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 Amari Cooper 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.
“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 they face top-ranked Notre Dame for the BCS crown on 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 national 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 have each 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.”
What a game it was.
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 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.
“Do I think we’re worthy of a BCS bowl?” Richt said. “Yes I do.”
The Bulldogs even got props from Saban.
“It would be a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl game,” the Alabama coach said. “They played a tremendous game out there. That was a great football game, by both teams. It came right down to the last play.”
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. Eddie Lacy — the game’s MVP — rumbled for 181 yards on 20 carries, including two TDs. 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 NFL’s 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.
Georgia played like a champion until the clock ran out, though.
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 their last gasp.
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.
After a defensive struggle in the first half, with Alabama kicking a field goal on the final play for a 10-7 lead, the last two quarters were nothing but run-and-gun.
The Bulldogs took the second-half kickoff and marched right down the field for the go-ahead touchdown. Gurley ran it seven times, capped by leg-churning, 3-yard drive up the middle to make it 14-10.
Alabama looked like it was about to answer, holding the ball for more than 5 1-2 minutes, before the drive stalled. Cade Foster came on for a 50-yard field-goal attempt, but his low kick was swatted down by Cornelius Washington. Ogletree scooped up the bouncing ball in stride and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown.
Suddenly, the Bulldogs led 21-10.
But the Tide wasn’t about to go away that easy. Yeldon broke off a 31-yard run, Swann was called interference on a throw down the middle, and Yeldon powered in from the 10. He ran it again for the 2-point conversion, pulling Alabama to 21-18.
Georgia went three-and-out, and the ground assault resumed. Lacy barreled over right guard for 32 yards. Yeldon got it down to the 1. Lacy returned for the first snap of the fourth period, bulling over to put Alabama ahead 25-21.
The Tide’s momentum lasted about 2 minutes.
Murray found King down the middle for a 45-yard completion and Gurley finished off the lightning-quick possession with a 10-yard touchdown run up the middle, putting Georgia back on top, 28-25.
But Alabama knows a thing or two about comebacks, having rebounded the last two years from regular-season losses.
Just three weeks ago, the Tide was upset at home by Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.
Now, Bama is off to play for another title.
“It’s just the never-give-up attitude,” McCarron said. “You’ve got to keep fighting through it.”