Entering Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Indianapolis, Georgia had a former walk-on at quarterback while Alabama was led by the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. It was a tall task, but the Bulldogs’ chances rode on their top-ranked defense and how well it could slow the Crimson Tide’s high-powered offense.
The D carried them to victory.
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Georgia stifled Alabama and Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young, collecting a 33-18 victory for Georgia’s first football national championship since 1980. Young threw for 369 yards and a touchdown, but he also tossed two interceptions — his first collegiate game with multiple picks — the second of which was returned 79 yards for a touchdown to seal the victory for the Bulldogs.
Alabama averaged 494.6 offensive yards per game this season, and in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4 against Georgia, it gained 536 total yards. But on Monday night, the Bulldogs held the Tide to just 399 total yards and only 30 rushing yards.
The defense that ranked first in the country in points allowed (9.5) and second in the nation in yards allowed (253.9) held the reigning national champs to just one touchdown.
“It was the defense who kept us in this game,” said that former walk-on, QB Stetson Bennett, in his postgame press conference, “while we were stumbling over our own feet the entire first half and then starting out in the second half. They won this game for us.”
That defense is led by junior inside linebacker Nakobe Dean, who’s a team captain and the winner of the 2021 Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker. He finished with four tackles Monday night, after leading the team in tackles (68) and sacks (six) for the season. As a mechanical engineering student with a 4.0 GPA, he’s also the play-caller for the defense and a projected first-round NFL draft pick.
After the game ended, Dean took a knee and bowed his head on the field.
“I had to thank God,” he said in his postgame press conference. “Without Him, none of this would have been possible. Every step of the way, I thanked Him for putting me in this position, putting my team in this position, and I just thank Him for everything.”
Much of Dean’s values were instilled by his mother, Neketta, who served for many years as a director of community affairs for the Tunica County sheriff’s department near his hometown of Horn Lake, Mississippi. To nearly every community event she worked, she brought her kids. “They were community service kids,” she recently told ESPN.
With serving others being a regular occurrence during his childhood, Dean continued serving others even when the NCAA’s new name/image/likeness deals allowed him to earn money.
“When NIL deals started rolling in, my priorities were having them still let me focus on football and whether there was a way to give through the deals,” Dean told ESPN, which highlighted him sponsoring a bed at an Athens, Georgia, homeless shelter, and working with the Boys and Girls Club.
As a five-star recruit considered by many to be the nation’s top insider linebacker prospect when he was coming out of Horns Lake, Dean had numerous scholarship offers from the top programs in the country. He and his mother praised God for being in such a situation.
“We’re constantly reminding each other every day that this is all just a blessing from God,” Neketta told Dawg Nation in 2018. “We just want to walk through these good things that God has provided for us and we’re not going to do it with any pride or boasting or those things. We take a humble approach and we are thankful to have any invites to go play anywhere.”
He ended up choosing Georgia, and now has a national title to add to his accolades. After Georgia won its national semifinal matchup over Michigan to advance to the national title game, Dean was asked what it would be like for a boy from Horn Lake to play for a national championship.
“It’s a blessing,” he said. “It’s a blessing that I’m in this position.”