This was the day when representatives from every other conference, when every critic weary of the SEC’s six-year-plus rule in college football, should have come to the realization, “Oh. So that’s why they’re the best.”
Georgia and Alabama looked like the two best teams from the two best conference, if not the two best teams in the nation, and they just played a conference championship that saw four lead changes in the second half and the game not decided until the game’s final play.
What would happen if Georgia and Alabama played 10 times?
“It probably would look like that every game,” Bulldogs wide receiver Tavarres King said. “And there would be several different outcomes.”
Georgia doesn’t have that luxury. The Dogs lost the SEC championship game 32-28 at the Georgia Dome. They came that close to playing for a national championship.
They had a chance at the end, with quarterback Aaron Murray having driven the team from its own 28 to the Alabama 8 with 15 seconds left. At that point, we can debate whether Murray should have spiked the ball to reset the offense. But suffice to say, the game ended with a tipped pass that was caught at Tide’s 5, the final seconds ticked off and one team celebrated its impending berth in the BCS championship game while the other collapsed in exhaustion, uncertain of its bowl status.
The irony here was that Georgia probably gained more respect in defeat than in any of its 11 victories. The Dogs were criticized for a perceived soft schedule, for the way they were physically hammered be South Carolina, for the hiccups at Kentucky.
Yet on Saturday, even the opposing coach, Nick Saban, was moved to comment: “I think it’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl game. That game came down to the last play. It’s ridiculous. Some teams are 7-5 and talking about winning their conference and going to a BCS bowl game? Something’s not right here.”
So yes, the Dogs proved their worthiness on this day.
Coach Mark Richt has made the program relevant again in the SEC, and therefore on the national scale.
Afterward, Richt said, “I told them I was disappointed. But I wasn’t disappointed in them.”
That said, Georgia lost to a better team.
Alabama was the superior team physically. The Tide rushed for 350 yards, led by Eddie Lacy (187) and T.J. Yeldon (154). The physical domination started with the Tide’s offensive line taking over the game in the second half, blowing open holes in Georgia’s defensive front. It continued with the Dogs, clearly worn down and drained, began to miss tackles.
“[The defense] got tired of being run against — I could figure that one out,” Richt said. “We just got knocked off the ball.”
At some point, it figured Alabama would try to get Georgia to bite on play-action, and that’s exactly what happened. With the Dogs leading 28-25, Alabama had a first down at the Georgia 45 when quarterback A.J. McCarron faked a handoff, stepped back and hit wide receiver Amari Cooper streaking down the left sideline, behind cornerback Damian Swann. The touchdown put Alabama, which once trailed 21-10, up 32-28 with just over three minutes left.
The Dogs had two more chances. They went three-and-out on one possession and quickly had to punt. They used their last two time outs during Alabama’s possession but forced the Tide to give up the ball one more time. They got the ball back with 1:08 remaining.
“We’ve had plenty of one-minute drives during the season so it’s not like guys were freaking out or anything,” Murray said later. “We were just like, ‘Let’s play ball.”
On the fourth play of the drive, Murray had a pass tipped and intercepted at midfield. But he and the team got a reprieve when the play was reversed by replay, which showed the ball hitting the ground. The quarterback then completed consecutive passes to Arthur Lynch, King and Lynch again. The ball was now at the eight with about 15 seconds remaining.
Richt decided to keep going and not have Murray spike the ball to stop the clock. “Even spiking the ball takes time,” Richt said. “We had a play called.”
The play was fade route to Malcolm Mitchell at the back of the end zone. But there were only nine seconds left when the ball was snapped, Murray’s pass was tipped at the line and Chris Conley caught it in traffic at the five (first instinct). He was buried and time ran out.
Richt: “In that play you want a touchdown or an incomplete pass.”
In between is trouble. In between ended the game. Georgia was that close going to the national championship game. That’s something they will have to live with.
By Jeff Schultz
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