In many ways Saturday could be called Saban's greatest victory, and, yes, he's won three BCS titles at two separate schools. This isn't his best team, though. This team isn't even as good as last year's team, which, he notes, didn't even win the SEC (falling short of one goal), although it acquitted itself with a national title. Yet even with a team that has some flaws and holes, the Tide won here against a Georgia team that kept throwing haymakers, kept seizing the lead and the momentum and simply wouldn't die, even after 'Bama nearly intercepted Aaron Murray on the last drive – a call that was overturned. It's one thing to win with a dominant club against opponents that crumble. It's another to come back and come back and come back again (three times, including twice in the fourth quarter), to come back against big offensive plays, a blocked field goal for a TD and various self-inflicted wounds. "We tell them that this is kind of what we are training you to do," Saban said, "to have the mental toughness and the physical toughness to overcome adversity and persevere when [things] don't go right." This was everything Saban teaches and preaches, everything he obsesses over, on full display, under incredible pressure, with a season on the line. "Accomplishments of significance," is a term he likes to say a lot. That's the reward. This was the process, and it's the process that pleases the coach, not the trophy in the case. This here on Saturday, this was Nick Saban football.
"I told my right guard [Anthony Steen] we can't be stopped together," said Alabama right tackle D.J. Fluker. "Run the ball down their throat. That's what we did today." Indeed, Lacy and Yeldon spent much of the second half running through the gaping holes set up by their blockers. Lacy, who spent his first two seasons shadowing Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Heisman finalist Trent Richardson, turned in the best game of his career, breaking a 41-yard touchdown for Alabama's first score and a 32-yard gain to start the drive that put the Tide up 24-21 on the first play of the fourth quarter. At that point, Georgia's defenders were visibly tired and flummoxed. Bulldogs nosetackle John Jenkins asked Fluker after the game to explain what type of run-blocking technique he used because "no one had ever used it against me."
Jenkins, still baffled by Alabama’s blocking, sought out Fluker after the game. During the game, Jenkins would collide with Steen or Fluker, who would immediately get their hands on him and steer him out of the hole. If Fluker occupied Jenkins, or defensive lineman Kwame Geathers, Steen would come in from the side and move him just enough for Lacy to squeeze through. "They caught me off guard because nobody had ever used it on me," Jenkins said of the blocking strategy. "Somehow, he would draw my momentum to him and get in front of me. They were technically sound. It was position blocking." Georgia led by 21-18 in the third quarter when Alabama flew down the field — not with the pass, but with the run. The drive started with 3 minutes 4 seconds left in the period and covered 74 yards in seven plays, all on the ground. Lacy capped the drive on the first play of the fourth quarter by vaulting into the end zone from the 1. Steen looked at Fluker during the drive, and they were both exhausted. They looked across the line at the Georgia players, who were also exhausted by the quick march. "How bad do you want this?" Steen asked Fluker. "Real bad," Fluker said. "Keep it going, then," Steen said.
"We were just clicking," Steen said. "I guess Coach had decided to keep running until they stopped us. We had that long drive. It about broke me, it felt like. I couldn't breathe at one point, but we knew we weren't going to give up." Fluker and Steen worked in tandem, double-teaming a defensive lineman before Steen would go looking for a linebacker to take out. "D.J., all he had to do was hold them up and I'd come in there and hit them right in their side and we'd move them out 5 or 10 yards, and I'd move to the 'backer," Steen said. "Surprisingly, they didn't have an answer for it." Nor did Georgia have an answer for UA tight end Michael Williams, who was able to slip to the second level of the Bulldogs' defense to seal block a linebacker or defensive back, allowing Lacy or Yeldon to get further downfield for big yards. "We saw something on film," Williams said. "We felt like if we could get the right blocks on the back side we could crease them. We saw that they had a gap on the weak side and we felt like I could block the linebacker."
