ATLANTA — Alabama got a hand on the ball, which wobbled into the arms of a Georgia receiver who wasn’t supposed to catch it.
Before the Bulldogs could get off another play, the clock ran out.
The Crimson Tide is heading back to the national championship game. By a mere 5 yards.
AJ McCarron threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to AmariCooper with 3:15 remaining, and No. 2 Alabama barely held on at the end, beating No. 3 Georgia 32-28 in a Southeastern Conference title game for the ages Saturday.
Former Dutchtown standout Eddie Lacy ran for 181 yards and scored Alabama’s first touchdown and was named the game’s MVP. Lacy scored another touchdown later in the game.
“I’m ready to have a heart attack here,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said.
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.
“We just ran out of time,” Georgia coach Mark Richt moaned.
Alabama (12-1) will get a chance to make it three out of four when it faces top-ranked Notre Dame for the BCS crown Jan. 7 in Miami.
This time, Alabama will head to the big game with a championship already in its pocket — unlike last year’s squad, which didn’t even make it to Atlanta but got a do-over against SEC champion LSU in the BCS title game.
Even though the Tide left little doubt it was truly the best team in the country, routing the Tigers 21-0, there were plenty who thought Saban’s team didn’t deserve a rematch.
There will be no complaints when Alabama heads to South Florida for a dream matchup between two of college football’s most storied programs. The Tide and Notre Dame each have won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school.
“This group has been fantastic,” Saban said. “They were able to accomplish something of significance and something that last year’s team didn’t accomplish, which is win the SEC championship.”
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 (11-2) 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 and ended 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.
Richt said the offense had the play it wanted at the end, but Alabama ruined it by tipping the pass.
If it had fallen incomplete instead of going to Conley, who instinctively caught it, the Bulldogs likely would’ve had at least one more play, maybe two.
Instead, they were done.
“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.”
The consolation prize will likely be a spot in the Capital One Bowl, though the Bulldogs certainly looked like a team deserving of something better.
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. Lacy’s 181 yards came on 20 carries. Freshman T.J. Yeldon added 153 yards on 25 carries, also scoring a TD.
After the game, Lacy hooked up with the guy he replaced in the Alabama backfield — Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, now with the New Orleans Saints.
“He just told me congratulations and that I did a great job running and it was it was the best he’s ever seen me run.” Lacy said.
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.
Using up their timeouts and forcing a punt, the Bulldogs got the ball back at their 15 with 1:08 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 the last gasp of their BCS title hopes.
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.
“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.”