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Title-game heartbreak lingers over Georgia-Alabama rematch

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Epic Alabama-Georgia duel in 2018 CFP Championship (1:00)

In the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, Tua Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide to a thrilling title. (1:00)

ATHENS, Georgia -- The paint wasn't even dry on Georgia's 45-21 victory over rival Georgia Tech this past weekend before Bulldogs defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter was asked about you-know-what.

"What do you think when someone says, 'Second-and-26'?" he was asked.

"I mean, of course you know what I think. I know what game that is from last year, and it does have a little bitter taste in my heart, and my whole soul," Ledbetter said. "But if you focus on that, on the past, then you automatically lose in the present."

It has been nearly 11 months since Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa heaved a 41-yard touchdown pass to DeVonta Smith on second-and-26 -- the final play of the Crimson Tide's 26-23 victory over the Bulldogs in overtime in the College Football Playoff National Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

The play propelled Alabama to its 17th national championship and fifth in nine years -- and denied Georgia its first since 1980.

"I just remember being on the sideline and seeing them score," Bulldogs linebacker D'Andre Walker said. "That was that."

In Alabama, the iconic moment has been memorialized on jerseys, T-shirts and license plates. For nearly a year, Crimson Tide fans have trolled UGA fans with second-and-26 memes on social media, and Alabama's marching band spelled out the down and distance during its halftime show at the season opener against Louisville.

Feb. 26 is practically a state holiday in Alabama now.

But while second-and-26 became yet another memorable moment in Alabama's storied history, it's a play the Bulldogs and their fans would prefer to forget.

As the No. 1 Crimson Tide and No. 4 Bulldogs prepare to play again in Saturday's SEC championship game in the same stadium, it's not something Georgia's players and coaches are eager to discuss.

"Last year has nothing to do with this next game coming up," Bulldogs tailback Elijah Holyfield said.

The end of the previous meeting between the teams was so sudden and dramatic -- the Bulldogs had a 23-20 lead when Ledbetter and linebacker Davin Bellamy sacked Tagovailoa on the play prior to second-and-26 -- it took a while for the losers' pain to truly sink in.

"That's something you'll never get over," cornerback Deandre Baker said.

Baker was on the other side of the field when a busted coverage led to Alabama's winning touchdown. Cornerback Malkom Parrish failed to jam Smith at the line of scrimmage, and Tagovailoa looked off senior safety Dominick Sanders, who was standing in the middle of the field. When Sanders failed to slide to his right side to help, Tagovailoa fired a deep pass to Smith, who was wide open to catch the winning score.

What lesson might the Bulldogs learn from one of the most painful plays in their history?

"That lesson was learned the day we installed that defense," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "I mean when you play Cover 2 and you play halves, you got a guy over the top of another guy and you got a guy in the flat, and the guy in the flat should jam and reroute and the guy in the half should be in the half."

Still, Smart said it would be unfair to blame the outcome on one play. Georgia squandered a 13-0 lead, turned it over twice and managed only a touchdown in the second half.

"There's nothing about that game that you learned because that game came down to more than just that," Smart said. "I mean, that's just what people remember the most."

Smart said the outcome might have been much different if Tagovailoa had played the entire game instead of only the second half and overtime. After the Bulldogs shut down Alabama's offense in the first half, Tide coach Nick Saban benched starter Jalen Hurts and replaced him with Tagovailoa, who had played sparingly as a freshman.

Tagovailoa completed 14 of 24 passes for 166 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception after halftime.

"I guess you could argue if it had been Tua for the whole game, would it have been like that?" Smart said. "That's a realist thinking and a realist talking."

As soon as second-and-26 happened, it seemed inevitable that the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide would be back in Atlanta once the 2018 regular season ended.

"The whole year, we're just trying to get back to the SEC championship [game]," Holyfield said. "It wasn't really [about] who we play -- we just wanted to get back there. I think more than anything this year, we're just trying to focus on this game."

The winner of Saturday's SEC title game seems assured of returning to the College Football Playoff. The loser might still be in the mix for one of the four CFP spots, depending on what happens in the other conference championship games.

The teams have changed dramatically, although Tagovailoa and Smith will both be back on the field for Alabama. Georgia lost star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith and a handful of other starters, including Parrish and Sanders.

Smart doesn't think avenging second-and-26 will be much of a motivation because the Bulldogs are so different.

"We have to put the best plan together we can to play our best game against Alabama," Smart said. "Not the Alabama last year, not the Georgia last year. So that's motivation for a lot of people. And that's the media talk. But for us, it's what do I have to do to play my best game. That's what I want to work on."

Of course, TV replays of second-and-26 will still be played over and over again before Saturday's kickoff. Smart and his players have seen it numerous times since last season, and even more often as Tagovailoa has become the leading Heisman Trophy contender.

"It helps you grow up," Ledbetter said. "Like I said, those tight games come down to inches. At the least, very, very small inches at the end of the game or even throughout the game. You just have to seize those opportunities and make sure that they're in your favor and not the other team. You really just have to do whatever you want and whatever you can to make sure they come your way."