I want to believe that Notre Dame will beat Alabama with the same defense-and-discipline approach that has fueled some of the greatest upsets in college football history. I want to believe this is like Penn State shocking Miami in the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, or Ohio State shocking Miami in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl. But I just watched Alabama. And then I talked to Alabama players, and besides being so maddeningly nice and aggravatingly polite, they sound so much like Saban that it's frightening. Star running back Eddie Lacy, who ran for 176 yards and may test positive for steel, said he didn't pay attention to any Georgia pregame trash talk, because "that's an external factor." Left tackle D.J. Fluker said the Tide's success is "about preparation. We're prepared for anything." And Warmack said he never worried about the score because "you don't want to deviate from the program. Whatever you do during the week is how you do in the game." This is what the best coaches do. They don't just call plays. They create a belief system and get players to subscribe to it. And that's another problem for Notre Dame. I just can't imagine this Alabama team getting cocky and assuming it will beat the Fighting Irish. And if Notre Dame does jump to a lead, the Tide won't panic. There is no fear in this group. Alabama is the best team in the country. It is almost an honor when a team this good stabs you in the heart.
In some ways, it might have been easier to take if the game had ended at midfield, where Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner appeared to pick off Murray's downfield attempt with 45 seconds remaining. But after instant replay ruled it an incompletion, Georgia had another shot and enough time. For Alabama, which thought the game was over at that point, it was a potentially perilous turn of events. "It was a completely different mindset than we had prior to that happening," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "Everybody thought we won the game and everybody is sort of celebrating on the sidelines and now you have to go back and really make some critical plays. It takes a tremendous amount of maturity to re-center yourself and put yourself in the right psychological disposition to compete, and we gave them three bang-bang plays."
Alabama ran 36 times for a season-high 298 yards with two or more tight ends in the formation. The Tide ran out of this personnel package on 26 of their 34 second-half plays, gaining 199 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama averaged a season-high 5.5 yards before contact out of this formation. AJ McCarron completed 8 of 9 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown with two or more tight ends in the formation.
Even though the clock was far from a factor with 4:19 left in the third quarter, the Crimson Tide opted for a two-point try after T.J. Yeldon's touchdown pulled UA within 21-16. The play call went back to Yeldon, straight up the middle, for the conversion and a 21-18 deficit. "I always say, go for it late in the third quarter or the fourth quarter," UA coach Nick Saban said. "It was late in the third quarter. There's four minutes to go or something like that in the third quarter, so (we) got the numbers in our favor." A direct run on a two-point play made something of a statement for the Alabama offense. On a day when the Crimson Tide rolled up 350 rushing yards, Yeldon's two-pointer sent a message that the Crimson Tide could get the offense it needed with the simplest of play calls. "We knew we wanted to come out and run the ball in the second half," center Barrett Jones said.
The ending was the highlight of a game filled with great performances. Alabama dominated the line of scrimmage with its running attack, with Eddie Lacy gaining 181 yards and earning Most Valuable Player honors, while his freshman teammate, TJ Yeldon, added 153. Still, after a blocked field goal attempt in the third quarter was returned by Georgia's Alec Ogletree for a 55-yard touchdown, Alabama trailed 21-10. Instead of panicking, Alabama kept pounding. Lacy and Yeldon each had touchdown runs as UA went back ahead 25-21 with 14:57 to play. Georgia regained the lead on a 10-yard scoring run by Todd Gurley, setting the stage for Cooper's winning touchdown and the late-game heroics for the 12-1 Crimson Tide. "I couldn't be prouder, not only for the way they competed in this game but for the way they have come back all year," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "This conference will test your mettle. We beat a really good team out there today. We really couldn't handle their pass rush and it was difficult for us to throw the ball, but you have to give our offensive line a lot of credit for getting a hat on a hat." "It wasn't our best game," Lacy said. "But we were able to stay and weather the storm."
Even at the very end, it seemed like there would be no end. Alabama appeared to have finally landed the blow with an interception. Replay reversed that verdict. This game was not destined to end that quietly. Instead, it ended not because the losing team failed to make a play, but because it did make one, as did the winners. Georgia was throwing for the end zone in those final 15 seconds, hoping to either find Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone or put Alabama through one more excruciating play. Instead, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley reached, touched the football and altered its path. It fell directly in the arms of Georgia's Chris Conley, who did what he has been trained to do in all his years as a receiver. He caught the ball - and sealed his team's doom. There was no way to stop the clock, no chance for Georgia to get the 5 yards that would seal its greatest win in three decades. Instead, it is Alabama that now has history firmly in its sights, a chance to win a third BCS title in four years. Survival was what mattered.
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."
