There are people who say that only championships matter, that finishing second is the same as finishing last. To those people, we say this: Go away now. Go away while we honor — and yes, that’s the proper word — as gallant a runner-up as we’ll ever see. Go away and let us speak of the Georgia Bulldogs.
They’d waited 30 years for a game this big, and they came as close as you could come to winning it without actually winning. Three times they took a lead over the mighty Alabama, and even after what should have been a crushing Tide touchdown with 3:15 remaining, even after what seemed a clinching Bama interception inside the final minute … even then, these Bulldogs found themselves with first-and-goal and time flying.
That they fell five yards short, that a tipped Aaron Murray pass for Malcolm Mitchell was caught by a falling Chris Conley and the final five seconds ticked away, cannot take away from the effort spent and the excellence displayed. The Bulldogs arrived as a underdog, but they carried the fight to the reigning national champion and they left five yards shy of the most thrilling victory — apologies to Lindsay Scott — Georgia football has ever known.
This was easily the best of the 21 SEC Championship Games, and it was one of the finest displays of collegiate football ever witnessed. “Alabama’s a great football team,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, “and we were pretty good, too.”
Has a losing team ever had more championship-caliber men and moments? From Sanders Commings intercepting an AJ McCarron pass in the end zone to the same Commings catching a pass from tight end Arthur Lynch to convert a galvanizing fake punt; from Cornelius Washington blocking a field goal and Alec Ogletree taking the carom the distance; from the freshman back Todd Gurley pounding the midsection of the nation’s best defense to Murray taking his team downfield in the final minute … has there ever, in the long and distinguished history of Georgia football, been a prouder loss?
Alas, the Bulldogs needed 85 yards, and they could manage only 80. Are five yards sufficient reason to characterize them as losers, to suggest that this four-point loss is living proof that Richt and/or Murray can’t win the Big One? No and no, and if you’re of such a mind didn’t you hear me when I said, “Go away”?
Contrary to popular belief, not every winning effort translates to winning. Alabama was just a bit better (and much stronger up front), but the Bulldogs spurned every opportunity — and there were many — to throw up their collective hands and say, “We’ve given it a go, but this isn’t our day.” And that fighting spirit nearly turned this into the Dogs’ day after all.
“They played well, we played well, the clock ran out,” Richt said. “What are you going to say?”
It was the game for which Georgia had waited since Herschel Walker left Athens in the spring of 1983, the game Richt had waited 12 seasons to coach. It was a game to win one championship and go play for another, and there can be no dishonor in the way the day played out. Quibble with the ending if you will — should Georgia have spiked the ball before Murray’s last throw? Probably not, for Bama was clearly rattled — but you cannot fault the Bulldogs’ skill or heart or pride.
If you claim to be a Georgia fan, you cannot be disappointed with the performance — only the result. How many teams could have stood in against Alabama after the Tide ground out 350 rushing yards? Alabama is the nation’s best program and has the nation’s best coach, and with 10 seconds left there was no assurance that regal Bama would leave the Georgia Dome as the winner.
“I shook every man’s hand,” Richt said, speaking of his crestfallen Bulldogs, “and if someone had his head in his hands I rubbed his head and told him I loved him.”
If you love anything about competitive sports, anything at all, you had to love this game. “That was a great football game by both teams, and they could have won today the same as us,” said Nick Saban, the hard-driving Alabama coach. “It came down to the last play.”
That the final play on this frenzied day was made by Georgia’s opponent in no way diminishes Georgia. If anything, the Bulldogs stand ennobled after falling to Alabama in a way that they hadn’t after any victory of the past half-dozen years. They didn’t win, but they didn’t really lose. “The clock just ran out,” Richt said, and there was no better recap of these stirring events than that.
Alabama played great. Georgia played great. And then the clock ran out.
Further reading: Bama’s backs, Saban’s gaffe and a classic SEC title game.
By Mark Bradley