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Jalen Milroe had been benched. They're saying it out loud now at Alabama, referring to that Week 3 near-disaster at South Florida.

The Crimson Tide's now-star quarterback had thrown two interceptions the previous week in a loss to Texas and looked bad doing it. The 34-24 defeat was Alabama's worst in a nonconference home game in 19 years. Nick Saban then told Milroe he was going to give backups Ty Simpson and Ty Buchner a shot the next week against the Bulls.

Never mind the pair were borderline awful in an ugly 17-3 win. It was more about how Milroe handled the news of being demoted.

Blame had cascaded down on top of the 20-year-old from Katy, Texas. Then he did something that not a lot of 20-year-olds do. He picked his head up and rebounded with a sense of maturity.

"I never doubted J-Mil even after the Texas game that we lost," Alabama linebacker Deontae Lawson said this week. "I kind of met with J-Mil alone. I told him I believe in him. I keep having faith [that] he will be the guy."

At that point, the (Alabama) world was waiting to see what would happen next. A kid who had thrown 103 passes in 14 career games was at a crossroads because the program was at a crossroads.

There was the case of how the quarterback room got so inexperienced after the loss of overall No. 1 draft choice Bryce Young. There was the shaky foundation of a dynasty already playing in in the shadow of Georgia. Now, whatever happens this Championship Week, Milroe enters as the central figure. There is so much at stake orbiting around him he might as well be his own planet.

"Biggest thing? We're not a finished product," Milroe said. "That's a scary thing."

How he has gotten to that celestial level has become one of the best stories of the season. Since that Texas game, Milroe has thrown for 16 touchdowns with only four interceptions. The Tide haven't lost in that span, winning 10 in a row. Milroe's ability to slide, squirm and run has impacted even Kirby Smart's children.

"This guy is like when I used to ask my sons who they were playing with on the 'Madden' game. And they would say, 'I'm playing with the Ravens.' And I would say, 'Why are you playing with the Ravens?' And they would say, 'They've got Lamar Jackson and nobody can tackle him.' Well, this guy is a bigger, physical version of that," Georgia's coach said.

In the same season, Milroe has gone from being benched to being compared to a former NFL MVP. Beat Georgia, and don't be surprised if he gets an invitation to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.

What the heck happened to cause this transformation? Good, old-fashioned coaching and development -- for starters.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees gets loads of credit. At 31, Notre Dame's former offensive chief wasn't exactly a first choice at Alabama. Something got figured out. Milroe told ESPN it was the first time he was coached by someone who actually played quarterback.

An offensive line that had been -- to be charitable -- limited, came together. (The unit is still 10th-worst among Power Five programs in sacks allowed.)

Complementary football was played. The Tide have scored less than 30 points in six of their games. That was the total combined the last two seasons.

Perhaps none of it happens if Milroe doesn't become a booster during that South Florida game -- patting butts, greeting Simpson and Buchner as they came off the field. Not pouting but leading.

"That was a growing point for him," said Todd McVey, Milroe's high school coach. "When everything is great, when you get hit in the mouth, how do you respond?"

Consider what's at stake with Milroe as a factor:

  • Georgia's last loss came two years ago -- against Alabama in the 2021 SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs rebounded to win consecutive national championships. Milroe was an afterthought (at least that day) throwing seven total passes as a freshman.
  • If Alabama advances to the College Football Playoff, it will have come from the furthest back of any team (No. 8 in the CFP Rankings) to get into the top four. If it loses, that will mark the first time under Saban that Bama will have gone three consecutive years without winning a national title.

There are two giant hurdles -- even if the Tide win. For the first time in history, there are four undefeated teams in the top four heading into the final weekend. If all four win, Bama will be shut out no matter what. If not, the Tide might be shut out anyway. Texas is sitting one precious spot ahead at No. 7 with what might turn out to be the most significant head-to-head result in the history of the playoff. 

"We think we are a dangerous team," Lawson said.

That brings us back to Milroe and that Texas game. Watching him now compared to the beginning of the season, he is more outgoing, more comfortable in his own skin. In a two-game stretch against LSU and Kentucky, he accounted for 10 touchdowns.