"You're going to have adversity thrown at you in any part of the game, left guard Chance Warmack said. "That was adversity at its best. You've got to respond to that. We did a good job of responding to it." This was a rare dose of adversity for an Alabama team that won the majority of its games by wide margins, but it wasn’t totally new. In November, alone, it came in the form of a 3-point deficit with less than a minute to play at LSU’s Death Valley, or a 20-point first-quarter deficit one week later against Texas A&M. Even though the latter resulted in the Crimson Tide’s one and only loss of the season, both instances seemingly brought the best out of Alabama. "Once we started to play teams that put up a bit of a fight, we started to get used to it," nose guard Jesse Williams said. "We fight through the whole game, especially in the fourth quarter. We knew if we just kept fighting, the deficit would change."
How many times do you see a team fail on a two-point conversion attempt and then regret that attempt later. There still were 19 minutes and 19 seconds to go in the game. Closing to within a field goal didn't seem so urgent at the time. But Yeldon easily ran through a hole up the middle for the points. And think about that impact. In the waning seconds of the game, Georgia could have tied the game and sent it to overtime with a field goal if not for the bold decision. It's the kind of decision that gets criticized if it backfires, but it didn't, so we won't.
The Crimson Tide mixed its plays liberally in the first half of Saturday's 32-28 win over Georgia, throwing often on first down. But when they found themselves trailing by 11 midway through the third quarter, the Tide fell back on its running game and put the game in the hands of one of the best offensive lines in the country. The result: 350 punishing yards on the ground and a worn-out Georgia defense. Any Notre Dame defenders watching on Saturday surely took notice, as the performance sets up an ultimate strength-on-strength matchup in the BCS championship game on Jan. 7.
Confetti dropped from the Georgia Dome ceiling as No. 2 Alabama celebrated a 32-28 Southeastern Conference championship game victory and the No. 3 Bulldogs tried to come to grips with what went wrong at the end. Linebacker Alec Ogletree removed a towel that draped his head and slammed it against the ground several times as he headed through a tunnel. Tears slid down senior receiver Tavarres King’s cheek outside the locker room after coach Mark Richt addressed the team in the postgame locker room. Georgia (11-2) won’t have its first national title since 1980 or its first SEC title since 2005. "I’m crushed, man," King said. "To be honest, we’re crushed. It stinks. To be so close and to taste victory against a phenomenal team at this stage, at this game, it hurts, it really hurts. … Those dreams were crushed today."
The Crimson Tide rallied, behind the running game, but Georgia’s offense rallied, too. The Bulldogs led 28-25 after Todd Gurley scored on a 10-yard run with 12:54 left. But for all Alabama’s running, it was a long pass play that was the game-winner. Quarterback AJ McCarron hit Amari Cooper for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 left. A chance for the Bulldogs to go to the national championship game was gone. Still, Georgia had its final chance, which players, coaches and fans will think about for a long time. "Hopefully I won’t dwell on it forever," Robinson said. "It’s messed up. But this team brought life back. I think people believed. And I think people still realize how close we really were to doing something that hadn’t been done in 30 years." Senior nose tackle John Jenkins put it another way. "A lot of people thought we were gonna get rolled over," he said. "We proved that we’re a better team than what people expect us to be."
Richt had a testy exchange with a media member who asked about Richt and quarterback Aaron Murray’s ability to win big games. "I don’t know what you’re saying," Richt said. "Why don’t you just say it straight up what you’re straight to say." People will say, the reporter asked, that Richt and Murray come up short on the biggest stage against the biggest opponents. "Is that what you’re saying or everybody else? Richt replied. The reporter, a radio talk show host, replied that he was hearing that "every day." "Well that’s for you to worry about then," Richt said. "If that’s what you say, then I’ll answer the question. If you think other people are saying that, I’m not worried about that." Richt wasn’t done. "I want to say something else. If anybody thinks our guys didn’t play their tail off, and Aaron Murray didn’t play his tail off, they are crazy," he said. "That’s unbelievable somebody would even bring that up." Then Richt was done, leaving the stage and ending the postgame news conference.
Alabama has 17 seniors, 12 of whom are listed on the two-deep depth chart, compared to 29 sophomores, redshirt freshmen or true freshmen. Saban said it was gratifying to see the team come together this season and try to earn its own accomplishments, instead of living off the legacy of last year’s national championship team. "It’s a challenge that the coaches accepted and the players accepted and I just can’t be prouder of a group of guys," Saban said. "We kind of had that I-would-not-be-denied attitude out there today."
