ATLANTA — It was right there. Seven yards left. Fifteen seconds. Four points shy of Georgia’s dream.
And it all ended up in hopelessness with Chris Conley lying on his back at the 5-yard-line cursing his instincts.
Aaron Murray was leading the drive of his life, taking the Bulldogs 80 yards in less than a minute after a replay review overturned an interception.
But instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock, Murray took a shot at Malcolm Mitchell on a corner fade in the end zone. The ball got tipped at the line, and Conley did what any receiver is taught to do: He grabbed the ball out of the air at the 5.
But Georgia had no timeouts left, and the final precious seconds dripped off the clock. The fireworks banged as the Bulldogs whimpered.
Just like that, it was over. The Southeastern Conference championship. The BCS national title shot. All over. Alabama 32, Georgia 28.
“It stinks to come that close to probably one of the greatest comebacks in Georgia history,” Murray said.
An epic football game deserves more of an epic play at the end. It deserved the ball hanging in the air over the end zone with somebody from either team making a play. But it fizzled in a state of relative confusion.
“I know the ball was tipped,” said Conley, still in a state of shock a half-hour after the game ended. “I wasn’t able to make the play that I wanted to make. I wasn’t thinking about the situation enough in the moment. The ball falls in your lap, you’re going to catch it. I didn’t see it until it was right in front of me and I just grabbed it. I probably should have let that one go.”
Until that one play, it was an SEC Championship Game for the ages. Few experts gave Georgia much of a chance to beat the reigning BCS champions.
“Not a snowball’s chance,” senior defensive end Cornelius Washington said.
Yet the Bulldogs refused to melt and kept pushing until the bitter, bitter end.
“I think we could have won it with a few more seconds,” Georgia senior cornerback Sanders Commings said.
The Bulldogs took leads of 7-0, 21-10 and 28-25 against an Alabama defense ranked No. 1 in the nation.
The Crimson Tide kept hammering right back, rallying to go up 10-7 at halftime, 25-21 in the third and then 32-28 when AJ McCarron hit Amari Cooper deep for a 45-yard touchdown with 3:15 remaining.
It was perhaps the best championship game played in the Georgia Dome since the St. Louis Rams stopped the Tennessee Titans less than a yard from the goal-line to win Super Bowl XXXIV in 2000.
All Georgia will likely have to show for it is a second-tier bowl.
“It’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl game,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said in a spirited defense of his opponent in the aftermath. “That was a great football game out there. They could have won it as well as us. It came down to the last play.”
Georgia can take pride in its effort, but that’s small consolation. The Bulldogs buried the memory of the dreaded blackout defeat in 2008 the last time they faced Alabama. They refuted again the bygone insult heaved by Augusta native Pat Dye when he once said the Bulldogs weren’t “man enough” to play with the Tide.
There were so many moments for the Bulldogs that would have taken on special significance if the outcome was different. Commings, a senior from Westside High, was the Bulldogs’ MVP of the first half with his first career reception on a fake punt and an interception on a goal-line stand.
“Those plays would have meant so much more if we could have won the game,” Commings said. “When you lose you try to forget about everything you did, good or bad. It’s just tough, playing a team so well and losing on the last plays of the game.”
Burke County’s Washington blocked an Alabama punt that Alec Ogletree took 55 yards for a Bulldogs touchdown and a 21-10 lead that raised the decibels in the Georgia Dome to ear-splitting.
“We had a lot of positive plays and any time you have that many game-changing plays you usually don’t lose,” Washington said. “Of course this is a tough one to swallow. Probably the hardest defeat I’ve ever been a part of.”
Victory would have brought the ultimate spoils – the first national championship shot for Georgia in 30 years.
Losing comes with a grave price – an unsatisfying bowl bid and questions regarding every missed play.
Should Mark Richt have called for a spike to stop the clock and set up one end zone shot?
What happened to the worn-out defense in the second half as Alabama pounded an SEC Championship record 350 yards rushing?
How can Damian Swann let the Tide’s best receiver get behind him on the game-winning pass?
The Bulldogs’ senior-laden defense that came back for this opportunity will disband. There is speculation Murray might leave early for the NFL.
Chances like this don’t come around as often and easily as Alabama sometimes makes it look.
“I think we definitely earned some respect around the nation taking Alabama that close,” said Commings, though respect ultimately means little. “We all decided to stay to try to win a national championship. To fall a couple seconds short is just real tough.”
Georgia will replay those final, painful seconds in their heads for as long as fans talk about Bulldog football.
“It doesn’t really matter,” Washington said. “We didn’t get the victory. Moral victories don’t really count, do they?”
Perhaps in the heart, but not the record books.