I returned home from the Georgia Dome physically spent and emotionally drained after the SEC Championship Game, which was one of the most wrenching losses I have ever experienced as a college football fan. The inconsistent combination of frustration, pride, disappointment, anger, hope, anguish, gratitude, shock, and hope swirling around inside me has yet to coalesce into anything I am able to get my arms around, leaving me uncertain how to feel and which way to turn.
Opportunities were squandered tonight; a season was not. As NCT noted on this week’s podcast roundtable, our options were between a merely outstanding season and an utterly historic one. Our disappointment over the fact that it will be the former ought not to blind us to what has been achieved.
That said, the loss was made all the more maddening by the fact that, like Maxwell Smart, we missed it by that much, literally: Aaron Murray’s final pass was completed (unfortunately) to Chris Conley at the Alabama Crimson Tide’s five yard line. The Georgia Bulldogs were 15 feet from a conference title and a national championship shot when time expired. Should I be more proud that the ‘Dawgs came so close or more infuriated that they fell just short?
My attempt to answer that question yields a result every bit as muddled as the game itself. Pick two figures at random from the stat sheet, and they will reveal details that are absolutely irreconcilable with one another. ‘Bama rushed for 350 yards, but Georgia won the turnover battle. Both teams went four for twelve on third down, but the Tide scored on a 41-yard Eddie Lacy run and a 45-yard pass from A.J. McCarron to Amari Cooper. Officiating charitably characterized as inconsistent assessed seven penalties against the Bulldogs for 64 yards while tossing just two flags for 15 yards against the Crimson Tide, but Murray completed 55 per cent of his passes for 265 yards. The data are as all over the map as my emotions.
Perhaps, though, those mood swings merely mirror the momentum swings that are to be expected when two evenly matched elite teams square off in a winner-take-all game. Oh, I know that the subtly biased national news media and the openly antagonistic elements of the blogosphere will trot out the usual narratives about the Bulldogs’ softness and Mark Richt’s inability to win the big one, but, frankly, such people are idiots.
If you didn’t see two equally outstanding football teams who played their hearts out for 60 full minutes, you weren’t watching the same game I saw in the Dome tonight. If you don’t think Nick Saban coached that game based on the assumptions that Mark Richt was his equal and that the Bulldogs were as good as the Tide, you must have missed the similar schemes and the fake punts. If you want to give Alabama credit, as you should, for figuring out how to run the ball in the second half, you also have to give Georgia credit for building up a 21-10 third quarter lead that threatened to turn the game into the budding blowout I predicted.
History told a different tale, of course, though not for want of effort, talent, or even coaching, though you couldn’t have told that to a fair number of the Georgia fans walking out of the Dome earlier this evening, a disturbingly disproportionate number of whom were critical of the decision not to spike the ball on first and goal after Murray completed three straight passes for three straight first downs to Arthur Lynch at the Georgia 43 yard line, to Tavarres King at the Alabama 34 yard line, and to Lynch at the Alabama eight yard line. To be blunt, I am amazed at the stupidity of this criticism.
Chris Brown of Smart Football said it best in The Essential Smart Football: “First, when you spike the ball, you have no idea how valuable the down you are losing might be, and, second, although it’s true for some teams that spiking the ball might take less time than just lining up and calling a play at the line, there is no reason that that should be the case; in the age of no-huddle offenses, it should not take more time to call a play like ‘Red 92!’ or ’81 Dragon!’ than it takes to scream out ‘Spike play! Spike play!’” Homer Smith, formerly the offensive coordinator for Alabama and the author of books on clock management, offers an illustrative example: “In 2002 against Auburn, Georgia threw for the end zone four times and hit the fourth one for a touchdown and a victory. They scored with the down that so often gets used up with a spike.” It was a mistake for Murray to throw short of the end zone, and it was a mistake for Conley to catch the pass instead of knocking it down to stop the clock, but any Red and Black fan who thinks it was a mistake to run a play instead of spiking the ball must be willing to give back 70 X Takeoff and the 2002 SEC championship, because that would have been the necessary consequence of that kind of shortsighted thinking.
That, ultimately, is why I suspect I am more likely to awaken Sunday morning---when, believe it or not, Bulldog fans, the sun almost certainly will rise again---feeling more encouraged than discouraged: Georgia, despite depleted roster numbers and dubious officiating and questions about the team’s worthiness to take the field with Alabama, left it all on the field, playing aggressive and mostly intelligent football in a national title semifinal that was not decided quite literally until the final play of the game. Ironically, given the BCS matchup that this outcome ensures, the result reminded me of Bear Bryant’s words following the Crimson Tide’s Sugar Bowl loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at the end of the 1973 season: “We didn’t lose the game, we just ran out of time.”