ATLANTA -- When the game finally ended, when Georgia receiver Chris Conley caught a pass tipped by Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and fell down five yards short of the end zone and the clock ran out on the most dramatic game in SEC championship history, Chance Warmack wasn't watching. His coaches had told him to be ready to go back on the field.
"I asked, "What happened?'" said Alabama's All-America guard. "Oh, OK. I don't have to put my helmet back on."
He'll have to put his helmet on again in Miami on Jan. 7, when 12-1 Alabama returns to the BCS National Championship Game to face undefeated Notre Dame.
Unlike in 2011, when the Tide sat home on Championship Saturday and still made it to college football's biggest stage, No. 2 Alabama is going to the BCS title game after fending off No. 3 Georgia, 32-28, in a back-and-forth thriller. No one can say the Tide didn't earn their national championship berth this year; on the contrary, they overcame an 11-point deficit, trailed again until barely three minutes remained in the contest and came within five yards of spending early January at the Cotton Bowl instead.
"It was one of the toughest [games] in my life," said Alabama tight end Michael Williams. "We took the first hit, they had our number in the first half. We jabbed, they jabbed, we got the knockout punch at the end."
The instant classic ended only because Georgia ran out of time, when Conley caught a pass inbounds and slipped after the Bulldogs had driven 77 yards in just over a minute. Five yards marked the difference between Nick Saban's program playing for its third BCS championship in four years and Mark Richt's program narrowly missing out on the best opportunity of his 11-year coaching tenure.
"I'm crushed, man," said Bulldogs receiver Tavarres King. "It stinks, just to be so close, to taste victory against this phenomenal Alabama team on this stage. It hurts."
Alabama players were already being asked about Notre Dame within minutes of the game's end, which is a shame, because Saturday's classic deserves its own window of appreciation. Four years ago, Saban's team participated in a similarly tense game here, when a Tim Tebow-led Florida squad rallied from an early deficit to beat the top-ranked Tide and clinch its own trip to Miami. But this one featured a little bit more of everything: momentum swings, trickery (each team faked a punt), game-changing plays (Georgia's blocked field goal and touchdown return) and explosive runs, particularly from Alabama's tandem of backs.
Ultimately, the latter is why Alabama will be favored next month to take home another trophy. In a stunning display of power, the Tide's Eddie Lacy (20 carries, 181 yards, two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (25 carries, 153 yards, one score) bulldozed a Bulldogs defense dripping with NFL talent.
Mind you, it didn't start that way. Georgia kept Alabama off the scoreboard until just 1:59 remained in the first half. It appeared to be every bit the Tide's equal, defying most pregame prognostications. Two first-half turnovers by Tide quarterback AJ McCarron (a fumble when sacked by Bulldogs star Jarvis Jones and an interception in the end zone) caused 'Bama's offense to stall, though the Tide did take a 10-7 lead just before halftime.
But Georgia, which got its own big performance from freshman tailback Todd Gurley (23 carries, 122 yards, two touchdowns), opened the second half with a go-ahead touchdown drive. Then, Alec Ogletree returned Cornelius Washington's block of a Cade Foster 49-yard field goal attempt to the end zone. The red-and-black half of the Georgia Dome went nuts; the pretty ladies with elephant lapels fell silently stunned.
But that's precisely when 'Bama's powerful offensive line took over.
"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."
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray (18-of-33, 265 yards, one touchdown, one interception) immediately led the Dawgs down the field to go back up 28-25, completing a picturesque 45-yard pass to King along the way. When Georgia finally stuffed Lacy on the ensuing possession, forcing Alabama to punt, the Dawgs seemed to have stemmed the Tide.
But one three-and-out later, the dam broke again. On first-and-10 from the Georgia 45, Alabama called a play it had seemingly been setting up the entire second half. McCarron faked play-action, waited a tick for receiver Amari Cooper to burn cornerback Damian Swann in man coverage and uncorked a 45-yard bomb to go up 32-28 with 3:15 left. At that point, Saban looked like a genius for calling for a two-point conversion back when the score was 21-16, as Georgia would need a touchdown -- not a field goal -- to stay alive in the game.
And seeing how things ended with the Dawgs inside the 10-yard line (Richt took heat afterward for not having Murray spike the ball on first-and-goal at the eight to stop the clock), that point made all the difference.
"We came close," said Richt. "We just didn't get it done."
The pain of Saturday's loss was evident at the end of Richt's postgame press conference, when the perpetually mild-mannered coach got visibly angry at a reporter who said, "People will say that you and Aaron Murray, specifically, come up short on the biggest stage against the biggest opponents." After initially brushing the questioner off, then leaving the dais, he stormed back to defend his quarterback.
"I want to say something else," Richt said. "Anybody [that] thinks our guys didn't play their tail off and Aaron Murray didn't play his tail off, they are crazy. That's unbelievable somebody would even bring that up."
Unfortunately for Richt and Murray, the Bulldogs, by virtue of playing an extra game, will likely fall behind No. 4 Florida in the final standings and thus out of the BCS bowl lineup. "It's a crying shame if Georgia doesn't get to go to a BCS bowl game," said Saban.
Alabama, on the other hand, will head off to play in what will be assuredly be the most anticipated BCS title game since USC-Texas in 2005. And much like that game, where the Trojans were preemptively billed as the greatest team of all-time, the Tide will likely be viewed as a heavy favorite against Notre Dame despite holding the lower ranking.
But should they be?
These Tide were not nearly as dominant as the 2009 and '11 teams, especially over the season's final month, when they needed a last-minute touchdown to win at LSU and when they fell at home to Texas A&M. Though they eked out a victory on Saturday and were able to run all over Georgia's 67th-ranked rushing defense, they may not be able do the same against Notre Dame's fifth-ranked unit.
Saban wasn't ready to go there on Saturday night ("I don't even know what the date of the game is," he said), but he gave a fair and appreciative assessment of his resilient squad.
"We have a little different kind of team," he said. "We have a really good offensive line, good runners, good quarterback, some good receivers. Defensively, we are probably not as good and talented as we have been in the past. But you know, this team really plays together well."
On Jan. 7, they'll play for a shot at history. Alabama will attempt to become the first team in the BCS era to win three national championships. It will be two storied programs on the sport's biggest stage, and it will be Lacy and Yeldon against Manti Te'o. It could be a fantastic evening.
And yet, for all of its promise, it will be hard-pressed to match the emotions and excitement that preceded the confetti here on Saturday.