ATLANTA — The clock ran out on Georgia’s national championship aspirations Saturday with the Bulldogs five yards short of the end zone.
What would have been a drive for the ages to send the Bulldogs to Miami for the BCS title game ended when Chris Conley caught a tipped pass in the right flat and slipped and fell with six seconds left after a three-yard reception.
Without any time outs left, Georgia never got another play off.
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.”
A team loaded with NFL talent on defense and a third-year starting quarterback had worked to come through for a moment like this.
“These guys fought their hearts out,” said quarterback Aaron Murray. “That’s the first thing coach Richt said in there is how proud he was of the fight we gave today. It’s a tough loss. You can’t say we didn’t play our hearts out and play for all 60 minutes.”
Alabama (12-1) will play for its third BCS national title in four seasons. The Crimson Tide are headed Miami to play unbeaten Notre Dame on Jan. 7.
“We wanted to go to Miami, but we came up short again this year,” Ogletree said.
Georgia appears likely to land in either the the Cotton Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 4 or the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year’s Day, according to a high-level Georgia source and several others in the know.
“It’s kind of like being on top of the mountain and falling down,” tight end Arthur Lynch said.
Georgia lost by 32 to LSU last year in the SEC title game, but Ogletree said this one was more painful because of what was riding on this one.
“Well, it hurts,” Richt said. “It’s disappointing. Hurt a lot. I mean, we prepared hard all week, all season, all offseason to get back to the Dome and win.”
Alabama rushed for an SEC championship-record 350 yards, getting 181 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries from MVP Eddie Lacy and 153 yards and a touchdown on 25 from T.J. Yeldon.
The de facto national semifinal had an SEC title game record six lead changes — Georgia led 21-10 in the third quarter — but after moving the ball on the ground for much of the game, Alabama went ahead for good on an A.J. McCarron 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper, who got behind Damian Swann for a touchdown with 3:15 to play.
“It was like a little stutter and go,” Swann said. “It was something that caught me off guard. He just made a play.”
Murray (18 of 33 for 265 yards with a touchdown and interception) drove the Bulldogs from their own 15 with 1:08 left down to the Alabama 8-yard line after a 26-yard catch to Lynch with 15 seconds to play.
“Everybody was standing up on the sidelines,” cornerback Sanders Commings said. “We thought we were there.”
Instead of spiking the ball, Georgia snapped it with 10 seconds left.
“Spiking the ball takes time,” Richt said. “We had plenty of time to call a play, so we called the play.”
The call was Murray to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone. Murray thought Mitchell was open, but the pass was tipped at the line and Conley, the inside receiver, caught it.
“That’s not a good thing when you don’t have time-outs,” Richt said. “We were taking a shot at the end zone right there. The ball got batted so what can you do? … You’d like a guy that has the presence of mind to bat the ball down knowing, but I don’t know if there’s anybody in America that I would have thought of on that one.”
Conley didn’t know until after the game that the ball wasn’t intended for him.
“It was right there in front of me and instinctively I grabbed it when I probably should have let it go,” Conley said. “Unfortunately I didn’t make the smart play and then I was too slow getting off the ground. That one’s on me.”
Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said if he had a chance to do it again, he would have called for a spike.
“Yeah. Hindsight’s easy,” he said. “I definitely would if I had to do it over have him spike. We worked on that a lot if we would get in a formation and try to get a play called really quick and try to give us three chances to get the ball in the end zone and it just didn’t work out that way. … There was confusion lining up. We just didn’t line up properly and didn’t get it executed.”
Bobo knows the way the game ended will linger for years to come in the minds of Georgia fans.
“I’m sure,” he said. “We didn’t finish. We didn’t win the ballgame. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but our guys fought their butts off and really proud of how they competed the whole game.”
Said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham: “It was a battle and we’re one play away from being in here celebrating.”
Richt said he told his team he was disappointed in the outcome, but not in them.
“You know, it was a knock-down, drag out fight,” Richt said, “and everybody swung to the end. We just didn’t get it done, but I told them, I was proud of them.”