ATHENS – It was Malcolm Mitchell who was the intended receiver on that final, fateful play, for a catch that could have led to a national title The ball, as Georgia fans painfully know, never got there.
“Maybe shortly after that game,” Mitchell said, when asked if he ever replays the play in his mind. “But now, no.”
John Theus was on the field at the end too. What stands out to him isn’t the final play, though, but the aftermath.
“I think it a lot of the older guys harder than me. Because I was a freshman, and I don’t think I realized the magnitude of it right then,” said Theus, a freshman in 2012. “But it was definitely heartbreaking. I remembering being in that locker room, grown men crying and stuff. You make that play, you’re on to the national championship.”
Three seasons have passed since Georgia fell by four points to Alabama in the SEC championship game. Five yards short, the Bulldogs were, the clock running out and the confetti bursting down after a tipped Aaron Murray pass was caught instinctively by Chris Conley. Alabama celebrated and then went on to roll in the national championship. Georgia hasn’t been that close since, not even getting back to the SEC championship.
“I remember (then-punter) Adam Erickson the night before (saying): ‘It’s not every year that we go to the SEC championship.’” said Georgia kicker Marshall Morgan, who was a freshman that year. “Now I realize it, we don’t go every year.”
When Alabama and Georgia meet on Saturday, for the first time since that classic, it will be under different circumstances: A regular season game in Athens. The stakes may seem the same: One-loss Alabama may need the game to stay in the race for the SEC West, and stave off talk that the program has ebbed. (Perish the thought, but it hasn’t won a national title since 2012.)
Georgia enters unbeaten, the prohibitive favorite in the SEC East. But the Bulldogs still carry the stigma of a program that can’t fulfill its potential to win it all.
Some things have remained the same in the intervening three years. Mark Richt and Nick Saban are still the head coaches. A few players on each team remain, including 13 on Georgia’s side. The first seven points of that 2012 game were scored by Jay Rome, still a Georgia tight end, and by Morgan on the extra point.
The two teams’ style of play remains a mirror: Pro-style offenses for both, 3-4 defensive bases with heavy uses of 4-2-5 for both.
But a lot has also changed, including who will be on what sideline, and the mentality around one team. Georgia, three years later, has borrowed in style and substance from Alabama.
Three key current Georgia staffers were on Alabama’s sideline that day: Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt was Alabama’s secondary coach, linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer was Alabama’s director of player development, and strength and conditioning coordinator Mark Hocke was on Alabama’s strength staff.
One player has even changed sides: Ty Flournoy-Smith got in that game for Georgia as a freshman tight end. He now is a reserve tight end for Alabama.
For Mitchell, then and now Georgia’s top receiver, so much has happened in the intervening years. He tore his ACL the first game of 2013, didn’t return until midway through last year, but is now back to looking like a difference-making player.
“I think a lot has gone on in my life since that point. A lot,” Mitchell said. “So it doesn’t seem like a lifetime ago, it just seems like an event that took place years ago, and I’m in a totally different place now.”
Theus, who was just a few steps away from the ball when the game ended, echoed Mitchell.
“It seems like forever ago for me, but it’s only been (three years). I’ve grown a lot since then,” Theus said. “I’m excited to play them again. They’re a great team, coached very well. But that last game did definitely hurt. Anytime you lose like that it hurts. Especially for the SEC championship.
“I don’t think I realized right then the magnitude of it, but now I think I have a lot more respect for it, because it’s not every year you make it to a game like that.”
Morgan, who kicked four extra points in that game, stopped his own reminiscing and smiled.
“I’m just glad that we’ll meet them at Sanford Stadium,” he said.