Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Amari Cooper (9) scores a touchdown on a 45 yard pass in front of Georgia Bulldogs defensive back Damian Swann (5) during the fourth quarter in the 2012 SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. (John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports)
ATLANTA -- They traded body blows for all 60 minutes at the Georgia Dome, playing the most dramatic and entertaining championship game in Southeastern Conference history.
WATCH | Fans swarm to Atlanta for SEC Championship
PHOTOS | Send us your SEC spirit pictures
But only one could advance to the BCS national championship game. And once again, it will be Alabama, thanks to a 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 3:15 left and a clock that ran out on Georgia's last gasp in a 32-28 classic.
In a game that featured four lead changes in the second half alone, Alabama delivered the final shot with quarterback A.J. McCarron - who struggled all game - airing out a perfect pass that beat Georgia cornerback Damian Swann in one-on-one coverage. Now the Crimson Tide, ranked No. 2 in the BCS standings, will head to Miami on Jan. 7 to play No. 1 Notre Dame and try to win their third national championship in the last four years against another of college football's most historic programs.
And for No. 3 Georgia (11-2), which hasn't won the national title since 1980, Saturday will serve as the ultimate heartbreak knowing how close it came.
How close? With no timeouts and 1:08 left, Georgia started at its own 15 and drove all the way to the 8-yard line. But with just seconds to go, quarterback Aaron Murray threw a short pass to Chris Conley, who was tackled in bounds at the 5-yard line, allowing the clock to run out.
It was one of many opportunities Georgia squandered.
The Bulldogs seemed on their way to Miami halfway through the third quarter when linebacker Alec Ogletree scooped up a blocked field goal and ran it back for a touchdown, giving them a 21-10 lead. But Alabama's championship-caliber response was immediate. With Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon following the Tide's offensive line, Alabama went right down the field on consecutive possessions, taking a 25-21 lead (including a 2-point conversion) on the first play of the fourth quarter.
Though Alabama was helped by a controversial pass interference call on the first of those two touchdown drives, Yeldon and Lacy were running through huge holes on the way to the end zone. In the third quarter alone, they combined for 145 yards.
"We did a great job of running the ball in the second half," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "And the reason we did it was we couldn't handle the pass rush."
But Georgia wasn't just going to lay down. After getting jolted by Alabama's running game, the Bulldogs put together a 75-yard touchdown drive in five plays, highlighted by Aaron Murray's perfectly-thrown 45-yard completion down the middle of the field to Tavarres King. From there, freshman running back Todd Gurley powered into the end zone from 12 yards out for a 28-25 lead with 12:54 remaining.
Finally, Georgia got a stop with 7:14 remaining when it got Alabama into third-and-6 and was able to haul down McCarron short of the marker. But the Bulldogs couldn't capitalize, going three-and-out and giving Alabama good field position near midfield with 5:24 left.
The proved to be a huge turning point for an already tired Georgia defense. Yeldon converted a third-and-5 past midfield, brushing off the tackle attempt of senior safety Shawn Williams. Then McCarron, who led Alabama to a last-minute touchdown in a win at LSU, delivered a perfect throw just at the right time.
For a while, though this seemed like it would be the Bulldogs' day to break through.
Georgia stymied the Crimson Tide on its first five possessions, including an interception in the end zone by Sanders Commings that preserved a 7-0 lead late in the first half. The Georgia defense, which had been overwhelmed early in the season as it dealt with suspensions to three starters, finally seemed ready to carry the Bulldogs to the national championship game.
But Alabama responded with two quick strikes, tying the game on Eddie Lacy's 41-yard touchdown and getting a 22-yard field goal from Jeremy Shelley on the last play of the half. In between, Georgia's Aaron Murray threw an interception with 1:15 remaining, missing a wide-open Chris Conley for what would have been a touchdown and instead under-throwing a pass that Alabama's HaHa Clinton-Dix picked off and ran back nearly to midfield.
It wasn't a vintage half by Alabama, which started the game relying too much on quarterback A.J. McCarron to throw the ball, but those two late possessions were enough to take a 10-7 lead into the locker room. And for Georgia, which seemed to dominate the line of scrimmage early in the game, it certainly felt like the momentum had turned. After playing with good rhythm on offense early, the Bulldogs got nothing out of their final three drives of the half and were out-gained 246-157. Those missed opportunities to get Alabama down early proved costly.