ATLANTA — The Southeastern Conference prides itself on having the toughest football league in America, along with the best conference championship game.
Saturday’s 21st edition was the greatest
of them all, a back-and-forth, no-holds-
barred title match between second-ranked Alabama and third-ranked Georgia, which ended on Saturday night with the clock running out on the Bulldogs’ championship dreams at the Crimson Tide 5-yard line and Alabama escaping with a 32-28 victory in front of 75,624 fans.
Alabama coach Nick Saban was reminded of his pre-game speech to his players in the moments after the Tide clinched its 23rd Southeastern Conference championship and a trip to Miami to face top-ranked Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7.
“I told them the most important thing in this game was to execute the plan,” Saban said. “The second most important thing was to have a relentless competitive attitude that you will not be denied what you want. You will have to play 60 minutes in the game and it will be like a heavyweight boxing match and you have to punch your way right to the 15th round.”
Knocked to the turf by a special teams breakdown that gave Georgia an 11-point lead late in the third quarter, the Tide responded with a punishing rushing attack led by most valuable player Eddie Lacy, who had 181 yards on 20 carries, and T.J. Yeldon, who had 153 yards on 25 carries.
“The offensive line, they made big holes for T.J. and I and we were able to hit it for big gains,” Lacy said.
Alabama rallied to take the lead, only to see Georgia respond in two minutes to regain the lead. Alabama answered again with 3:15 remaining, then thought they sealed the victory with a Dee Milliner interception with 45 seconds remaining.
“I was very excited at first because I thought I got the pick,” Milliner said. “For us to have to go back out there and then they almost got in the end zone, we were fortunate the clock ran out on them.”
Officials ruled Milliner had trapped the ball, resulting in an incomplete pass, and three quick completions by Aaron Murray put the Bulldogs on the Alabama 8 as the seconds ticked away. Out of timeouts, Murray hurriedly threw toward the back of the end zone, but Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley deflected the pass. Georgia receiver Chris Conley made a diving catch at the 5 and the Bulldogs could only watch in stunned disbelief as the final four seconds ran out.
“We were attempting to throw the ball to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “The ball got batted and then it just landed, unfortunately, right in the arms of our guy that was running the ‘stout’ route, the inside receiver, and that’s not a good thing when you don’t have timeouts.”
The Bulldogs had the upper hand early after converting a fake punt into a first down and ultimately a touchdown on a pass from tight end (and blocking back) Arthur Lynch to cornerback-turned-receiver Sanders Commings. The Bulldogs trailed 10-7 at the half, but scored on the first possession of the second half and made it 21-10 minutes later when Cade Foster’s 49-yard field goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown by Alec Ogletree with 6:31 remaining in the third quarter.
Alabama players were never concerned, they would later say. Saban was asked if he thought an 11-point deficit with 21 minutes remaining was a problem.
“When I saw that No. 9 (Ogletree) running down the field with a blocked field goal, I said, yeah, that’s a problem,” Saban said. “It was a problem the way we blocked in field goal protection; it was a problem they ran it for a touchdown and we got behind 11 points.
“But I told the offensive players all we had to do is score one time to get back in the game.”
The Tide would turn to its running game, first using Lacy behind right guard Anthony Steen and D.J. Fluker, then using Yeldon on the left side behind tackle Cyrus Kouandijo and guard Chance Warmack.
“Coach put it on the right side of the line and I told my guard, Steen, we have to come out there and take it this time,” Fluker said. “We can’t be stopped together. Run the ball down their throat. And that’s what we did.”
After some early struggles, Alabama turned to a running game on five consecutive possessions that churned out 279 yards, with all but 23 coming on the ground entering the fourth quarter.
“They didn’t do anything new,” Richt said. “They just lined up and played inside drill for a while. We finally got a stop somewhere along the way but a couple of drives, I don’t even know if they threw it. They just lined up and knocked us off the ball.”
Finally, McCarron delivered the game-winning punch with a 45-yard bomb down the left sideline for a streaking Amari Cooper, who finished with seven catches for 127 yards and a touchdown.
“I came out of play-action and saw (Georgia safety Bacarri) Rambo going with (Alabama receiver Kevin) Norwood and the corner bit up,” McCarron said. “‘Coop,’ he’s supposed to have a post and I saw him going on a straight ‘go’ route. I launched it out there and he went and made a play.”
It almost wasn’t enough as the Bulldogs got off the deck and marched down the field, with Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo outwitting his college teammate, Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.
“That was a football game,” Smart said. “I knew it would be. I was sick to my stomach all week because I knew it would come down to that. They’re really good in two-minute (offense), too. We broke down two-minute (film in preparation) and they have scored almost every time.
“Their offense did a great job attacking us. LSU pushed us around, but this group schemed us and they were real physical. We haven’t been hit like that in the mouth in a long time.”
Lost in the frantic moments of the fourth quarter was a decision made by Saban with 4:19 remaining in the third quarter when Yeldon’s run up the middle for a two-point conversion would later leave Georgia four points short on its final drive, forcing the Bulldogs to go for the end zone instead of a field goal and overtime.
As a result, the Tide (12-1) is headed to Miami while Georgia (11-2) will likely wind up in the Outback Bowl, passed over by the BCS bowls in favor of Florida.
“I think it’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to a BCS bowl game,” Saban said. “That was a great football game by both teams. And they could have won it at the end just as much as us and it came down to the last play.
“I think it’s ridiculous.”