ATLANTA – Barrett Jones hobbled through the Alabama locker room with a crutch supporting him, his left foot injured.
The Crimson Tide center hurt it during the first quarter of the Southeastern Conference championship game but never missed an offensive snap. This was no time to be injured – not with a trip to the BCS championship game on the line and 'Bama being pushed to the brink by inspired Georgia. So he played through the pain for 60 minutes, then smiled through it when the game was won.
"Feel great," he said. "Couldn't be better."
The fifth-year senior has been part of two national champions and will play for a third title next month, against Notre Dame, in one of the juiciest matchups in recent history. But Jones called Alabama's 32-28 victory over the Bulldogs "my favorite win I've ever had. We might have to extend the 24-hour [celebration] rule to 48 for this one."
Even The Celebration Grinch himself, Nick Saban, might agree with that. The game was that good, that intense, that dramatic – and that hard to win.
After its loss to Texas A&M Nov. 10, Alabama needed some help to get into the BCS championship came. It got that help, but in the end it absolutely had to earn its way to Miami.
Georgia made the Crimson Tide work for it.
"It was a fist fight," 'Bama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker said. "Every single play."
In a game that reinforced why the SEC is the best league and why this is the best conference title show in America, Alabama had to come from behind three times to beat the Bulldogs. The result left SEC commissioner Mike Slive running a hand through his white hair and saying, "Wow," over and over. It left Georgia fans broken-hearted but proud. It left Alabama fans giddy but drained.
The Tide needed everything it could muster to win. It needed 350 bruising yards on the ground against a top-25 defense. It needed a 45-yard bomb from AJ McCarron to freshman Amari Cooper for the winning points with three minutes and 15 seconds left, a nifty play call by offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. And it needed to win the thing twice in the final minute.
The first time came when it appeared Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner hauled in a deflected pass for an interception. That set off a wild celebration: Alabama players were running around, coaches were going crazy, the crimson half of the Georgia Dome was euphoric.
But then it wasn't over. The play was reviewed and it was clear that Milliner trapped the ball. The result was changed to an incompletion, and Georgia had one last chance from its own 28 with 45 seconds left and no timeouts.
After catching zero passes until the final drive, tight end Arthur Lynch became Rob Gronkowski. Quarterback Aaron Murray hit him for 15 yards, then hit Tavarres King for 23, then went back to Lynch for 26 more to the Alabama 8-yard line with 15 seconds left.
What was it like watching from the Tide sideline?
"Stressful," said Jones.
"We need a miracle right now," thought Fluker.
The miracle appeared to be Georgia's. Incredibly, the 'Dogs were one completion away from winning in epic fashion.
Unless, of course, that completion was short of the end zone.
Georgia made a critical error. The Bulldogs should have spiked the ball and taken 30 seconds to huddle and think. They probably could have gotten off two more plays. Instead they rushed to the line and Murray threw a pass in the flat, short of the end zone. When Chris Conley slipped to the ground with the ball at the 5 with five seconds left, the game was over.
For real this time.
"In that situation, you want a touchdown or an incomplete pass," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said.
Richt will have to deal with second-guessing of the final few seconds, but he wasn't in the mood to be questioned about not winning the big one. According to the SEC's transcript of Richt's postgame interview, the final exchange between the coach and a reporter went like this:
Question: "People will say that you and Aaron Murray specifically come up short on the biggest stage against the biggest opponents."
Richt: "Is that what you're saying or everybody else – if that's what you're saying – are you saying that?"
Reporter: "No, I'm saying I hear that every day …"
Richt: "Well, that's for you to worry about then. 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 then left and came back to add this: "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. That's unbelievable somebody would even bring that up."
After the way Georgia played, knocking the legacies of Richt and Murray was indeed unbelievable. The coach and quarterback deserved better on this night. The whole team did.
On multiple occasions, you expected Alabama to exert full control and put the 'Dogs away. Georgia wouldn't allow it.
"They were wearing down," Fluker said. "But they still believed they could win, too."
The Tide kept hammering away with running backs Eddie Lacy (181 rushing yards and two touchdowns) and T.J. Yeldon (153 yards and one touchdown). Cooper added 127 receiving yards on seven catches.
But Georgia kept responding, kept moving downfield on the nation's No. 1 defense, kept battling.
"This conference will test your mettle," Saban said. "There is a lot of good teams in this conference. We beat a really good team out there today."
There is widespread SEC fatigue in Gridworld. People outside the South are tired of the dominance, tired of the smugness, tired of the sense of entitlement that comes from the 14-team behemoth and its fans.
But on nights like this, the league's greatness cannot be denied. It wasn't entitlement that got Alabama to the BCS title game – it was earned. The Crimson Tide's mettle was indeed tested to the utmost, and found worthy of an SEC title.
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