ATLANTA — The whole thing smelled of desperation.
Down by 13 points at halftime, its offense struggling, Alabama needed a change. A big one.
“We needed a spark,” coach Nick Saban said.
So the Crimson Tide pulled their starting quarterback in favor of a freshman who suddenly found himself on college football’s biggest, brightest stage.
And it worked.
Tua Tagovailoa led the Tide on a grinding second-half comeback Monday night that ended with a 41-yard overtime touchdown pass to defeat Georgia, 26-23, in the College Football Playoff championship game.
The play before his winning pass, Tagovailoa had taken an ill-advised sack. It didn’t faze him.
“I just took a shot downfield,” he said.
With the victory, Saban joined the legendary Bear Bryant as the only college coaches to win six national titles.
This one would require every screwdriver, ratchet and wrench in his tool box.
“Someone tried to give me a game ball,” he said. “I don’t think you could give anybody the game ball. It was a team ball.”
This was a game that looked nothing like a nail-biter in the early going.
In front of 77,430 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Alabama missed on a field-goal attempt in the first quarter, giving Georgia a chance to find its rhythm.
The Bulldogs had a freshman quarterback of their own in Jake Fromm, but he had started for most of the season and quickly showed he had the poise to deal with such an important game.
Whether it was floating a pass just over an outstretched linebacker or completing pinpoint throws along the sideline, Fromm looked like a veteran as he engineered three scoring drives, staking his team to a 13-0 halftime lead.
“We had times when we were executing well,” running back Sony Michel said. “We had times when we weren’t.”
Coming into Monday night, this matchup figured to balance on Georgia’s ground game _ with Michel and Nick Chubb _ against Alabama’s top-ranked defense.
The Crimson Tide pretty much won that battle, limiting big plays and holding the Bulldogs to 133 yards on the ground, well below their average for the season.
They also came up with two key interceptions.
That all made a difference if only because Georgia wasn’t able to put the game away in a second half that turned wild in comparison to the first 30 minutes.
Saban pulled sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts, who had started almost every game over the last two seasons, because Hurts wasn’t able to hurt Georgia with his scrambling.
Tagovailoa, a better passer, came on and soon drove Alabama to a third-quarter touchdown that closed the gap to 13-7.
Fromm answered with an 80-yard touchdown strike to Mecole Hardman.
Fromm would ultimately complete 16 of 32 passes for 232 yards.
But that would be the last burst for the Bulldogs.
“Coach Saban told us to tighten things up,” Alabama defensive lineman Da’Ron Payne said.
Alabama now had time to chip away at the lead with kicker Andy Pappanastos rebounding from his earlier miss, kicking two field goals to make the score 20-13.
Tagovailoa got the ball back in his hands with 7:10 to play in the fourth quarter and came through, passing and running on seven consecutive plays, driving his team downfield and ultimately completing a seven-yard pass to Calvin Ridley for the tying touchdown.
“He’s got confidence in his arm, he’s got poise in the pocket,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said of the freshman. “He made the plays when he needed to.”
Tagovailoa finished the game with 27 yards rushing and completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
The Crimson Tide actually had a chance to win in regulation, getting the ball back after a three-and-out and driving back across midfield, but Pappanastos hooked another attempt.
At that point, said Michel, who had a game-high 98 yards, “there was no doubt in our minds that we were going to go out there and win the game.”
Georgia had good reason to feel confident after defeating Oklahoma in a double-overtime semifinal at the Rose Bowl last week.
And when kicker Rodrigo Blankenship made good on a 51-yard attempt in overtime, the Bulldogs looked as if they still had some of that magic in them.
But Alabama was feeling sure of itself for a different reason.
“We worked as a team and we never let go,” freshman running back Najee Harris said.
With his team getting its turn in overtime, Tagovailoa showed a bit of panic, retreating from the rush and giving up a 16-yard sack.
His nerves calmed on the very next play as he surveyed the defense.
Seeing the Bulldogs’ coverage, he figured that freshman receiver DeVonta Smith could get free down the left sideline.
Taking the snap, he looked right to hold the safety, then launched the ball toward Smith.
“Smitty was wide open so I hit him,” the quarterback said. “And here we are now.”