By: Eric SanInocencio
SEC Digital Network
Sunday: 9:01 am ET (Atlanta, Ga.)
Atlanta, Ga. -- It is the morning after.
I'm staring out my hotel window into downtown Atlanta, a mere 1.4 miles from the Georgia Dome. Walk five minutes from this spot and you'll reach Centennial Park, the area of town that played host to over 100,000 fans from Tuscaloosa, Athens and everywhere else in the Southeast on Saturday.
I am that short distance away from the latest chapter of Southeastern Conference history.
Despite only 18 hours passing since Saturday's SEC Championship Game, my adrenaline rush still lingers. My senses are jittery, and the nervous energy that filled the Georgia Dome is still there.
I keep replaying moments in my mind. The scoring drives, the final 1:08 of the game. Since the final buzzer sounded, I've called tons of friends. I've facebooked even more, and spoken on Twitter with many I've never met. I read recaps, scanned through columns and debated situations. Even as I got ready to call it a night, I scrolled through my inbox one last time.
Even now, as I pack to head home to Birmingham, I can't get the game out of my mind.
I watch college football for a living. Well, not just football, but this time of the year my weekends revolve around it. I mostly watch from my living room, but occasionally get out, whether it’s a quick drive to Auburn or a Thursday road trip to Nashville.
For the past three years (and a few more as an SEC intern), the one game I do get to watch in person is in Atlanta. The SEC's Championship Game, the closest thing to a Super Bowl college football has, is a must see event. While other conferences have tried to duplicate it, the sheer pageantry of the first Saturday in December is unmatched, and thankfully I've had a front row seat.
I can vividly remember Mark Ingram tiptoeing down the sideline, Cam Newton's Hail Mary and Tim Tebow's tears. All those moments are etched into my brain, ways to catalog the great games that have taken place over the years.
That said, yesterday feels different.
While I remember bits of pieces of past championship games, I can recall everything about Saturday. Perhaps that’s because it is fresh in my mind, but that's not the only reason.
Years from now I'll remember this entire contest, from Eddie Lacy and Todd Gurley to Alec Ogletree and Jessie Williams. Why?
This is the best football game I've ever seen in person.
Pardon the hyperbole, but this was the game of the year, and quite possibly the best SEC Championship Game ever played.
So, let's break it down.
First Down: From "Just Run The Ball" To McCarron's Moment
Sometimes, we as fans (and journalists) think we know everything. Ok, more than sometimes. That was the case late in the fourth quarter, as the Alabama offense took the field trailing 28-25 with 4:05 remaining. At that point, the Crimson Tide faced a final obstacle (so we thought), 55 yards away from a trip to the BCS Championship Game.
Up until that point, the Tide offense consisted of Eddie Lacy right and TJ Yeldon left, a one-two rushing punch that had already set an SEC Championship record. The pair had gained 334 yards on the ground, becoming the first ever tandem from the same team to rush for at least 100 yards per man. They were gashing an impressive Georgia defense throughout the second half.
The Tide had a six-play scoring drive in the third quarter that was solely rushing plays, as the duo covered 73 yards. The whole world knew what was coming from the Alabama offense (again, so we thought) and the Bulldog defenders were helpless to stop it. It had gotten to the point that when Alabama didn't run the ball, media and fans wondered aloud what they were doing.
As I wrote on Twitter, "No more passes the rest of the game. Why even bother?"
It is with that background that quarterback AJ McCarron trotted onto the Georgia Dome turf, looking to put together one more drive to add to his already growing legacy. McCarron already has a National Championship ring, had already authored a game-winning drive in hostile territory (Tiger Stadium against LSU) and has a list of credentials that rivalry any signal caller to ever play for the Tide.
While he hadn't played badly on this Saturday, his numbers were closer to average than spectacular. He was 13-of-20, but had also thrown an interception and been sacked three times. No one had any idea his arm was about to deliver a win for Alabama.
The Tide started that drive on the ground, Yeldon gaining five yards to pick up a first down. Alabama had crossed midfield, and were running down hill. At this point, with every Alabama fan in the Georgia Dome expecting another handoff, McCarron dropped back to pass.
To hear Alabama head coach Nick Saban explain it, it sounds simple. "It was a big play on third and five- to get a first down running the ball," Saban said in the post game press conference. "Then we took the shot and AJ made a great throw and Coop made a great catch."
