ATLANTA — It wasn't the freshman quarterback experts predicted, the one thrust into the starting role in the season's opening game only to lead the Georgia Bulldogs on a magical run to Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship game. No, as the confetti fell in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Jake Fromm, the pride of Houston County High School, rushed off the field and into the tunnel leading to the Bulldogs' locker room.
It was, instead, Tua Tagovailoa, the Hawai'i native who spent the first half and much of the season watching from sideline, who led the Alabama Crimson Tide back from a 13-point deficit to a 26-23 victory with a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith in overtime.
Tagovailoa entered coming out off halftime for starter Jalen Hurts, a sophomore who is 25-2 in his career and nearly led Alabama to the national title last season only to fall to Clemson in the final game. This time, on the same stage, he wasn't nearly as effective. He was just 3-for-8 passing for 21 yards and 54 more on the ground. Alabama had converted just 1 of 6 third downs. Georgia led 13-0.
Tagovailoa changed the equation. The left-handed freshman went 14-for-24 passing for 166 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. He engineered scoring drives of 56, 15, 71 and 66 yards that ended with a touchdown pass, field goal, field goal and touchdown pass, respectively, to tie the game at 20-20 with 3:49 left in the game. He also engineered one last drive to get Alabama within field goal range for the game-winning score, but senior kicker Andy Pappanastos' kick missed.
And so it went to overtime. Of course it did, for few of college football's elite teams this season were so similar. It was in their DNA, first injected into Alabama by Nick Saban, who won his fifth national title with the Crimson Tide since 2009 and sixth overall, then into Georgia by Kirby Smart, who learned Saban's methods as an assistant coach under him for 11 seasons before leaving for his alma mater in 2016.
Fromm and Georgia had every advantage in the first half. They had more total yards (223-94), better time of possession (19:23-10:37) and fewer penalties (2-5). Rodrigo Blankenship made two field goals and Mecole Hardman rushed for a 1-yard touchdown just before halftime to go up 13-0.
Hardman's second touchdown, an 80-yard tip-toeing catch down the right sideline, gave Georgia a 20-7 lead with 6:52 left in the third quarter. The possibility of the Bulldog's first national championship since 1980 seemed palpable.
But Alabama rallied behind Tagovailoa, first to tie the game, then to hold Georgia to a 51-yard field goal by Blankenship on its first possession of overtime.
Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa on Alabama's first play of its overtime possession, setting up 2nd-and-26, but no matter. The freshman found Smith in a cushion in the left part of the end zone, and Smith was mobbed by teammates as the confetti fell.
"After the sack, we just got up and took it to the next play," Tagovailoa said. "... (Smith) was wide open, so I hit him, and here we are now, thank God."
Fromm got no respite from the dramatic outcome. He stood in the Georgia locker room afterward still in full uniform surrounded by a throng of reporters with cameras and recorders jabbed toward him. Wide receiver Terry Godwin went from teammate to teammate consoling each with a hug. Safety J.R. Reed sat in a chair in front of his locker with his head covered by a beige towel, motionless like a statue.
Others nearby felt Georgia's pain too. The Bulldogs' marching band, the Redcoats, waited outside the locker room to exit the stadium. A small, shaggy-haired drummer pushed back tears. Another's lips quivered.
Back on the field, the confetti rested beneath the stadium's 360-degree video halo board. On it was a picture of the College Football Playoff trophy with the words NATIONAL CHAMPIONS, and a picture of Nick Saban looking down on it all.