As he was for every marquee SEC on CBS college football game during the 2018 season, Gary Danielson was the TV color analyst in the booth for the SEC Championship Game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday.
Alabama came back to win 35-28 behind two fourth quarter touchdowns by backup quarterback Jalen Hurts, who replaced an injured Tua Tagovailoa. Prior to the go-ahead touchdown drive, Georgia head coach Kirby Smart chose to use a fake punt on fourth-and-11.
On the play, which resulted in a Georgia turnover on downs, Bulldogs backup quarterback Justin Fields took a direct snap, and looked to pass to a receiver who was covered, before being tackled on a two-yard gain. Danielson gave his thoughts on the pivotal play during an appearance on The Paul Finebaum Show on Monday.
“All coaches are prepared with fakes and plays in all parts of a football game,” Danielson said. “That’s what they spend all of those hundreds of hours doing. And Kirby apparently, reading now, had a play in his pocket, since he was at Alabama and he knew their punt-safe defense, that he thought was a difference-maker for him. And I give him all the credit for that. And I bet if he was talking to you and I two or three days before the game and he confided in us, showed us what he had, we probably would have said, ‘Oh my God this is the play that can win the game.’ I had no problem with having a play like that and using it in a big situation. However, this was not the situation.
“And the reason is this: nothing’s 100 percent. Let’s suppose it was 95 percent. Let’s give Kirby the benefit of the doubt. This was a 95 percent chance they were going to get the first down. Well first of all, that doesn’t win the game for you. And secondly, what if the snap’s low? What if your true freshman quarterback throws the ball a little high? What if your receiver drops it? Alabama had dropped four passes. What if the guy catches it two yards short of the first down? It wasn’t a sure thing, and I thought, in my mind, the best call was to punt the football. Put the pressure back on Jalen Hurts from his own 10-yard line again.”
Instead, Alabama got the ball back at the Georgia 48-yard line. Hurts scored five plays later, when he rushed into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. The Bulldogs failed to score after getting the ball back with 1:04 remaining. Was Smart trying to protect his tired defense by using the fake punt?
“I don’t buy the (Georgia) defense was tired,” Danielson said. “They only ran 63 offensive plays, Alabama did. Georgia ran 79. Alabama’s defense wasn’t tired. So I just thought that it was not a play, even if (Smart) had it dialed up, I don’t know why he wasn’t standing next to the referee to call timeout if he thought they didn’t get the ball snapped fast enough. Like the coach stands next to the referee during a field goal. So I just thought it was too risky, and it was a bonehead call in my mind. It does not approach, and I’ve heard people say this, the Pete Carroll call in the Super Bowl (loss to the New England Patriots in 2015). It may be as close as Pete not having Reggie Bush out there for the (failed) fourth down try (in the 2006 national championship loss to Texas).”
Danielson then explained who would have been his top four teams for the College Football Playoff. Alabama (13-0), Clemson (13-0), Notre Dame (12-0) and Oklahoma (12-1) will play for the trophy, while Georgia (11-2) finished No. 5. Big Ten champion Ohio State (12-1) was sixth in the final rankings.
“I would say yes, but I would say there’s no way to know for sure,” Danielson said about Georgia being one of the best four teams. “And that’s the problem. That’s been my whole problem with this word of best the whole year. After the (SEC Championship) game, and before we went to the championship podium, I actually went on TV and said Georgia should be put in the playoff. But there’s a reason I said it. For 15 years I’ve been trying to change the committee’s approach to this. I’ve been telling the committee for a long time they’re part-time football people that have no idea who’s best. And really nobody does. I watch tape sometimes and don’t know who’s best. I do it, believe me, full time for 30 years and sometimes I don’t know. I know they don’t know. That’s the whole problem with this word best.
“I was tweaking the committee when I said, ‘You set up this word best and now you have to live with it.’ And Georgia proved playing against Alabama that they were one of the four best. But deep down, I don’t believe that’s how it should be approached. Because they really don’t know who the best teams are. I’ve been warning all along, I came in the (SEC) in 2006, when all of the experts, everybody at ESPN, were telling the SEC that the two best teams were Michigan and Ohio State. And I, during that game, said, ‘How do you know for sure?’ So Florida won the (national) championship (over Ohio State), because they earned the right to play in the game. And I’ve felt that way all along.”
Oklahoma would have been out of the playoff if it was up to Danielson.
“I would have put Georgia three and Notre Dame fourth,” Danielson said. “I’m 100 percent sure that Oklahoma has a 20 percent chance to beat Alabama. Here’s another thing I’m sure of, anybody can beat anybody in one game we know that. That’s the way football is, but I’ve seen these spread and finesse teams come in the SEC and they all say the same thing after two or three years. ‘Oh we can beat them in one game, but what we can’t do is sustain it in a week to week to week playing that style. All these coaches come in with the spread, and they leave with tight ends and fullbacks after they leave. Because they know you have to control the line of scrimmage. They all tell me the same thing.
“So Oklahoma, (in the Big 12), a league that has not as many defensive players, (the Big 12) doesn’t have as many NFL defensive players as Alabama does. And you can finesse Alabama or Georgia for one game, but you can’t come in the (SEC) week in and week out and beat Texas A&M and LSU and Alabama and Georgia over an eight-week schedule. It’s not going to happen.”