ATLANTA -- Freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa came off the bench in the second half to rescue Alabama's title hopes Monday, throwing for three touchdowns, the final one giving the Crimson Tide a 26-23 overtime victory over Georgia in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Tagovailoa's 41-yard bomb to a wide-open DeVonta Smith on the second possession of overtime provided a stunning close to a championship game that Alabama trailed in for the first 56 minutes.
Tagovailoa got the surprise start to open the third quarter, coming in for two-year starter Jalen Hurts after a scoreless, if listless, first half that found the Crimson Tide trailing 13-0.
Hurts, last season's SEC Offensive Player of the Year and coming off an MVP performance in a semifinal win over Clemson last week, was largely ineffective in the first two quarters. He rushed for a team-high 47 yards but couldn't get the Tide into the end zone and struggled to throw against the Bulldogs, completing only three of eight passes for 21 yards.
That left Alabama coach Nick Saban with an agonizing choice: abandon his entrenched and productive starter in Hurts or risk it with Tagovailoa, clearly the better thrower of the two quarterbacks but someone who'd seen only spot duty in eight games this season.
"I thought Tua would give us a better chance and a spark, which he certainly did," Saban said. "I couldn't be prouder of him taking advantage of the opportunity. We have total confidence in him."
Tagovailoa's first drive ended in a punt but he found a groove on the second possession, rushing for 12 yards and completing his last four passes for 44 yards, including a 6-yard touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III that finally got Alabama on the scoreboard.
His breakout performance seemed to almost immediately lift the spirits of the Tide, helping them climb back into a game they'd been thoroughly dominated in thus far.
And in overtime, trailing by a field goal, Tagovailoa showed off the range of potential and disaster in Alabama's only two plays.
He took a sack for a loss of 16 yards on first down. And on second down, he waited until he saw Smith streaking down the left sideline behind two Georgia defensive backs. Then he made a perfect throw that completed a comeback for the ages.
"Smitty was wide-open so I hit him," Tagovailoa said. "And here we are now, thank God."