a 41-year title drought in Athens.
No. 3 Georgia defeated No. 1 Alabama 33-18, securing the Bulldogs’ first national title since 1980 and third overall.
“Then the tears afterwards, that just hit me,” said senior walk-on turned starting quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, the Offensive Player of the Game. “I hadn’t cried in, I don’t know, years, but that just came over me. That’s what — when you put as much time as we do into this thing, blood, sweat, tears, it means something.”
Bennett completed 17 of 26 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns. Junior safety Lewis Cine was named Defensive Player of the Game.
Georgia (14-1) ended a seven-game losing streak to Alabama that included the title game four years ago. Alabama (13-2) was denied a 17th national championship, according to NCAA records, and the second in as many seasons. Tide coach Nick Saban lost the chance to win his eighth title overall and the seventh at Alabama, which would have surpassed the six won during the Bear Bryant era. Smart, a former Alabama assistant under Saban, beat his former boss for the first time in five games. Smart became the second former assistant to defeat Saban in 27 games, joining Jimbo Fisher of Texas A&M.
Young could have become the third consecutive Heisman Trophy winner to lead a team to a national championship, joining Joe Burrow of Louisiana State in 2019 and DeVonta Smith of Alabama in 2020. He became the first Heisman winner to lose in a title game since Marcus Mariota of Oregon, the 2014 winner. Young completed 35 of 57 passes, a title-game record for attempts. He threw for 369 yards and one touchdown. He threw two interceptions and was sacked four times.
“We had a lot of opportunities,” Young said. “Moved the ball relatively well. We did some stuff well. We didn’t execute, and at the end of the day that’s on me.”
As they did all season, the Bulldogs relied on their nation-leading scoring defense, which had averaged 9.6 points, in dispatching the Tide. Alabama’s total was the fewest points scored in a game his season, who had averaged 44.1.
Smart said instead of making practices more complicated following the SEC loss to their rivals, the team went back to the basics and practiced more man-to-man.
In a territorial first half, neither team found the end zone as a combined five field goals were made with the Tide leading 9-6.
The Bulldogs’ special teams became a spark for Georgia in the third quarter, as Jalen Carter blocked a field goal attempt. Senior James Cook ripped off a 67-yard run to set up a 1-yard plunge by junior Zamir White to put the Bulldogs up 13-9.
Following yet another Tide field goal, a Bennett fumble resulted in a three-yard touchdown pass from Young to junior Cameron Latu to put the Tide back ahead 18-13.
Bennett answered with a 40-yard pass to freshman Adonai Mitchell, who turned around and grabbed the ball in front of the facemask of his defender to put the Bulldogs up 19-18. Another touchdown pass by Bennett, this time for 15 yards to standout freshman tight end Brock Bowers, gave the Bulldogs a 26-16 lead before the pick-six by Ringo sealed the deal.
“I knew that once I fumbled the ball I was not going to be the reason we lost this game,” Bennett said. “…We had been running the ball a lot, and I think we went three straight play action and then one deep ball, then we got them to jump offsides because they’d been timing up the snap a lot.”
While the Tide had some success moving the ball, Smart credited the red zone stops – three times Alabama was inside the Bulldog 20 and had to settle for field goals.
“Our red zone defense has been incredible all year,” Smart said. “I can’t tell you how many times this guy (Cine) has lined up and had to blitz, play somebody in man-to-man. We practice red zone defense a lot, don’t we, and we were No. 1 in the country or maybe 2 or 3 in red zone defense because we’ve got some grown men up front that don’t let you run it, we force you to throw it, and then we stop you throwing it.”
The Bulldogs outgained the Tide 140-76 on the ground, with White amassing 84 yards and Cook adding 77.
With the win, this year’s senior crop of Bulldogs set a school record for most wins with 45. This year’s team is also the first to ever make it to 14 wins in a season. As Saban walked toward Smart to shake hands, he had a small smile on his face.
“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,” Saban said. “If any team deserves — they deserve it. They played great all year. We were the only team to beat them in the SEC Championship game. And we just couldn’t finish the game tonight like we wanted to.
“But I think Kirby has done a really, really good job there,” Saban went on. “I congratulated him on the win. 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.”
Smart said he told his team to soak in their accomplishments.
“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 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.”