For the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide (12-1), the victory means a third trip to the BCS championship game in the past four years. They won the previous two. Alabama will face undefeated and No. 1-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) on Jan. 7. But Alabama coach Nick Saban indicated he and his players will enjoy the school’s 23rd SEC title for a while before worrying about that one. "My focus right now is to give the players the positive gratification they deserve," Alabama coach Nick Saban. "I don’t even know what the date of the (BCS) game is. We probably won’t practice for a couple of weeks."
"I watch these teams that are 7-5 that are talking about they might go to a BCS game because they won their championship?," Saban asked incredulously. "Something’s not right here. I don’t know what people think of the SEC… . I just don’t think it’s fair to the Georgia players, coaches and their institution if they don’t go to a BCS game." Georgia coach Mark Richt was interviewed before Saban made his remarks in the main interview area at the Georgia Dome. He agreed, but was less emphatic in his stance. "Well, it’s up to whoever is deciding and I’m not in charge of that," he said. "But do I think we are worthy of a BCS Bowl? Yes I do. I do."
Has a losing team ever had more championship-caliber men and moments? From Sanders Commings intercepting an AJ McCarron pass in the end zone to the same Commings catching a pass from tight end Arthur Lynch to convert a galvanizing fake punt; from Cornelius Washington blocking a field goal and Alec Ogletree taking the carom the distance; from the freshman back Todd Gurley pounding the midsection of the nation’s best defense to Murray taking his team downfield in the final minute … has there ever, in the long and distinguished history of Georgia football, been a prouder loss? Alas, the Bulldogs needed 85 yards, and they could manage only 80. Are five yards sufficient reason to characterize them as losers, to suggest that this four-point loss is living proof that Richt and/or Murray can’t win the Big One? No and no, and if you’re of such a mind didn’t you hear me when I said, "Go away"? Contrary to popular belief, not every winning effort translates to winning. Alabama was just a bit better (and much stronger up front), but the Bulldogs spurned every opportunity — and there were many — to throw up their collective hands and say, "We’ve given it a go, but this isn’t our day." And that fighting spirit nearly turned this into the Dogs’ day after all. "They played well, we played well, the clock ran out," Richt said. "What are you going to say?"
Alabama was the superior team physically. The Tide rushed for 350 yards, led by Eddie Lacy (187) and T.J. Yeldon (154). The physical domination started with the Tide’s offensive line taking over the game in the second half, blowing open holes in Georgia’s defensive front. It continued with the Dogs, clearly worn down and drained, began to miss tackles. "[The defense] got tired of being run against — I could figure that one out," Richt said. "We just got knocked off the ball." At some point, it figured Alabama would try to get Georgia to bite on play-action, and that’s exactly what happened. With the Dogs leading 28-25, Alabama had a first down at the Georgia 45 when quarterback A.J. McCarron faked a handoff, stepped back and hit wide receiver Amari Cooper streaking down the left sideline, behind cornerback Damian Swann. The touchdown put Alabama, which once trailed 21-10, up 32-28 with just over three minutes left. The Dogs had two more chances. They went three-and-out on one possession and quickly had to punt. They used their last two time outs during Alabama’s possession but forced the Tide to give up the ball one more time. They got the ball back with 1:08 remaining. "We’ve had plenty of one-minute drives during the season so it’s not like guys were freaking out or anything," Murray said later. "We were just like, ‘Let’s play ball."
Mark Richt on spiking the ball: "Well, spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call play, so we called the play and we were taking ‑‑ the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone and the ball got batted, the ball got tipped and it landed to a receiver that was running a speed out." And more: "We had the play we wanted. We had a good play. The ball got tipped at the line of scrimmage and it fell in the arms of a guy in play. The ball was going to the back end of the end zone, either a catch or out of the end zone. Because if you have, I don’t know how many seconds there were, 15 or whatever it was, if you spike the ball, you might only have two plays after that. If you throw the ball in the end zone, you probably get three plays out of it. So once you spike it, it does take a little time to spike it, and you reduce the chance of having the third play, basically. So the goal was to throw it in the end zone. That’s whatMurraywas attempting to do. Once again, the ball got batted, and landed in the arms of our guy in play.
