Alabama was not brandishing the same talent this season, especially on defense, where it was known to suffocate opponents with first-round picks. Everyone in the Southeastern Conference agreed this team was not as dominant as the Crimson Tide teams that had won national championships in 2009 and 2011. There was no outside-pass-rushing marauder and there was not a marquee skill player on offense.
This Alabama team, however, has the same resourcefulness the program has put on the field for decades. It just wins games and piles on championships. On Saturday, its special teams were a disaster and its defense got worked over, but the Crimson Tide hung on to defeat Georgia 32-28 in the SEC Championship Game in front of 75,624 fans in the raucous Georgia Dome.
It was Alabama’s 23rd SEC title and when the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game matchup is announced Sunday, No. 2 Alabama (12-1) will play No. 1 Notre Dame (12-0) in Sun Life Stadium. The Crimson Tide will be going for its third title in four years and its 15th national title overall.
Eddie Lacy rushed for 181 yards and Alabama ran for 350 yards, a record for the SEC championship game. The defense was a little thin, but there was nothing thin about an offensive line that plowed holes on a zone running play for Lacy and freshman T.J. Yeldon (153 yards).
“You know we had a young team coming back, we really only have nine seniors on the team, and a lot of people had new roles on this team,” coach Nick Saban said. “To now have a chance to go back to the national championship game is a little unprecedented.”
Not for Alabama it’s not. This is what the Tide does. If it does not win with talent, it wins with something else. Alabama drove the field at Louisiana State to pull out a win in the final minute. It lost at home to Texas A&M, but stayed alive for the national championship when Kansas State and Oregon were upset.
On Saturday, there was more good fortune. Georgia got the ball one last time on its 15-yard line down 32-28 with 1:08 to play. The Bulldogs almost gave up the ball on a first-down pass that was ruled intercepted on the field, but overturned by the replay booth. Georgia kept the ball and stunned the early celebrants on the Alabama side with three pass plays that covered 64 yards.
Perhaps it was time for Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to strike back at all those who said his career would be marred because he could not win the big game. Murray, who is from the Tampa area, looked like he was ready to get his signature win.
Then, Georgia made a colossal blunder at the end of the game, one that likely cost it a chance to play for the national championship. After Murray completed a 26-yard pass to Arthur Lynch to the Alabama 8-yard line, the clock stopped for the chains to move.
The ball was spotted and clock started, but instead of immediately spiking the ball, Murray went back to pass. If he had spiked the ball there could have been as many as 12 seconds left, enough time to run two plays, perhaps three, with throws into the end zone.
Murray ran to the line giving a signal as if he was going to spike the ball, but instead threw toward the back of the end zone to wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell. The ball was batted in the air and receiver Chris Conley instinctively caught the ball and was tackled at the 5-yard line. Time ran out.
“I wasn’t thinking, I just caught it,” Conley said. “I should have let it go.”
Georgia has not won a national championship since 1980 and it came within 5 yards of playing the Irish. It was Notre Dame that the Bulldogs and Herschel Walker defeated to win the national title of the 1980 season.
“I told them I was disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in them,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “It was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung until the end.”
Georgia seemed to have the game in hand in the third quarter when it took the kickoff and barged down the field 75 yards in nine plays. The Bulldogs freshman running back Todd Gurley (23 carries, 122 yards) carried seven times on the nine-play drive and scored from the 3-yard line.
Georgia led 14-10 and the crowd roared. It got even louder a few minutes later when defensive end Cornelius Washington broke through the Alabama line on a field goal attempt and blocked the kick. The ball bounced into the hands of Alec Ogletree, who raced 55 yards for a touchdown. The extra-point kick made it 21-10 with 6:31 left in the third period and the crowd became uncontrollable on the Georgia end of the field.
However, Alabama kept working over the Bulldogs with the run game, going 77 yards on one fast drive, then 74 for another touchdown. Georgia had given up 19 points in its previous three SEC games, but it was unprepared for the Crimson Tide’s offensive line.
Georgia got back in front 28-25 on Gurley’s 10-yard run with 12:54 to play, but Alabama came back again, this time with the pass. Quarterback AJ McCarron faked a handoff to Yeldon, the Bulldogs thought it was another bruising run play, and wide receiver Amari Cooper ran right by cornerback Damian Swann. He caught McCarron’s pass for a 45-yard touchdown play with 3:15 for the winning points.