If there were ever such thing as a signature loss, Mark Richt earned one on Saturday night in Atlanta.
Following Chris Conley's accidental catch with five seconds to play in the biggest Georgia football game in 30 years, seconds felt like minutes for Bulldog fans. It might have been the hardest loss to swallow in the program's entire history.
For 30 years, Georgia has flirted with greatness—greatness being a national championship in the south, which treats college football with the same esteem as church, if not more.
And had Aaron Murray's final drive gone five more yards, Georgia fans would be celebrating possibly the greatest victory in program history. There is no denying it.
Alabama will suit up in Miami on Jan. 7 for a chance to further cement what is undoubtedly one of the top dynasties in recent memory, with a coach who will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest in college football history to not wear a houndstooth hat.
To dethrone Alabama football in that fashion, after all of that drama, would have meant the greatest feeling of elation a sports fan can feel.
This game suddenly felt bigger than a national title play-in game. It not only lived up to the billing that surrounded it before the week, but it also became an epic that made the thought of the national championship game seem more like a dessert than an entree.
Georgia came up just short. Considering the circumstances—the fact that the Dawgs were so close, yet so far away in the end from the pinnacle that all fans have dreamed of for so long—one would think this loss would mean utter devastation.
Surely, "devastation" was the word used most after the game by Georgia fans to describe the emotionally draining finish to what was the best SEC Championship game ever, but there was more than enough proven in that game to ensure Georgia fans can hold their heads high and be proud.
After all, unlike other SEC powerhouses, Georgia is the one marquee giant from the conference that hasn't hoisted the most meaningful trophy in the sport in the BCS era. Alabama, LSU, and Florida have. Georgia has been next in line plenty of times and failed to come close to justifying itself as one of the four elite teams in the 14 team league.
After tonight, the Dawgs and their fans don't have to feel inferior anymore. For years, Georgia has felt a little like the middle child.
It doesn't have a national championship in this century or the last three decades. Georgia has always been seen put on a pedestal for its label and done an underwhelming job at taking care of its side of the business.
During the Mark Richt era, Georgia became the butt of jokes by magnifying its dysfunction—its inability to take advantage when the cards were dealt right.
Heading into Saturday, pundits knew what everyone else has known for so long. Yes, Georgia had just as much talent, if not more, but who were we to think they would do anything with it?
In other words, the ones that didn't give Georgia a chance were well aware that Mark Richt teams don't just lose big games; they fail to show up for them.
After all, Georgia reinforced that fact earlier this season when it fell, on the road, to South Carolina by 28 points.
But Georgia players, coaches and fans insisted that they turned a corner after beating Florida this year (to start a winning streak against Florida for the first time in over 20 years).
Tonight they proved it. Georgia has finally arrived. The Bulldogs may not have won the biggfest game in 30 years, but they still passed the test and changed the minds of a nation.
Nick Saban looked like the most relieved man in America when he talked to CBS' Tracy Wolfson immediately following the contest. You could see in his eyes that he had been a nervous wreck from start to finish. In fact, Georgia had plenty of moments where it looked like it was outcoaching the best coach in college football, notably when Georgia converted a fake punt just minutes after Alabama failed one.
Georgia showed Saban the same level of talent, as freshman tailback Todd Gurley ran for 122 yards against the Crimson Tide defense, making experienced Alabama defenders look more like traffic cones than wrecking balls.
Georgia put up 28 points against a team that was allowing just under nine per game all season.
And if it wasn't for the gift of time, Georgia would have had another lead against Alabama. Nick Saban got an even game, and he could not have been happier to have gotten out alive.
Even Georgia's last play, which was heartbreaking to see, came in one of the most excusable ways. Aaron Murray was going for his best throw, a back-shoulder fade to Malcolm Mitchell. The pass was tipped, and sophomore receiver Chris Conley instinctively caught the pass to allow the clock to run out. You cannot fault Conley for catching the pass. He's been trained to do that his entire life as a receiver.
In the end, some fans criticized the fact Georgia didn't spike the ball with 15 seconds to go. Some fans didn't realize Murray's pass was tipped and criticized Murray.
That sputtered away, however, in the wake of Georgia fans simply having nothing more to say than "good game."
For years, we've seen Georgia get trounced in big games and heard criticism after criticism as fans continued to cope with the fact it was once made clear to the country Georgia's nearly elite status would always be nothing but a stagnant curse.
But what we saw tonight is that Georgia's 11-1 record and No. 3 ranking was not just a result of voting protocol and an overrated name. Georgia proved it was one of the best teams in the country.
Had the Bulldogs gotten five more yards, the entire country would be saying exactly that. This is what Georgia fans wanted from the beginning: respect.
Alabama will force Georgia and the rest of the SEC to take a step back, again, in a month.
But Georgia fans should be more than excited for the future of the football program. That performance, on that stage, against that opponent, was what had seemed like only a thing of dreams for so long.
Sure, five seconds turned 30 years into 31 years. That's the pain all fans felt. But Georgia has arrived.
Who says the Dawgs can't finally be the team that makes a run to the national championship much less than a once every 30 years affair?
Alabama has done it. Surely this means Georgia can do it too.
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