- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- Thirty-seven days from now, No. 1 Notre Dame and No. 2 Alabama will play in the Discover BCS National Championship Game in Miami.
We can only hope the contest between two of college football's most storied programs will be half as exciting as Saturday's SEC championship game at the Georgia Dome.
Because if you ask college football fans who live in places across the Southeast, many might argue they watched the national championship game between two SEC teams Saturday night.
And they might be right.
Defending BCS national champion Alabama got all it could handle from No. 3 Georgia in a 32-28 victory in front of a sold-out crowd of 75,624 fans, who watched the Bulldogs' last-ditch comeback hopes come up just short at the Crimson Tide's 5-yard line as time expired.
Alabama rallied from an 11-point deficit in the second half and then watched UGA nearly steal the game -- and a trip to Miami to play for the national championship -- at the end.
"I told them congratulations and now go handle your business," Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones said. "It was a war. It was a battle all night. You can look at the scoreboard and see."
Georgia fans will be staring at their clocks for the next several weeks. After Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner's interception was overturned by replay with 43 seconds to play, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray completed three consecutive passes, the last one a 26-yard catch by tight end Arthur Lynch that moved the Bulldogs to the Alabama 8 with about 15 seconds to play.
Inexplicably, Murray didn't spike the ball to stop the clock, as the Bulldogs were out of timeouts. Instead, Georgia ran a play called "Stout," which called for Murray to throw a fade route to either senior Tavarres King on the left side or sophomore Malcolm Mitchell on the right. When the Crimson Tide showed press coverage on the right side, Murray tried to throw to Mitchell.
But Murray's pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage by linebacker C.J. Mosley, and the ball ended up in the hands of UGA receiver Chris Conley, who slipped and fell at the Alabama 5. And then time expired.
"It got tipped," Murray said. "It was one-on-one. I was trying to throw the ball to one of our best receivers and let him make a play. We make one more play, and it's probably the greatest comeback in Georgia history."
Instead, the Crimson Tide escaped and will try to become the sport's first back-to-back consensus national champion since Nebraska in 1994 and '95 when they play Notre Dame.
"We came into the game and said it was going to be a 15-round fight," Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker said. "It was. It went down to the bitter end."
How much of a battle was it? Alabama All-American center Barrett Jones injured his foot in the first quarter but played through excruciating pain for the next 50 minutes. He left the Crimson Tide locker room on crutches. Alabama nose guard Jesse Williams wrecked his right knee with 13:13 left in the third quarter, and it looked like he wouldn't be able to return as he limped around the Tide sideline for several minutes, before retiring to the bench with a towel over his head.
On the first play of the fourth quarter, though, Williams was back in the game at fullback, opening a hole for tailback Eddie Lacy on a 1-yard touchdown that gave the Tide a 25-21 lead with 14:57 left. Williams said he'll have an MRI on his injured knee Sunday.
"Once I knew it wasn't anything serious, I knew I could go back in the game and fight through it," said Williams, a 320-pound senior from Australia who sports a tattoo on the side of his head that reads, "Pain Is A Liar."
Tell that to Georgia fans, who now are left to live through one of the most excruciating losses in school history. And the Bulldogs had a chance to win until the very end.
After Lacy scored, Georgia needed only five plays to take the lead again, going ahead 28-25 on freshman Todd Gurley's 10-yard touchdown run with 12:54 to play.
That's where the score stayed until inside the final four minutes, when Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron threw a 45-yard touchdown to freshman Amari Cooper down the left sideline. Georgia cornerback Damian Swann bit on McCarron's play-action fake, allowing Cooper to run free down the sideline.
Georgia punted the ball back to Alabama with just more than two minutes left, but the UGA defense forced a three-and-out to set up the frenetic final seconds.
When Lynch dragged a couple of defenders inside the Tide's 10-yard line, it looked like Georgia might be on its way to Miami to play for its first national championship since 1980.
But then Georgia's offense became discombobulated, and Murray was never able to throw the ball into the end zone.
Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said that if he had to do it over again, he would have instructed Murray to spike the ball to stop the clock.
"Yeah, hindsight is easy," Bobo said. "We'd have done it if I had to do it over. I would have liked to give us three shots in the end zone. There was confusion getting lined up. We didn't get it lined up correctly."
As a result, Alabama will go to Miami to try to win its third BCS national championship in four seasons and the SEC's seventh in a row. Georgia probably will play in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 4.
"This conference will test your mettle," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "There are a lot of good teams in this conference. We beat a really good team out there today. I'm going to tell you, I think it's a crying shame Georgia doesn't get to go to a BCS bowl game. They should get to go to a BCS bowl game. They played a tremendous game out there today. That was a great football game by both teams, and they could have won at the end just as soon as us. It came right down to the last play."
Now the Crimson Tide have to recover from this slugfest and prepare to play the Fighting Irish.
"I was nervous," said Lacy, who had 181 rushing yards with two touchdowns on 20 carries. "I was just hoping we'd get a stop, you know. There's only one emotion. You have to be confident and know they're going to make a stop for us."
For 60 minutes Saturday night, the Crimson Tide showed plenty of muscle -- running for 350 yards on 51 carries, the most in SEC championship game history -- and enough flaws to give the undefeated Fighting Irish some confidence as they prepare for their showdown over the next five-plus weeks.
Alabama made plenty of mistakes -- it misfired on a fake punt, allowed UGA to convert a fake punt, allowed a 55-yard touchdown off a blocked punt and allowed the Bulldogs to drive down the field in the final 68 seconds.
But in the end, Alabama won, just like it always seems to do during Saban's tenure.
"I don't even know what the date of the [BCS title] game is," Saban said. "I'll look at the calendar sometime tomorrow."
It's going to take Alabama and Georgia a long while to get this game out of their heads.
2dSam Khan Jr.