ATLANTA - After handing Georgia its first loss in nearly two years, Alabama mixed a raucous celebration of its latest Southeastern Conference championship with a whole lot of lobbying for a College Football Playoff spot that no one could’ve envisioned in September.
Jalen Milroe, the quarterback who epitomizes the Crimson Tide’s remarkable turnaround from an early-season loss to Texas, posed a pointed question to the committee that will decide who’s in — and who’s out.
"Georgia is number one, right?" said Milroe, who was picked as MVP of a 27-24 victory Saturday that snapped the top-ranked Bulldogs’ 29-game winning streak. "We just beat the number one team. What do you consider us?"
Alabama would have to make a big leap from No. 8 in both the AP poll and the most recent CFP rankings — and perhaps leapfrog the No. 7 Texas team that beat it 34-24 in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 9 — to claim a spot in the four-team playoff that will be announced Sunday.
Another big question: Is Georgia’s bid for a third straight national title over?
Coach Kirby Smart bristled at the notion that his team — with two straight national titles on its resume — squandered a shot at becoming the first team in the AP poll era to win three championships in a row.
"It’s the best four teams," Smart said. "So if you go tell me somebody sitting in that committee room doesn’t think that Georgia team is one of the best four teams, I don’t know if they’re in the right profession because we’re a really good football team."
After his Iron Bowl heroics a week earlier, Milroe threw a pair of touchdown passes and Alabama’s defense dominated much of the way after giving up a score on Georgia’s opening possession. It was the 30th SEC crown for the Tide — more than twice as many as any other school.
ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 02: A general view of the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs helmets at centerfield prior to the SEC Championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on December 02, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty
"A lot of people doubted this team," said Milroe, who was benched early in the season but bounced back to become one of college football’s most dynamic players. "I never gave up on this team. That’s the biggest thing."
Alabama (12-1) sorted out its quarterback situation and hasn’t lost since. The victory over Georgia was the Tide’s 11th in a row and may be good enough to give them a big boost in the selection committee’s eyes.
"This is a team," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, who may get a chance to add to his record seven national titles. "I’ve never been prouder of a group of guys."
Georgia (12-1) will have to hope its dominance over the last two seasons persuades the committee to provide a shot at a do-over in the playoff. That’s just what happened two years ago, when Alabama romped to a 41-24 victory over the top-ranked Bulldogs in the SEC title game and both teams were invited to play on.
Georgia avenged its SEC defeat with a 33-18 victory over Alabama in the national championship game, and the Bulldogs made it two titles in a row with a 15-0 season in 2022. Their hopes of a three-peat are now in the hands of others.
"There’s two classes of our kids that haven’t lost a game," Smart said. "In life, sometimes you can’t get better until you lose."
Georgia closed the gap to 20-17 after a 28-yard punt return by little-used Anthony Evans III set up Carson Beck’s sneak into the end zone for Georgia’s first touchdown since the opening minutes.
But, with a drive for the ages, Milroe hooked up with Isaiah Bond on four completions for 56 yards — rekindling memories of a week earlier when the two connected on a fourth-and-31 touchdown pass that miraculously pulled out an Iron Bowl victory over Auburn.
Roydell Williams scored on a 1-yard run that restored Alabama’s lead to 27-17 with 5:47 remaining.
Georgia didn’t go quietly. The Bulldogs hustled down the field for another TD, scoring on Kendall Milton’s second touchdown of the game, a fourth-and-goal run from the 1 with 2:52 left to again climb within a field goal.
But Milroe broke off a 30-yard run — wisely going down inbounds to keep the clock running — and Alabama ran out the clock.
"Georgia’s got a really good team," Saban said. "But our guys overcame. They proved today they can win against anybody."
After missing on his first four passes, Milroe found his range. He completed six of eight for 110 yards, including touchdown passes of 28 yards to running back Jam Miller on a busted coverage and a 15-yarder to former Georgia receiver Jermaine Burton with 48 seconds left in the half to give the Tide a 17-7 lead at the break.
It was only the fifth time Georgia had trailed at the half since the start of its winning streak.
This time, the Bulldogs couldn’t come back.
Alabama: After getting shredded by Auburn’s running game the week before, the Crimson Tide held Georgia to 78 yards on the ground. That forced Beck and the Bulldogs to go to the air more than they would’ve liked. "They whipped us up front," Smart said.
Georgia: As was the case two years ago, the second quarter was the Bulldogs’ downfall. In the 2021 loss, they surrendered 24 points to Bryce Young and the Crimson Tide. This time, Alabama took control by outscoring Georgia 14-0 in the period.
Groza Award finalist Will Reichard booted a 43-yard field goal in the first quarter to reach 533 career points and become the leading scorer in NCAA FBS history, breaking a tie with former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds.
Reichard added a 34-yard field goal and three extra points, boosting his total to 539 points.
That’s in the hands of the CFP selection committee. They will announce the four playoff teams Sunday, as well as the rest of the New Year’s Six bowl assignments.