ATLANTA -- Five yards short.
For Georgia, it was the difference in a season for the ages and an ending to a season that will hurt for the ages.
A moment that had the potential to be one of the greatest in school history, instead results in a heartache that will be talked about behind clinched teeth for several generations.
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Georgia has not won a national championship in football since 1980, Herschel Walker's freshman season. The Bulldogs have not played for a national championship since 1982, when No. 2 Penn State beat No. 1 Georgia 27-23 in what would be Walker's final college football game. And when Georgia's Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal 55 yards for a touchdown, which gave No. 3 Georgia a 21-10 lead over No. 2 Alabama, it looked like the Bulldogs' three-decade wait would finally end.
But for Georgia the wait continues because on this night, the Bulldogs were 5 yards short.
In a heavyweight battle that will go down as one of the best, if not the best, SEC Championship games in the event's 21-year history, Georgia's Chris Conley caught a tipped pass on the 5-yard line as time ran out and Alabama held for a 32-28 victory before a breathless crowd of 75,624 at the Georgia Dome.
Alabama (12-1) goes on to play Notre Dame for the BCS national championship on Jan. 7. The Crimson Tide will be going for their 15th national title overall and third in the past four seasons. Georgia (11-2) is headed to a bowl destination that may be difficult -- if not impossible -- to enjoy.
"It hurts. It hurts a lot," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who was trying to win his third SEC championship and get the Bulldogs in the BCS title game for the first time in his 12 seasons in Athens. "But sometimes you have to congratulate your players for playing their guts out. Time just ran out for us. That's all there is to it. But tomorrow morning we'll have to get up and get back to work."
Alabama had seemingly put the game away when Amari Cooper beat Georgia's Damian Swann for a 45-yard touchdown pass with 3:15 left. Georgia punted the ball away with 2:17 remaining but had one last opportunity when it took possession at its own 15-yard line with 1:08 to play. Alabama thought it had won the game on an apparent interception. But the play was reviewed and the pass was ruled incomplete.
The change of fortune seemed to breathe new life into Georgia and put Alabama on its heels.
Then Aaron Murray completed passes of 15, 23, and 26 yards moved Georgia down to the 8-yard line as the clock was winding down inside of 10 seconds. Instead of spiking the ball for one last shot at the end zone, Georgia ran a play designed to go into the end zone. Murray's pass was tipped and fell into Conley's arms and the clock ran out.
"It was supposed to be a fade pattern into the end zone to Malcolm [Mitchell]," said Murray, who completed 18 of 33 passes for 265 yards. "It's supposed to be a touchdown or an incompletion. If it's incomplete we get one more shot. It was just a tough break for us."
It would have been Murray's signature win as Georgia's quarterback. He came into this game with only one career win against a top-10 team (earlier this season against No. 4 Florida) and a record of 3-9 against teams in the Top 25. Murray is only the second quarterback in history to take Georgia to consecutive SEC championship games and the only quarterback in school history to pass for more than 3,000 yards in three consecutive seasons. He is still looking for his first championship since leading Tampa-Plant to the Florida state high school championship in 2008.
"It was a great game and a great SEC Championship Game," Murray said. "This is a tough one to swallow. It's going to be hard to get over it. But that is what we have to do."
When Georgia looks back on this game it will also remember that a defense that includes several future NFL players gashed for 350 yards rushing. Alabama's Eddie Lacy was relentless with 181 yards on 20 carries. Freshman T.J. Yeldon added another 153 yards. The Alabama offensive line lived up to its reputation as the best in the country. They wanted to wear Georgia down and did.
"They were tough. Really tough," Ogletree said. "If we just do our jobs on defense we win this football game. You have to give them credit. That offensive line was really good."
Senior wide receiver Tavarres King, who caught five passes for 142 yards, was in tears as he tried to make sense of it all. He was one of 12 potential NFL players who met with linebacker Jarvis Jones last January. In that meeting Jones informed the rest of the players he was coming back to Georgia to pursue an SEC championship and a national championship. All 12 of the players decided to return to school to follow Jones' lead.
"You come so close. It's right there and you can feel it," King said. "I just kept thinking that we were going to find a way to win. You look up and there are zeroes on the clock. I still can't believe it."
All losses hurt. Some losses hurt worse than others. Then there are those losses that you'll still be thinking about and hurting from when your grandchildren ask if you ever played football.
For Georgia, Saturday's game with Alabama was just such a loss. The hurt won't stop soon -- if ever.
Watch The Tony Barnhart Show Tuesday at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.