“Those last five or six seconds running off the clock felt like 20 minutes. I’m just staring at the clock, and in my head I’m like, ‘What can I do to stop it? What can I do?’ There’s nothing you can do at the moment. It’s over. It sucks.” – Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray
There was a suddenness to it, and it didn’t make sense. How could years of preparation, and more than three hours of a slobber-knocker game, end like that?
Surely, there must be another play? Someone will call a timeout. The person in charge of launching the confetti after the 2012 SEC Championship Game between UGA and Alabama had pushed the wrong button, right?
But no, Alabama’s players and coaches, including their very excited defensive coordinator named Kirby Smart, were on the field celebrating. Georgia players, meanwhile …
“It took me a good 15 or 20 seconds before I even moved after the final whistle went off,” said Jay Rome, then a Georgia tight end. “I just kind of stood there. That was the same for a number of players who were around me. It was pure and utter shock. That’s not really how the game ended? It was like someone pushed pause on the remote control. Everybody just stood still for 15-to-20 seconds.”
Jordan Jenkins didn’t even see the play. He had his back turned on Georgia’s sideline, excited and assuming a spike was coming, and it wasn’t time for the final play.
“Then all of a sudden the confetti fell,” Jenkins said. “I looked up in the stands, and I saw my mom and sisters crying. They never cry.”
Arthur Lynch now lives in Boston, where people don’t follow college football much. But this past week, his phone has been lighting up. The Alabama-Georgia retrospectives have been all over TV now that the two schools are meeting again Monday night in the National Championship Game. Friends have seen him catching the second-to-last pass of the 2012 SEC Championship Game, setting up Georgia at the Alabama 8-yard line with 12 seconds to go, right before …
“Here we go, the domino effect of a roller-coaster,” Lynch said this past week. “I don’t mind talking about it, for sure, especially because there’s a lot of significance with that drive, and it coming against Kirby’s defense. And now it’s Kirby going against his former employer. The story lines here are never ending.”
A coin flip
“You go from an ultimate high of, ‘We’re about to do this, this is going to happen, it’s our year.’ I remember running down, getting ready for the next play, thinking we’re going to win this. To all of a sudden for all things to happen, that happens.” — Murray
Jack Loonam is now in the U.S. Army, but before that he was a walk-on tight end at Georgia from 2011-14. He was on the scout team that watched film to emulate opponents. He recalled watching Alabama in championship week 2012 and being blown away, one of the only times it gave him doubts heading into a game about his team’s ability to win.
But the Bulldogs had to try.
“It was easy emulating them since their offense was very similar to ours, and it got physical in practice that week,” Loonam said. “We knew that was the only way we were going to have to approach it to stay competitive with them, and as the week went on, we developed a confidence that we can stay with these guys if we bring our best.”
Alabama was stacked with talent, as it usually is.
But so was Georgia. Todd Gurley. Alec Ogletree. Jarvis Jones. Chris Conley.
Georgia had 19 players in that game who went on to be drafted and four more – including center David Andrews – who remain in the NFL after being undrafted. That 2012 Georgia team was also senior-laden: Remember the news conference after the 2011 season when Jarvis Jones (a redshirt junior) and others jointly announced they were returning for another year?
It was eerily reminiscent of a news conference six years later in which four Georgia juniors would announce their surprising return.
Alabama, the defending national champion, was a 9-point favorite over Georgia in the championship game at Atlanta. And yet …
“We didn’t go into that game thinking we were going to lose to Alabama at all,” Rome said. “We prepared for that game like we were going to win. The whole time we were going to win the game. During the game we felt confident, before the game we felt confident. We had an amazing defense that year.”
Rome and Georgia struck first. After a scoreless first quarter, Murray found Rome for a 19-yard touchdown pass. Alabama scored the next 10 points before halftime, then Gurley put Georgia back ahead with a 3-yard run early in the third quarter.
When Ogletree returned a blocked punt 55 yards, Georgia took a 21-10 lead. It seemed right there for Georgia. Alabama, as the game continued to be a run-oriented slobber-knocker, scored twice on T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy touchdowns to retake the lead, only for Gurley to score again. Finally, a 45-yard touchdown pass with put Alabama ahead with 3:15 left.
Many people then forget that Georgia went three-and-out and punted, but Georgia’s defense made a stop, giving Murray and the Bulldogs the ball at their own 15-yard line with 1:08 left. Four plays in, Alabama appeared to have a game-ending interception, but it was overruled on replay.
And here came Georgia. Murray to Lynch for 15 yards. Murray to Tavarrres King for 23 yards. And then Murray to Lynch again, this time for 26 yards down to the 8-yard line.
“All I’m thinking is, ‘We’re about to play for a national championship,’ ” Rome said. “This may be a little selfish of me, but I was thinking, ‘Man I’m going to be a legend catching the first touchdown in this game.’ ”
Former Georgia coach Mark Richt would have taken his team to the national championship. The game was in Miami.
The play call was ‘Switch.’ Both the penultimate play, Lynch’s catch, and the play the Bulldogs ran next. Lynch, after being tackled, handed the ball to the official and got in position, the slot position on the left side.
“I knew we were going to be either spiking the ball, or running a play, and either way it was going to be the same formation,” Lynch said.
