ATLANTA — Alabama rallied, then survived, as the Crimson Tide beat Georgia and the kept its dream of a second-straight national title alive.
The Tide’s 32-28 victory Saturday gave Alabama a record 23rd Southeastern Conference championship. Alabama is expected to be awarded a spot in the Jan. 7 title game against top-ranked Notre Dame in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Georgia jumped to a 21-10 lead midway through the third quarter before the Tide (12-1) turned to its running game.
Alabama ran for 350 yards, a record in the 21-year history of the SEC championship game.
The second half featured pinball-like scoring, a stark contrast from a scoreless first quarter.
Eddie Lacy, the game’s Most Valuable Player, rushed for a 1-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to put the Tide back on top 25-21.
Todd Gurley’s 10-yard touchdown run on the next series put Georgia back on top until a 45-yard touchdown strike by AJ McCarron to freshman Amari Cooper.
Jeremy Shelley’s point-after kick made it 32-28. The teams exchanged punts before a Georgia drive that started at its own 15-yard line and included passes of 15, 23 and 26 yards by Aaron Murray to give the Bulldogs a first-down at the 8 with just seconds remaining.
But Murray’s pass to the right flat was tipped. Chris Conley caught it, but was brought down at the 5 as time ran out and the celebration began.
“Obviously we want to enjoy this for a little while, but we’ve got a challenge ahead,” said Saban, who won his second SEC title at Alabama and fourth overall.
“It was a hard-fought game. We had to play for 60 minutes, and we came out and did it,” Lacy said.
Georgia’s running back tandem of freshmen Gurley and Keith Marshall got most of the publicity coming into Atlanta, but Lacy and T.J. Yeldon were the stars.
Lacy had 181 yards on 20 carries. Yeldon, in his first postseason game, had 153 yards on 20 rushes.
Alabama fought back from three deficits, and the game’s five lead changes was an SEC championship record.
“I think it’s really a credit to the competitive spirit of the players,” Saban said.
Special teams miscues by Alabama definitely helped the Bulldogs early. The Tide appeared to have converted a fake punt, but a delay-of-game call nullified it.
But on Georgia’s next series, the Bulldogs used a fake punt to keep a drive alive, leading to the game’s first score. Murray’s 19-yard pass to Jay Rome put Georgia up 7-0.
Alabama had a chance to tie it, but Lacy was stuffed at the goal line, causing a fumble, and McCarron threw an interception on the next play.
Georgia didn’t convert, and Alabama used a six-play, 70-yard drive that ended with a 41-yard touchdown run by Lacy.
On the ensuing Georgia series, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix picked off a deep Murray pass with 1:15 before halftime and returned it 35 yards to the Georgia 47.
Alabama drove to a 22-yard Shelley field goal as the half ended.
The beginning of the third quarter belonged to Georgia. The Bulldogs went 75 yards in nine plays after the opening kickoff. A 31-yard pass from Murray to Tavarres King sustained the drive and led to Gurley’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Alabama marched right back but the drive stalled in Georgia territory. An apparent pass interference penalty against Georgia was waved off with a ruling the ball was tipped, then Cade Foster’s 49-yard field goal attempt was blocked and Alec Ogletree returned it 55 yards for a touchdown with 6:31 to play in the third.
But Alabama just wouldn’t die. Yeldon broke off a 31-yard run back into Georgia territory. A pass interference call at the goal line made it first-and-goal at the 10. Yeldon then ran for 10 yards and got a two-point run that made it 21-18.
That’s when the Alabama defense finally stiffened to force a three-and-out that turned momentum.
On the Tide’s next play from scrimmage, Lacy sprung from a nearly certain Georgia tackle to run 32 yards into Georgia territory.
It was one of four carries by Lacy, driving Alabama to the 15-yard line before Yeldon relieved him and carried to the 1 before the third quarter ended.
In Georgia, the title game was the biggest in 30 years. It ended with Bulldog coach Mark Richt defending his program and his players.
“I told them I was disappointed, but I wasn’t disappointed in them,” said Richt, whose Bulldogs lost in the title game for the second straight year.
“It was a knock-down, drag-out fight. We had a chance at the end. We just didn’t get it done.”