ATLANTA — The last one out of a jubilant Alabama locker room, Nick Saban walked slowly out of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium corridor nodding his head like a proud father.
Proud of his football team. Proud of the way his football team has fought to get to this point despite some un-Alabama-like moments this season. Proud of the way his football team has rallied around a sophomore quarterback who might as well have struck the Heisman Trophy pose on Saturday night.
Bryce Young was that good, that poised and that dynamic in Alabama’s 41-24 SEC championship game dissection of No. 1 Georgia.
Even for Saban, it’s easy to forget sometimes that Young is only a sophomore and only in his first year as the Crimson Tide’s starting quarterback after playing backup to Mac Jones a year ago.
“He’s very calm, has a great disposition about what he’s doing, doesn’t get frustrated too easily, but also doesn’t get too excited very easily,” Saban told ESPN. “That’s a rare combination, especially for a guy who’s in his first year as a starter and playing against a defense as good as Georgia’s.
“But that’s the way he always is, and it doesn’t really matter who we’re playing or what the situation is. The other thing is that he does a great job preparing for the game, every game, and that’s the kind of thing that wears off on everybody else. I think you saw that tonight.”
So did the rest of the college football world, as Young torched a Georgia defense that was thought to be untorchable. He passed for 421 yards and three touchdowns and also ran for a score. His 461 yards of total offense set an SEC championship game record.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was already a believer. But there’s something to be said for watching a Heisman-like performance from the sideline and seeing somebody do to your defense what nobody else had come close to doing all season.
“Look, guys, I’ve seen a lot of good ones in this league. He’s special,” Smart said of Young, who wasn’t sacked a single time after being sacked seven times a week ago in a 24-22 four-overtime win against Auburn.
And, sure, Smart watched that tape, and Georgia did some different things to pressure Young. But very little seemed to work, as Young, his receivers and his offensive line got the best of a Georgia front seven that had been dominant against everybody this season.
“We called a lot of the same calls we called the other games,” said Smart, whose defense gave up four touchdowns to Alabama after allowing just seven in the previous 12 games.
“We didn’t get home or finish on the quarterback, and he was elite at getting the ball to the playmakers. He knew where to go with the ball. He keeps his eyes downfield with the rush, where a lot of quarterbacks wouldn’t do that. They’d look at the rush and start trying to run away from the rush and we could run ’em down. But tonight, he did a tremendous job. He was mobile and made a lot of plays.”
But, then, that’s what Young has done all season long, be it his 28-yard touchdown pass to Ja’Corey Brooks to force overtime last week against Auburn or even those times this season when Alabama was sputtering on offense and he did just enough.
“It’s never too big for him, and he just has that way about him that the other guys fall in line even when we’ve had our struggles,” Saban said.
Young, who’s thrown 43 touchdown passes and just four interceptions this season, was almost nonchalant Saturday when asked about anything he had done to lead Alabama to its sixth SEC championship in the last eight years. He was more eager to talk about his teammates.
“I think we all stepped up, and we all answered the bell,” Young said. “We all understood what was at stake. We all understood that we needed to step up. So I’m blessed to have the teammates that I do, that when our back’s kind of against the wall, we understand … we’ve got to get our spark and start moving.
“I’m happy we started getting going when we did.”
Young spearheaded a 24-point second quarter for the Crimson Tide with one big play after another, whether he was hitting deep balls with pinpoint precision, scrambling and making plays with his legs or even flipping option pitches to Brian Robinson Jr. in the open field.
“He’s grown a lot and has a knack for making those plays, but what’s really impressive is that he’s not careless and takes care of the football,” Saban said.
Even when Young did fumble the ball once Saturday after taking off and running, he was able to wrestle it back from a Georgia defender. Young also lost one of his top receivers, John Metchie III, in the first half to what Alabama officials fear is a torn ACL. But it didn’t really matter. Jameson Williams finished with seven catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns.
Alabama carved apart the Georgia secondary with big plays, and Saban said a large part of the credit goes to an offensive line that took it on the chin a week ago against Auburn and came back with something to prove.
“It still goes back to the offensive line did a very, very good job of allowing us to get the ball down the field and our receivers being able to work in the passing game, which we knew was going to be something that was really important in this game,” Saban said. “So it really started up front.”
One longtime defensive coordinator told ESPN that the way Alabama put Young in a position to find the holes in Georgia’s defense was something nobody else had been able to do to the Dawgs this season.
“Doug Marrone (offensive line coach) and Bill O’Brien (offensive coordinator) showed their value tonight, the value of having NFL experience,” the defensive coordinator said. “They knew where the blitz was coming from, re-identified protection and blocked the pressures.
“(Young) has been taught well. When Georgia lined up, he knew where the matchups were and attacked Georgia the way nobody else had this year.”
And while the rest of the country might not have seen Alabama’s beatdown of Georgia coming, Young didn’t sound too surprised about it.
“As a player, we always have faith and confidence in the coaching staff,” Young said. “So for us, I don’t think we ever really blinked or wavered.”
With Metchie injured, Alabama had to dive deeper into its depth chart, especially at receiver, and will have to do so again during the College Football Playoff with Metchie lost for the season.
But as Saban pointed out, therein lies the added value of having a player like Young who makes everybody else around him better.
“… A good quarterback can make receivers look good, and those guys have to run good routes and do things the right way to get open,” Saban said. “But I think his faith, trust, and confidence in those guys have helped their development tremendously.”
And the way Young has developed, the best may be yet to come this season for Alabama.
Not to mention the first Heisman Trophy for an Alabama quarerback.