ATLANTA – Nick Saban assured the masses they were in for a 15-round fight.
It felt like 50. And for everybody from SEC diehards to football purists, every twist and turn of Saturday night’s SEC Championship Game was glorious.
The SEC couldn’t have asked for a much better exhibit to showcase the degree of difficulty in winning the nation’s premier conference.
No program has done that more than Alabama, so in that regard it was fitting the Crimson Tide survived 32-28 over Georgia in an epic clash in front of 75,624 delirious fans at the Georgia Dome.
No. 2-ranked Alabama’s 23rd SEC title – and the Crimson Tide’s (12-1) subsequent reward of trying to defend its national championship Jan. 7 in South Florida vs. No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) – remained in doubt until every last second had ticked off.
“We kind of had that, I-would-not-be-denied attitude out there today,” said Saban, who improved to 4-1 in SEC Championship games. “This conference will test your mettle.”
Given 68 seconds (with no timeouts remaining) to go 85 yards, Georgia junior quarterback Aaron Murray nearly pulled off the most incredulous comeback imaginable.
A couple of downfield hookups to Tavarres King and Artie Lynch helped No. 3 Georgia (11-2) land 8 yards from victory, with 15 seconds to go. The clock winded when everybody was set, and the Bulldogs chose to go for it right then and there.
“Spiking the ball takes time,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We had plenty of time to call a play, so the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone.”
Murray’s pass was deflected and accidentally caught by flanker Chris Conley, who was immediately downed at the 5-yard-line. The final few seconds ticked off, and the Crimson Tide burst into pandemonium while Georgia’s sideline deflatedly sunk, staring out as the streamers cascaded from the rafters on victorious Alabama.
Though Saturday was dominated by the run game, Alabama junior quarterback AJ McCarron launched the game-winning pass, a 45-yard strike to true freshman Amari Cooper.
“That guy’s a freak of nature, especially for a freshman,” McCarron said of Cooper (seven receptions, 127 yards). “He’s a full-speed guy at all times.”
There were five lead changes from the final play of the first half on. The Bulldogs briefly held the largest advantage, going up 21-10 when Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal 55 yards midway through the third quarter.
“We made our mind up at the beginning of the week, that this was going to be a dogfight. Sixty minutes,” Alabama senior linebacker Nico Johnson said. “That’s what we got. No matter what the adversity or circumstances, we kept fighting until the last whistle blows.”
And to think, there wasn’t a single point in the first quarter, unprecedented in the SEC title game.
Alabama’s 350 rushing yards set an SEC championship record. Game MVP Eddie Lacy (181 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (153) were the first pair of teammates to each surpass the century mark in title-game history, which they each did by the end of the third quarter.
“He was pretty relentless – Eddie did as fine a job as anybody has ever done for us,” Saban said. “The way we were able to run the ball, especially in the second half, was probably the difference in the game.”
They were countered by Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who rolled up 122 rushing yards and with his two scores is now at 16 on the year, topping Herschel Walker for the program’s most touchdowns by a freshman.
Georgia saw its six-game winning streak snapped, and awaits its bowl destination announcement Sunday. Saban emphasized the opposing Bulldogs deserve to play in a BCS bowl game, though it’s unlikely with four other SEC teams in the top ten.
“I told them, I was disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in them,” Richt said. “That was the main thing. I told them they were warriors. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end.
“We had a chance at the end, we just didn’t get it done.”
The Crimson Tide won’t have to sweat it out. They’ll go for their third national title in four years, seemingly unthinkable a month ago after losing at home to Texas A&M before Kansas State and Oregon losses reopened the door.
“After that loss, we just had to stay focused, and we weren’t worried about the outcome of other games,” Lacy said. “The chips fell where they fell because we played the way we were supposed to.”
The SEC West has won four straight league titles, the division’s longest such streak.