Murray, racing downfield with no timeouts to use, looked to the sideline. The ensuing decision has been litigated for five years. Rather than spike it to set up at least one and perhaps two more shots at the end zone, Georgia coaches decided they wanted to catch Alabama’s defense on its heels, and prevent it from subbing. And it may have with those 10 players. But not Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Lynch was on the other side of the ball for the fateful final play. He could tell the pass was headed to Malcolm Mitchell. Lynch didn’t see the ball get tipped by Mosley, he just saw Chris Conley instinctively catch the tipped pass as he hit the ground at the 5-yard line, the clock still running. Lynch ran toward him as the clock ticked down to zeroes.
“That’s when it all came to me. ‘Oh, this is over,’ ” Lynch said. “That was the image I had of Alabama, just white jerseys swarming the field. I still remember seeing the Alabama players’ faces, screaming, helmets in the air running out on the field as the streamers were coming down.”
Jenkins went to the locker room, showered and got on the bus, which was the first time he saw the final play. He said it took more than a year to get over the loss.
“I think the real championship game was the SEC championship, because either one of us would have beaten the snot out of Notre Dame,” Jenkins said.
Murray still gets asked about the play at least once a week. He has come to peace with it and settled on summing it up this way: “It was a great defensive play. And obviously if it worked, it would’ve been a great call. People want to blame it as a bad call because it didn’t work.”
Murray indicated he has spoken to Mike Bobo and Richt about the play call in the recent past.
“We’re on the same page,” Murray said. “We had a defense that was reeling. You snap it real quick and take one quick shot at the end zone, and if it was complete, ‘Hey great we win.’ If it wasn’t, ‘Hey we still had six seconds on the clock, plenty of time to run two plays.’ So don’t disagree with the play call at all. It was just a really great play by a great player.”
Three years later, Georgia and Alabama met in a regular-season game. There was optimism in 2015. Georgia was unbeaten at 4-0, ranked No. 8 in the country and was averaging 45.5 points per game. Alabama was coming off a loss to Ole Miss two weeks earlier when they were ranked No. 2 in the country. Georgia was favored by about a field goal over now-No. 13 Alabama.
But on a rainy day, the result was again dreary for Georgia. UGA lost 38-10, the beginning of the end of the Richt era. Nick Chubb, the only Georgia player to score a touchdown in that game, was asked Saturday what he remembered about that day.
“Losing,” he said.
Sony Michel was just as tight-lipped.
“What I remember? We lost. That’s the biggest — that’s the only really memory that I have from it,” he said.
Jenkins was one of the few players to be on both the 2012 and 2015 teams. In retrospect, the difference in the closeness of the games has an easy diagnosis.
“In 2012, we had an older team. We had an established team. Veteran leaders,” Jenkins said. “But the 2015 team was younger.”
Jenkins points specifically to the 2013 recruiting class, which included many players who ended up washing out early for various reasons, for leaving a “gap in age.”
“That year that team was mostly made up of freshman and sophomores. Not a lot of those guys had been in a game like that,” Jenkins said. “When we got down, I feel like some of those guys panicked, and weren’t mature enough to handle the stress at that time.”
That hasn’t been the case this year, Jenkins has noticed. And many of those players in that 2015 Alabama game are on this year’s team.
No mixed emotions
How much history changes for Georgia football if that play works?
“Everyone’s been asking, if you guys hit that play, is Coach Richt still at Georgia, and it’s 100 percent yes,” Murray said. “You win a national championship as a coach, and you set yourself up for a long, long time.”
But everything has still worked out, Murray added. Richt is happy at Miami and had a strong season, and Georgia is in Monday’s national championship game with Smart at the helm. Bobo is at Colorado State and then-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham recently was hired for the same position at Florida.
There will be no mixed emotions if the Bulldogs win it all under someone other than Richt.
“I think everybody realizes that Coach Richt is in a great position. He had a phenomenal year at Miami and is building something special down there, and I think that team’s going to continue being one of the best in the ACC and the country,” Murray said. “And I think we all have great pride for Georgia. I’m a huge fan of Kirby Smart. I think he’s done a tremendous job. He’s a Georgia boy, which makes it easier, that he played at Georgia, and didn’t jump on that bandwagon.”
That last point is also key for Jenkins, who the night of Richt’s firing was as upset as anybody, saying, “There’s no Georgia football without Mark Richt.”
But Smart was a healing choice, and a national championship would allow Jenkins to talk trash with friends and New York Jets teammates who rip Georgia for not winning the big one.
Lynch said university pride and team pride trump any loyalty to a coach. And he’s sure Richt is among those pulling hard for the Bulldogs.
“There’s nothing bittersweet about it,” Lynch said. “I just want the people who were a part of that 2012 team and felt that pain to have a little bit of redemption. We may not have had a hand in this game, but we had a hand in shaping the history of UGA football. No matter if we win or lose this game on Monday, 2012 will always be seen as a year we didn’t quite, we gave it everything we had.”
Rome says he’s “super ecstatic” for this year’s players, who have a chance to finish what Rome and his teammates felt they should have five years ago.
“I can’t lie, I’ve thought about it a lot,” Rome said. “I felt like the football gods took one from us.”
In the end, perhaps it’s the only appropriate way it could finish. The Georgia Dome in Atlanta may be gone, but it’s the same opponent, minus one of its key coaches.
“It’s a perfect exorcism: This is the first year the Dome is not there, we go back for the first time since 2012, and now it’s the championship, and it takes a former Georgia Bulldog to be the head coach to kill this curse,” Lynch said. “It could be romanticized in southern football lore.”