Published Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 | 5:06 p.m.
Updated Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012 | 6:25 p.m.
ATLANTA — Alabama is heading back to the national championship game — by a mere 5 yards.
AJ McCarron threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 3:15 remaining, and the No. 2 Crimson Tide barely held off No. 3 Georgia 32-28 in a Southeastern Conference title game for the ages Saturday.
After an apparent game-clinching interception by Alabama was overturned on a video review, Georgia's Aaron Murray 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.
The Bulldogs were out of timeouts.
Instead of spiking the ball and gathering themselves, the Bulldog snapped the ball with 9 seconds to go. Murray attempted a pass into the corner but it was deflected at the line, winding up in the arms of Chris Conley out in the right flats.
Surprised to get the ball, he slipped down at the 5.
Georgia couldn't get off another play. Alabama celebrated as confetti fell from the Georgia Dome roof. The Bulldogs collapsed on the field, stunned they had come so close to knocking off the team that has won two of the last three national titles.
The Tide will get a chance to make it three out of four when they face top-ranked Notre Dame for the BCS crown on Jan. 7 in Miami.
"I'm ready to have heart attack here," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For the Bulldogs (11-2), the consolation prize will likely be a spot in the Capital One Bowl, though they certainly looked like a team fully deserving of a BCS bid. Georgia coach Mark Richt said his team had the play it wanted at the end, but Alabama ruined it by getting a hand on the ball.
"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. We just didn't get it done."
In a back-and-forth second half that looked nothing like a game in the defensive-minded SEC, 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 rumbled for 181 yards on 20 carries, including two TDs. Freshman T.J. Yeldon added 153 yards on 25 carries, also scoring a TD.
But the Tide won it through the air.
With Georgia stacking the line, McCarron fooled the Bulldogs with play action and delivered a perfectly thrown pass to Cooper, who beat Damian Swann in single coverage down the left side.
Georgia played like a champion, too.
The Bulldogs punted the ball back to Alabama with 2:25 left, relying on their defense to finally stop the Tide. Georgia used up its final two timeouts, forced a punt and got the ball back at its 15 with 1:16 remaining.
Alabama broke into a celebration when a pass down the middle for Conley was deflected and Dee Milliner appeared to make a diving interception. But the replay showed the ball hit the ground, so Murray and the Georgia offense trotted back on the field for their last gasp.
And what a gasp it was.
Just not quite enough.
Todd Gurley led Georgia with 122 yards rushing, including a couple of TDs. Murray was 18 of 33 for 265 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
McCarron was 12 of 21 for 162 yards with an interception, just his third of the season.
After a defensive slugfest in the first half, the final two quarters were nothing but run-and-gun.
Or, more accurately, Alabama running and Georgia gunning.
Trailing 10-7, Georgia took the kickoff to start the second half and marched down the field for a go-ahead touchdown. Gurley ran it seven times for 44 yards, the last of his carries a leg-churning, 3-yard drive up the middle to make it 14-10.
Alabama looked like it was about to answer, holding the ball for more than 5 1-2 minutes, before the drive stalled and the Tide sent out Cade Foster for a 50-yard field-goal attempt. Trying to get distance on the kick, he booted a low ball that Cornelius Washington swatted down with his left hand. Ogletree scooped up the bouncing ball and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
Suddenly, the Bulldogs led 21-10.
But the Tide wasn't about to go away that easy.
A little too pumped up, Georgia's T.J. Stripling committed a silly personal foul on the kickoff return and Alabama quickly drove for a score to get back in the game. Yeldon broke off a 31-yard run, Swann was called interference on a throw down the middle, and Yeldon powered in from the 10. He ran it again for the 2-point conversion, pulling Alabama to 21-18.
Georgia went three-and-out, and Lacy came back in to continue the ground assault. He barreled over right guard for 32 yards. Then a 15-yarder. Then a 14-yarder. He caught a quick breather, Yeldon running twice to get it down to the 1.
Lacy returned for the first play of the fourth period, scoring to put Alabama ahead 25-21.
The Tide appeared to have all the momentum.
It lasted about 2 minutes.
Murray found King down the middle for a 45-yard completion and Gurley finished off the lightning-quick possession with a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle.
After the clock had finally run out on Georgia, Richt made one last pitch for a BCS bid.
"Do I think we're worthy of a BCS bowl?" he said. "Yes I do."
The Bulldogs even got props from Saban.
"It would be a crying shame if Georgia doesn't get to go to a BCS bowl game," the Alabama coach said. "They played a tremendous game out there. That was a great football game, by both teams. It came right down to the last play."