It’s the broken record that won’t stop playing. Quarterback Aaron Murray’s record against ranked opponents moved to 3-9 with Georgia’s 32-28 loss to No. 2 Alabama in the Southeastern Conference championship on Saturday. "I definitely think I had my share of mistakes and definitely missed some throws throughout the game that I wish I could go take back," he said. "I’m very hard on myself. I feel like I could take a lot of the blame, and I am." The voices of Murray’s critics likely will continue to get louder with the loss, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said that’s something that comes with the territory. "That’s part of playing this game. That’s part of playing that position," Bobo said. "There’s going to be criticism, but heck, he’s handled it well his whole career. He does nothing but give his all for the University of Georgia. He’s a winner and I’m really proud of how he played tonight.
As Alabama players stormed the field and confetti rained from the Georgia Dome roof, Georgia players made a painfully familiar walk to the locker room. Most made the trek stoically, some with million-mile stares and a few obviously fighting back tears. Unlike the scene a year ago when Georgia players trudged to the locker room after a 42-10 loss to LSU, the Bulldogs didn’t leave the field as the SEC East’s feel-good story after rallying from an 0-2 start to the season. This time they had plans to be here, they planned to win here, and they weren’t shy about saying it. This season was less about surprise and all about expectations. It was their team, their time and there were going to be no regrets, as the team’s motto goes. "Several guys came back to be deemed SEC champions, to play for a national championship," Georgia senior receiver Tavarres King said. "Those dreams were crushed tonight. You can imagine everybody is pretty mad and sad. After all those hours you put in for 60 minutes, it’s just sad it has to end like this."
Alabama was a state away from the Georgia Dome this time last year, caught up in a BCS beauty pageant with Oklahoma State while LSU was strutting around this field with the biggest prize of all. Getting a shot at LSU in the national championship game with some funky BCS math couldn’t ease the sting—no matter how good it looked. "Having to watch that was one of the worst days of my football life," Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said of last year’s SEC title game. Starting to see where this is headed? So when Georgia decided against spiking the ball with 14 seconds to play and setting up for a final play or two; when the Dawgs put an entire game of strongest man wins on a hurried final pass play from the Alabama 8, two years of work—last year and this year—had come to this. For Alabama, it has come full-circle: A season as the controversial champion. A new season as the hunted unbeaten. A week as the upset victim of the year. And finally, a moment of good fortune in a week of crazy that allowed the Tide back into a national title chase that made this SEC game that much more important.
It’s unfortunate that such a great game ended on that sort of play. I give Richt credit for sticking with his strategy and then lucidly explaining it after the game. The bottom line is these decisions are extremely difficult, and his strategy was defensible. And if you’d like to know why Alabama won and Georgia lost, I can think of a number of other more significant issues, including another thorny strategic question: Nick Saban’s decision to go for two in the third quarter. Now that was an interesting decision.
He had just come up with the final stop in a game that featured far fewer stops than we're used to, at least in clashes of Southeastern Conference powers. Somewhere, somehow, a slugfest had morphed into a shootout. But C.J. Mosley ended it, blitzing, leaping and tipping Aaron Murray's last pass. Intended for the end zone, the ball instead fell into the arms of Georgia receiver Chris Conley, who fell 5 yards short as time expired. And after the confetti had fallen and the wild celebration had subsided and No. 2 Alabama had been crowned champion of college football's best conference, Mosley had a confession: the linebacker liked it better this way – a 32-28 victory over No. 3 Georgia, two teams trading haymakers, swapping touchdowns instead of scrapping for field goals. "It was just back and forth, back and forth," Mosley said. "They made plays. We made plays. That's when your true ability comes out, when you're able to bounce back from a big play or to make a big play."
Mark Richt’s wife, Katharyn, waited for him in the hallway outside the Georgia locker room. She sat on a black platform in the middle of a small, tight group. Nobody spoke much. You could smell the diesel fumes from the buses idling around the corner, and hear the blowers on the field piling up Alabama’s victory confetti, but here in the hallway it felt like a hospital waiting room, with family and friends trying to accept this little death. The players were out there in the buses. They had tried to explain what it felt like at the end, when they had the ball at the Alabama eight-yard line, with a chance to win the best SEC title game there ever was and advance to the national championshp game, and could not get all the way home. A TV guy asked Todd Gurley, the freshman running back, a convoluted question about frustration and comebacks and pride, and Gurley just looked up at the end and said, "I mean, it’s life, man."