There was, as usual, a spot in the national title game riding on the outcome of the SEC championship game in Atlanta today, and Georgia and Alabama helped the conference live up to its reputation as the top dog in college football by producing a classic contest – one that went down to the final play. Alabama pulled out a 32-28 win, but not before Georgia got inside to 10-yard line with – it seemed – two shots at the end zone, and a win. (And all this after Alabama earlier appeared to intercept a pass, which would have effectively ended the game. The call was later – and rightly, to our eyes – overturned.)
But back to that final play. Georgia had the ball at the eight-yard line and 15 seconds on the clock. They had the choice to run a quick play, and try another if quarterback Aaron Murray’s pass fell incomplete, or spike the ball, stop the clock and re-compose themselves for their two last shots. The Bulldogs chose the first option… but things didn’t quite go as planned from there. The game-ending sequence:
This led to a couple major criticisms of Georgia’s strategy. One: what the hell were they doing, not throwing to the end zone? The answer, of course, made clearer on replay, was that Alabama got a hand on the ball, re-directing a pass that looked like it was intended for the end zone. This could then lead to another criticism – why did the receiver catch the ball, since if he’d just batted it down Georgia would have gotten one more shot? – but the answer there is that a receiver’s instinct is to catch the ball. Georgia’s Chris Conley did. It was just a bad time to do it.
And the other main criticism, once echoed by CBS color commentator Gary Danielson: why didn’t Georgia just spike the ball and give itself a chance to better set up for those final two plays? This one is still arguable, and will be forever. And while it’s tempting to say it was a huge mistake, given what wound up happening… well, who’s to say Alabama doesn’t tip a pass even if the Dawgs do stop the clock there? In hindsight, knowing what happened, maybe even Georgia coach Mark Richt wishes he’d have had Murray clock it, but it would have been no guarantee of success if he had.
And that’s because Alabama is really good, and despite getting torched for much of that pulse-quickening last drive, made a big play when it had to by tipping that final pass. While every Georgia fan will be asking “What if?” for the rest of their lives and probably thinking their team should have won, the truth is it put forth a valiant effort today against a team that most would still tell you is the best in America, and one expected to beat Notre Dame and get its hands on the crystal football in January. Many are annoyed by the SEC’s glowing opinion of itself. Today, despite the chaos of that last play, the bravado was fully earned.