They’ve got it all wrong.
They say Alabama will play Notre Dame for college football’s championship on January 7. They say Georgia fell one game short of playing for the crystal football.
They played the national championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.
You can hype Alabama-Notre Dame all you want, and heaven knows they will. By kickoff we’ll probably know whether each head coach prefers briefs or boxers. And you can hope that a great game will ensue. But don’t count on it.
There’s no way that game will top the SEC championship.
Alabama led, 32-28, when Georgia’s Chris Conley cradled a tipped pass at the Alabama five yard line, and time expired. In his opening remarks at the official post-game press conference, Georgia coach Mark Richt evoked memories of Vince Lombardi.
"Somebody just asked me a second ago what I thought the difference was, and the only thing I can think of is we just ran out of time."
And though the disappointment is great, so is the admiration of the effort. Bulldog Nation couldn’t be prouder.
If you believe Notre Dame will give Alabama as much of a tussle as Georgia did, more power to you. Even adding a heavy dose of Irish luck to Notre Dame’s considerable skill, you won’t find better theater than Alabama-Georgia.
We do get jaded living in this part of the country. We know the SEC plays the best football in the country. There’s no room for argument. Now that the conference has backed it up with six straight national championships, the case is closed as far as we’re concerned.
So with Georgia and Alabama having staged the best SEC championship game in history, you may logically conclude that this was the de facto national championship game.
Proof of the game’s excellence rests with its ebb and flow. Neither team could keep the other down for long. Once one team got knocked down and fell behind, it came back with a vengeance. Six times the lead changed hands.
Imagine the effort it took for these two teams to tally 60 points against two of the best defenses in college football.
Think about the yeoman effort of Alabama’s offensive line. This group produced 350 yards rushing. And Alabama had to run. The Tide went almost exclusively to the run because the line couldn’t handle Georgia’s pass rush.
That ground attack allowed Alabama to control the ball for 37 minutes. Despite that tremendous advantage, they could not put Georgia away. And the tired Georgia defense hung in there, finally getting the stop it needed.
Nursing a 7-0 lead, Georgia surrendered 10 points in a dreadful sequence during the final two minutes of the first half. So, naturally, the Dogs began the second half with a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to reclaim the lead.
And so it went. This game matched two heavyweights, standing toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring, trading blows, refusing to yield, rising to meet each new challenge. This was Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. One noble in victory, one equally noble in defeat.
This game was so good that it moved Alabama coach Nick Saban, never one to be effusive in his praise, to laud Georgia after the game. "I think it’s a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t go to a BCS bowl game," Saban said at his own post game press conference. And Saban acted on his words. His final ballot in the USA Today coaches’ poll had Georgia number three.
"They played a tremendous game out there today," Saban continued. "That was a great football game by both teams. And they could have won at the end just as soon as us, and it came right down to the last play."
Saban went on at length to extol the virtues of the Georgia team, and then turned to the reporter and said, "You didn’t really ask me that question, did you? You gave me an opportunity to give that answer. I appreciate it."
Despite how well they played, and how warmly their effort was received, the Dogs still felt the still of losing.
"I’m crushed, man," Tavarres King told Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald. "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."
Arthur Lynch chimed in, "It’s kind of like being on top of the mountain and falling down."
Aaron Murray told Weiszer, "These guys fought their hearts out. The first thing coach Richt said in there is how proud he was of the fight we gave today. You can’t say we didn’t play our hearts out and play for 60 minutes."
And at the end of those 60 minutes, when Georgia got the stop it needed, and got the ball back with 68 seconds left to cover 85 yards, the Dogs tore through the nation’s best defense for 80 of those yards.
And then they just ran out of time.