"I think his transformation at the quarterback position has helped our entire offensive team," Saban said. "... He's learned that the most important thing at his position is to distribute the ball."

Against Auburn, Milroe made history converting a fourth-and-31 to win the game. The "Nightmare at Jordan-Hare" tore the hearts out of Tigers everywhere. It also established The New Milroe.

"I've been the same person since I started playing the game," Milroe said. "That situation that happened during the season doesn't define who I am. I've been the same person since I entered college. Nothing has changed about me except the opportunity to play the game I love."

It has been possible to be two things in the same season. In the course of a few weeks, Milroe was the reason the Alabama dynasty was going to crumble and a legitimate Heisman candidate.

In the same season, Milroe was a turnover machine who morphed into one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country. Milroe is suddenly third nationally in pass efficiency (179.6). If the season ended today that would be the third-best number in Alabama history behind Tua Tagovailoa and Mac Jones.

You've probably seen the viral video of The New Milroe.

"Give me the Heisman," the quarterback shouted after beating Auburn. "Give me the motherf---er." 

"That was an emotional moment," Milroe said modestly.

Now comes a Georgia defense that can tackle. Don't chuckle. Georgia's ability to wrap up means a lot against a physical runner like Milroe. A physical defense can turn those 20-yard scrambles into 5-yard gains or even sacks. Georgia Tech's Haynes King was the second-leading rushing quarterback in the ACC to go along with nine rushing touchdowns on the season. He was held to 24 yards in last week's rivalry game. Plus, only six teams have given up fewer touchdown passes (11) than Georgia this season.

Milroe, the pride of Tompkins High School, committed to Texas in the summer of 2019 only to switch because of the excellence oozing from Bama, Saban and then-offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. Sark has gone on to lead Texas to within a heartbeat -- just like Alabama -- of a CFP spot.

McVey sees the same maturation level at Alabama as he did with Milroe in high school. By the end his prep career, Milroe sat in with coaches during the week putting together the game plan.

"I quit warming up with him after his junior year. I couldn't take it anymore," McVey said.

Is that another way of saying Jalen Milroe can't be stopped?

Championship Week roundup

In a season that has been marked by parity, it's a good time to point out how close the year has actually been.

  • The Heisman looks like it is down to a three-quarterback race: Oregon's Bo Nix, LSU's Jayden Daniels, Washington's Michael Penix Jr.
  • The Ray Guy Award folks (best punter) still hasn't explained why the nation's top punter, Boise State's James Ferguson-Reynolds, isn't so much as a finalist for the honor.
  • Five of the 10 championship games have spreads of less than 7.5 points.
  • Who ya got for the Biletnikoff Award (best receiver), LSU's Malik Nabers or Ohio State's Marvin Harrison Jr.? They're tied with 14 touchdown catches. LSU's Brian Thomas Jr. leads the country with 15.
  • Barring any more firings/departures, the 14 coaching changes will be the fewest in at least eight years.
  • Remember September and the Coach Prime Effect? Colorado and Deion Sanders end the season tied for the fourth-longest losing streak (six games).
  • Scoring is down to 27.9 points per team. That would be the lowest average since 2009.
  • Texas is the only possible newcomer to the CFP in its last year with four teams. The Longhorns would become the 15th team in 10 years to play for the national championship. That comes out to about 11.5% of the FBS having a chance in the last decade. The NCAA recently mandated that minor sports -- in other words, not football and basketball -- allow at least 25% of teams into the postseason.

Championship Week game predictions

Pac-12, No. 5 Oregon vs. No. 3 Washington (Friday): The point spread here (Oregon -9.5) is so out of whack you wonder if Las Vegas is on mushrooms. The oddsmakers have apparently fallen out of love with Washington winning its last eight games by a total of 48 points, while Oregon has won by an average of 26 since the teams' first meeting. Run to the bank with the points for the Huskies. These two teams match up too well. For the Pac-12 to be assured of a CFP berth for the first time in eight years, Washington must win. Oregon can get in with a win, according to CBS Sports bowls expert Jerry Palm. Bo Nix will have all of his offensive coordinators (five) rooting for him. Oregon 37, Washington 30

