ATLANTA — As the final seconds ticked off an instant classic — a literal SEC power struggle — No. 2 Alabama celebrated. Fireworks exploded as players sprinted onto the field, their triumph over No. 3 Georgia not assured until the clock struck triple zeros. Hands were shaken, fists bumped, flags and towels waved.
The 32-28 victory earned Alabama a spot in the BCS title game Jan. 7, opposite Notre Dame in Miami, a matchup likely to shatter television records. First, though, the Crimson Tide needed to dispatch Georgia in the conference championship game, which it did — barely — as the Bulldogs ended the game 5 yards from the end zone and out of timeouts in the Georgia Dome.
Alabama secured one title and moved closer to its second consecutive national title and third in the past four seasons.
For all of college football's fancy passing, for all its spread offenses and Saturday shootouts, the two highest-ranked teams at season's end — the Irish and the Tide — proved they could do something as simple as hand the ball off, push defenders backward, play great defense, throw occasionally and still win.
AJ McCarron threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 3:15 remaining, giving the Crimson Tide a 32-28 lead. Alabama forced a punt then punted it back after Georgia used all of its timeouts.
The Bulldogs started from their 15 with 1:16 remaining. After an apparent clinching interception by Alabama's Dee Milliner was overturned on a video review, Georgia's Aaron Murray, a former Plant High standout, completed a 15-yard pass to Arthur Lynch, a 23-yarder to Tavarres King and a 26-yarder to Lynch, who was hauled down at the Alabama 8 as the clock continued to run.
Instead of spiking the ball to stop the clock and gather themselves, the Bulldogs snapped the ball with nine seconds to go. Murray attempted a pass into the corner but it was deflected at the line, winding up in the arms of receiver Chris Conley in the right flat. Surprised to get the ball, he slipped down at the 5. Georgia couldn't get off another play and the Bulldogs collapsed on the field, stunned they had come so close.
"We were taking a shot at the end zone there," Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his decision not to spike the ball. "The ball just got batted."
"It came down to one play to win the SEC championship and play for the national championship," Murray said.
"I'm ready to have a heart attack here," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For the Bulldogs, the consolation prize will likely be a spot in the Capital One Bowl, though they looked deserving of a BCS bid. Richt said his team had the play it wanted at the end, but Alabama ruined it by getting a hand on the ball. And if it had fallen incomplete instead of going to Conley, who instinctively caught it, the Bulldogs could have tried another play.
"I told the guys I was disappointed, but I'm not disappointed in them," Richt said. "They're warriors. We had a chance at the end."
In a back-and-forth second half, the Crimson Tide trailed 21-10 after Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Alabama rallied behind a punishing run game, finishing with 350 yards on the ground, an SEC Championship Game record. Eddie Lacy — the game's MVP — rumbled for 181 yards on 20 carries and freshman T.J. Yeldon added 153 yards on 25 carries,.
"It would be a crying shame if Georgia doesn't get to go to a BCS bowl game," Saban said, concurring with Richt's opinion. "That was a great football game, by both teams."
Murray said: "We're a great team. … I feel for our guys. It probably would have been the greatest comeback in Georgia history. It was exciting, that's for sure."