TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Alabama got the win it needed, but it did not come as easily as anticipated.
The No. 3 Crimson Tide, thrust back into the national championship picture after Iowa State’s upset of No. 2 Oklahoma State on Friday, was a five-touchdown favorite going into Saturday afternoon’s game against Georgia Southern.
However, Alabama and the 101,821 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium got more than they bargained for in posting a 45-21 win over the No. 3 FCS Eagles.
The Tide took advantage of a blocked field goal, returning it for a touchdown for a quick 10-0 lead, and then scored with 44 seconds left to make the final point spread more impressive.
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In between, the Eagles gave Alabama all it wanted, forcing Tide head coach Nick Saban to keep his regulars in until the end.
Georgia Southern now turns to the playoffs, which begin next weekend. The pairings will be announced by the NCAA at 10 a.m. on Sunday morning. It is anticipated the Eagles will earn a first-round bye and be one of the top four seeds.
“In my opinion, that was a good win for us,” Saban said. “That’s a good little team we played out there (Saturday). When I say little team, I don’t mean literally.
“Those guys played hard, and played with a lot of toughness. They really did a good job of running their offense. It’s a tough offense to get prepared for.”
Georgia Southern shredded what is considered by many to be the best defense in college football for 341 yards, with 302 coming on the ground.
Freshman Dominique Swope shocked the Tide defense with an 82-yard touchdown run and finished with 153 yards on 18 carries. Swope became the first player this season to gain 100 yards against Alabama.
Going into the game, the most rushing yards Alabama had allowed this season was 148 to LSU, and Penn State’s 251 yards of total offense was the most by an opponent.
Laron Scott of Warner Robins also stunned Alabama with a 95-yard kickoff return, and he set a new school record for most kickoff return yards in a game with six for 183. He held the former mark of 173, set against Wofford last year.
Redshirt freshman Deion Stanley, who played at Twiggs County, had a game-high 14 tackles for the Eagles. It was the third time this season he had been in double figures.
“I thought I was going to cramp up,” Scott said. “Mitch Williford did a great job of hitting the guy inside, and that opened a seam. It was an amazing feeling, because we were playing in a great atmosphere. I thought we went out and fought hard.”
Alabama took the game’s opening kickoff and drove to the Eagles’ 14, and Jeremy Shelley kicked a 32-yard field goal.
Georgia Southern responded by reaching the Alabama 18 before three plays and a motion penalty moved the ball back to the 30, bringing on Adrian Mora.
Alabama blocked Mora’s 42-yard field goal attempt, and Dre Kirkpatrick returned it 55-yards to make it 10-0. It was the first blocked kick returned for a touchdown against Georgia Southern in the 30 years of the modern era.
“It was such a disappointment,” Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken said. “We haven’t had a block kicked all year. Every other kick we had (Saturday) was just fine. That’s a 10-point swing right there.
“It could have been a 17-17 game at the half. I’m never going to be happy when we lose, but I thought our kids put forth a tremendous effort against one of the best football teams in the country, maybe the best in the country.”
Heisman Trophy candidate Trent Richardson made it 17-0 for Alabama early in the second quarter when he scored the first of his three touchdowns on a 4-yard pass from A.J. McCarron.
McCarron had three touchdown passes on the day, two to Brad Smelley, including the one that set the final score.