On first down, Tua Tagovailoa was sacked for a loss of 16 yards. Alabama had work to do just to get into field-goal position and force a second overtime.
Then came the worst possible scenario for Georgia. Tagovailoa threw a bomb down the left sideline. In a flash, the Bulldogs’ hopes were crushed. Alabama had prevailed on a 41-yard touchdown pass from Tagovailoa to DeVonta Smith, one freshman to another.
“I was like blind-sided,” Giants left tackle Andrew Thomas recalled in a phone interview of the 26-23 defeat on Jan. 8, 2018, in the national title game. “It was kind of like shock.”
Safety J.R. Reed was on the other side of the field at the time. He followed the ball’s path, watching it wind up in Smith’s hands.
“It was like all the air got let out of your chest,” said Reed, Thomas’ teammate with the Giants. “You see it in the air and all you think is, ‘Drop it.’ That’s it.”
Four years later, Georgia is getting another shot at winning its first championship since 1980, and players from the 2017 team that came so close to ending that drought will be focused on Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Monday night. Of course, Alabama is standing in the Bulldogs’ way — again.
Thomas has been in touch with some of the current Georgia players this week, offering encouragement and advice in advance of the biggest game of their lives. He played with many of them. The offensive lineman is planning to attend the game, hoping to celebrate four years after his heartbreak that really never has gone away.
“Honestly, [it would be] like a monkey off of our backs,” said Thomas, one of five Giants who played for Georgia in that classic game. “We always hear how we haven’t won since 1980. We have great teams, but we don’t finish. It would mean a lot to everyone who’s played in the program.”
The 2017 team survived a late-season loss to Auburn to reach the playoff and jumped over favored Alabama early, taking a 13-0 halftime lead. But when Alabama coach Nick Saban went to Jalen Hurts’ backup, Tagovailoa, the game turned. Jake Fromm, who will start Sunday’s regular season finale for the Giants, threw two killer interceptions and Alabama scored the final 10 points of regulation to force overtime. In the extra session, Georgia had to settle for a field goal after Fromm took a sack on third down. Two plays later, the game was over.
“I wouldn’t say we ever got over it. It was always in the back of our minds. We were always trying to get back while I was there,” Thomas said. “Some of the guys on the team now remember it. Some of the guys were there. I’m sure that’s in the back of their minds, pushing them to pull it out this year.”
Said Fromm: “You wish you could have it back and have a do-over.”
This Georgia team was more dominant during the regular season than that one, and enters the national championship game somewhat of a surprising 2.5-point favorite after falling to Alabama, 41-24, in the SEC championship game. It is led by the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, a group that features the Outland Trophy and Bednarik Award winner Jordan Davis and Butkus Award winner Nakobi Dean. That’s where its star power resides. It rebounded from the Alabama loss by crushing Michigan, 34-11, in the Orange Bowl.
“I think it will be different this time around,” Thomas predicted. “I don’t think we saw the true Georgia team we saw all year. It was a wake-up call and they responded to it well. [They’re going to] come back with a vengeance.”