ATLANTA — Alabama 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 the No. 2 Crimson Tide barely held off No. 3 Georgia 32-28 in a Southeastern Conference title game for the ages Saturday.
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 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, winding 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. Alabama celebrated 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.
The Tide 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.
"I'm ready to have heart attack here," Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
For the Bulldogs (11-2), the consolation prize will likely be a spot in the Capital One Bowl, though they certainly looked like a team deserving of a BCS bid. Georgia coach Mark Richt said his team had the play it wanted at the end, but Alabama ruined it by getting a hand on the ball. And if it had fallen incomplete instead of going to Conley, who instinctively caught it, the Bulldogs could have tried another play.
"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."
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.
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, too.
Using up their timeouts and forcing a punt, the Bulldogs got the ball back at their 15 with 1:16 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 slugfest in the first half, the final two quarters were nothing but run-and-gun.
Alabama running. Georgia gunning.
Trailing 10-7, Georgia took the kickoff to start the second half and marched down the field for a 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 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.
After the clock had finally run out on Georgia, Richt made one last pitch for a BCS bid.
"Do I think we're worthy of a BCS bowl?" he 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."
Alabama has a chance for the double championship it was denied a year ago. The 2011 version of the Tide didn't even win the SEC West after losing to LSU in Tuscaloosa, but got a rematch with the SEC champion Tigers in the BCS title game.
In the do-over, Alabama romped to a 21-0 win — clearly the nation's best team, but still hearing complaints it didn't deserve a second chance.
Now, the Tide heads to Miami with a title already in hand.
Georgia, looking to make up for a 42-10 loss to LSU in last year's SEC title game, struck first after Richt gambled on a fake punt from the Alabama 36. Lynch, the up back, took a direct snap and lofted a wobbly but accurate pass over the middle to cornerback Sanders Commings for a 16-yard completion. Two plays later, Murray went to Jay Rome for a 19-yard touchdown pass.
But, mirroring last year's SEC title game, Georgia failed to take advantage of some chances to put more points on the board. Early on, Jarvis Jones forced a fumble by McCarron, but Marshall Morgan's 50-yard field goal attempt was wide right.
Alabama was guilty, too. Lacy was stopped just short stretching for the end zone, the ball squirted loose and McCarron had to fall on it. On the next play, the Tide quarterback threw a horrible pass toward the left pylon, Commings read it all the way and made an easy pick in the end zone.
The Tide got rolling late in the first half, the offensive line beginning to assert its dominance over the Bulldogs. Lacy took off down the right side on a 41-yard touchdown after Alabama sealed off Jones with a double team, creating a huge hole.
HaHa Clinton-Dix came up with an interception that set up Alabama for a halftime lead, though some questionable clock management by Saban cost a chance to go for a TD. He didn't call his first timeout of the half until 5 seconds remained, after McCarron scrambled to the Georgia 5. With not enough time to get off another play, Jeremy Shelley booted a 22-yard field goal.
In the end, the clock went Alabama's way.