Big 12, No. 18 Oklahoma State vs. No. 7 Texas: Texas has been enduring backhanded slaps all season on their way out of the Big 12. The latest is Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy being named Big 12 Coach of the Year. Huh?~ Steve Sarkisian's team (11-1) finished as the league's top seed and beat Alabama on the road. Gundy and the Cowboys have won only seven of their last 10 games. Texas, you have your motivation. Texas 32, Oklahoma State 20

SEC, No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 8 Alabama: A Bama win sends the playoff into confusion. The CFP Selection Committee may be asked to drop No. 1 out of the top four. Meanwhile, No. 8 could come from the furthest back ever to get in the CFP. If Milroe shows out, Bama has a chance. It is playing better than Georgia right now, and the Tide have never lost to the Dawgs in the SEC Champoinship Game (3-0). UGA's last loss was in this game two years ago. This might as well be a pick 'em in Mercedes Benz Stadium that will be split between the two fan bases. Slight nod to Georgia, which is the first team to go 12-0 in three straight seasons in AP Top 25 era (1936). Georgia 27, Alabama 24

Big Ten, No. 2 Michigan vs. No. 16 Iowa: The most intriguing result Saturday would be Michigan winning and Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti handing Jim Harbaugh the trophy. Can you say, "awkward?" Iowa is a 23-point underdog against Michigan. Iowa has scored at least 23 points against Power Five competition just once this season. Pull this off, and the Hawkeyes would pull the biggest point-spread upset in the history of conference championship games. Don't hold your breath. Harbaugh returns to action after missing half the season due to suspension. That hasn't seemed to have bothered his players. Michigan 40, Iowa 13

ACC, No. 14 Louisville vs. No. 4 Florida State: Jeff Brohm is really good as an underdog. The Cardinals were picked to finish eighth in the ACC. Since 2017, Louisville's coach is 44-38 against the spread. Brohm is the first coach to take two different programs to their first conference title games in consecutive seasons (Purdue, Louisville). Florida State has come from behind at half to win four times, second-most in FBS (Oklahoma State) and won eight games by at least 17 points. FSU backup quarterback Tate Rodemaker will be limited, but Mike Norvell has a complete team (fewest turnovers in the country: five). Let's be clear, if FSU wins, it is definitely in the CFP as an undefeated conference champion. Florida State 25, Louisville 19

AAC, SMU vs. No. 22 Tulane: SMU is on the brink of actually earning money by playing football. (Inside realignment joke.) Win this, and the Mustangs could potentially move into New Year's Six consideration. This may be Tulane coach Willie Fritz's last game with the Green Wave as he has been mentioned as a candidate at Houston. Two teams undefeated in conference play. Only the SEC can make that claim. Tulane 38, SMU 32

Mountain West, Boise State vs. UNLV: For the first time since 2015 (USC), an FBS team is playing in a conference championship game with an interim coach. Boise, with defensive coordinator Spencer Danielson leading, is also favored. That means the team with the Mountain West Coach of the Year (Barry Odom) will win its first conference title since 1994. UNLV 27, Boise State 23

MAC, Miami (Ohio) vs. Toledo: A revenge match for the RedHawks. They lost by four at home to the Rockets earlier this season. Toledo is on an 11-game heater, and coach Jason Candle should be at a Power Five program sooner rather than later. Toledo 24, Miami (Ohio) 17

Conference USA, New Mexico State vs. No. 24 Liberty (Friday): The Aggies already pulled off the second-biggest upset of the season (by point spread) at Auburn. How hard can a trip to Liberty be? New Mexico State has won eight in a row, its second-longest streak ever (16 from 1959-61). Liberty's Kaidon Salter is one of three QBs with at least two total touchdowns in every game this season. Liberty 33, New Mexico State 24

Sun Belt, Appalachian State vs. Troy: James Madison is ineligible to play in this game due to NCAA rules as they continue their transition from FCS to FBS. But App State, which finished second behind JMU in the Sun Belt East, at least has bragging rights. The Mountaineers dealt the Dukes their only loss. Get know App State's Joey Aguilar. Only Daniels and Nix have thrown more TD passes. Troy is attempting to win a second straight SBC title. Troy 36, Appalachian State 29