In a season filled with gaudy statistics and jaw-dropping plays, Alabama quarterback Bryce Young finally had his so-called "Heisman moment" last Saturday in the Iron Bowl. Trailing by seven points on the road at Auburn with 1:35 remaining in regulation, he took over with the ball backed up against his own goal line and cooly marched the offense 97 yards down the field in 12 plays, capped off by a picturesque, 28-yard over-the-shoulder lob to Ja'Corey Brooks in the end zone.
Four overtimes later, Young hit John Metchie III in the chest for a successful 2-point conversion to cap off the comeback and keep Alabama's hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff alive. Afterward, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said that Young was someone whom the players believed in, praising his mental toughness.
"He's got a lot of grit about him," Saban said, which is a high remark from someone who grew up in a coal mining town in West Virginia.
But something was lost in the postgame celebration and the rush to crown Young as this year's Heisman Trophy winner: context.
Young didn't win anything on Saturday night other than a football game. In a Heisman race this close, what he did was give himself a chance and put himself on stage as the odds-on favorite at -200.
TOUCHDOWN BAMA— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) November 28, 2021
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But to finish the job and take home the award, he has to thwart the best defense in recent memory and beat No. 1-ranked Georgia to win the SEC championship on Saturday.
To understand what a monumental task that is, consider again the drive at Auburn. Lost in those 12 plays and 97 yards was who wasn't on the field. Jameson Williams, Alabama's leading receiver, was in street clothes after being ejected for targeting in the first half; Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama's leading rusher, was sidelined by a lower body injury he suffered midway through the fourth quarter; and two of Alabama's starting offensive linemen, center Darrian Dalcourt and right tackle Damieon George Jr., were benched at halftime. Further obscured was what happened prior to that drive; Alabama managed just 2 rushing yards in the first half and the offensive line gave up seven sacks -- the most it has surrendered since the 2014 Sugar Bowl.
Young didn't just lead the offense, he was the offense. Everything fell on his shoulders in Jordan-Hare Stadium, serving as a culmination of events that had been building all season long.
It wasn't just the seven sacks allowed against Auburn. The offensive line has been mediocre ever since it gave up 10 tackles for loss against Miami in the season opener. It has allowed pressure on 30.9% of attempted passes, and Alabama rushers have gained zero or negative yards on 26.0% of carries. For comparison, those numbers were 25.6% and 18.2% last season, respectively.
Robinson has been a valuable feature back who has outperformed the line blocking for him, but he is only one of two scholarship running backs available with Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams out, and he's beginning to show some wear and tear. Through his first six games, Robinson averaged 5.42 yards per carry and evaded 17.2% of tackles. In the six games since, he's down to 4.45 yards per carry and 10.7% of tackles evaded. He's now dealing with a lower body injury that threatens his availability against Georgia.
While Williams seems unlikely to get ejected again this season for targeting, him missing the second half against Auburn crystallized just how dependent the passing game had become on him. Gone are the days of DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Jaylen Waddle terrifying secondaries. Metchie is a solid possession receiver, but he doesn't have the kind of top-end speed that puts fear into safeties. Slade Bolden, the No. 3 receiver, is averaging only two catches per game.
Preseason All-SEC tight end Jahleel Billingsley was supposed to be the kind of player offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien could move around and create mismatches with, but he hasn't been dependable -- either because he has been stuck on the sideline, or because he has been pulled after dropping 14.8% of passes that have gone his direction.
Until Brooks' game-tying touchdown against Auburn, there hadn't been a young receiver who had stepped up in a big way.
"Williams is the difference-maker for them, hands down," said an SEC assistant who faced Alabama. "Without him, I don't think there's anybody like they've had in the past."
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was complimentary of Alabama's receivers, but he said "what really puts them over the top" is Young, whom he called an "incredible athlete, player, decision-maker."
Through 12 games, Young has completed 68.9% of his passes for 3,901 yards, 40 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He has also rushed for two scores.
"What he doesn't get enough credit for is when the play breaks down, his skill set to deliver the ball, make people miss, and he sets up rushers," Smart said. "He's like a point guard, like an elite point guard who can distribute the ball.
"When he's dribbling down the court, he has the ability to throw it over there," he said, gesturing to his left, "throw it over there," gesturing to his right, "and then he can make you miss."
Smart credited Young's patience and his composure to keep his eyes downfield and allow plays to develop.
"He makes those guys even better," he said. "Because where there might be other [receivers] like that somewhere, they might not have the distributor to get them the ball, and he does a tremendous job."
Another SEC assistant said that if there's one thing Alabama has going in its favor, it's a "really good QB who doesn't get rattled."
"If Bama wins, it's going to be because of the QB," he said.
For the first time in 92 games, Alabama enters Saturday's matchup against Georgia as an underdog.
But if there's good news for the Tide, it's this: The last time they weren't favored in a game, against Georgia in 2015, they wound up winning by 28 points.
If Young can recreate that kind of result, against a defense that hasn't given up 17 points in a game all season, it's difficult to imagine him not winning the Heisman. Only one of the other top five candidates, according to BetMGM's odds, will be playing on Saturday, and Pitt's Kenny Pickett won't have the added spotlight of a playoff spot being on the line.
In other words, the stage is Young's to succeed or fail.
And Young, for his part, appears unconcerned.
"For me, any individual accolades or anything like that is all external factors, something I don't have control over," he said. "All I'm concerned about and all we're concerned about as a team is this Saturday, the SEC championship. That's all that's on my mind."