The "shot" he alludes to was a 45-yard touchdown pass, a throw that seemed to stay in the air for a minute. In reality, McCarron's end zone bomb was in flight three seconds, connecting with talented freshman Amari Cooper (or "Coop" as Saban mentioned) to put Alabama back ahead. While Saban's rationale of taking the "shot" sounds easy in hindsight, considering the stakes involved and the importance of the moment, it took a lot of courage.
Courage for Saban to make the call, and courage for McCarron to fire a bullet 45 yards with so much on the line. In those three seconds, Alabama fans went through emotions we can all sympathize with, the play you criticize and then celebrate in the same sentence. It kind of looks like this.
"McCarron what are you doing!!!! Don't throw the ball....TOUCHDOWN!!!! YES!"
Some version of that sentence flooded my Twitter stream, while Tide fans roared throughout the Georgia Dome. In the press box most of us shook our head, acknowledging a perfect throw in the most critical of situations.
Add that moment to McCarron's legacy...even if no one saw it coming.
Second Down: Five Yards From Glory
We all hate clichés. We dislike them because they are a boring, and are often a cheap way to avoid real analysis. But on Saturday, one infamous phrase summed up the SEC Championship Game.
"It is a game of inches".
In Georgia's case 180 inches, five yards that will long be remembered by a nation of Bulldog fans. The average human can cover that distance in five strides, and Florida running back Mike Gillislee averaged that amount on each one of his 235 carries this season.
That's what kept Georgia from an SEC title.
To be honest, most fans watching didn't think Georgia would even get that final chance. After the aforementioned Alabama touchdown (McCarron's pass), the Bulldog offense went three and out. With 2:17 left to go in the game, head coach Mark Richt elected to punt the ball back to the Tide, a smart decision that seemed to only prolong the inevitable.
With the way Lacy and Yeldon were running, Georgia’s defense stopping them didn't appear realistic. With their SEC title hopes on the line, Jarvis Jones and company did just that, corralling Yeldon short on a crucial third down to get their quarterback, Aaron Murray, another shot.
Murray faced the scenario every little kid does in their backyard. 1:08 to go on the clock, 85 yards from glory. Even though the specifics of our dream might vary on fall days as children, Murray's moment was real, one final drive to capture a trophy that has eluded the Georgia program since 2005.
The talented junior started quickly, completing an out route to Arthur Lynch for nine yards. After Gurley moved the chains, Murray fired deep down the middle of the field, and at first glance...the game was over.
The pass, intended for Chris Conley, was tipped (remember that) and appeared to fall into the waiting hands of Alabama safety Vinnie Sunseri. The Tide's bench celebrated. While Georgia's fans groaned, all eyes quickly moved to the two video boards on the sides of the Georgia Dome. The head referee uttered a sentence that left both fan bases biting their nails.
"The previous play is under review."
After what seemed like an eternity, the interception ruling on the field was overturned, and just like that, Georgia was alive. Murray capitalized, nailing four straight completions to get down to the Alabama eight-yard line.
I couldn't type fast enough to keep up. Georgia had no timeouts. The Bulldogs raced to the line of scrimmage. Would they spike the ball? How many plays did they have left? As time ticked off on the scoreboard, the field in front of Murray was shrinking.
Then it happened.
Murray took the snap, firing quickly to the right side of the field. The ball fluttered, falling into the Conley’s hands as he slipped to the ground. With no way to stop the clock, the final seconds ran out on the Georgia Bulldogs. Alabama stormed the field, confetti fell from the rafters, and just like that, Murray’s dream had slipped away.
There were plenty of questions in those final moments.
Why did they throw that pass? How could they not try for the end zone with no timeouts?
It was only later that we all began to understand what had taken place, and what was supposed to. In the postgame press conference, Mark Richt summed it up.
"We were attempting to throw the ball to Malcolm Mitchell in the back of the end zone, I think it was Malcolm, but the outside receiver, whoever it was, and the ball got batted and then it just landed, unfortunately, right in the arms of our guy that was running the stout route, the inside receiver and that's not a good thing when you don't have time-outs."
It was another tipped pass, this one sealing Georgia’s fate. No instant replay needed.
To think of all the details that had to occur for that play to happen, it almost seems unfair. At least in the backyard as kids, we could have called for a do over.
Third Down: The Aftermath
Sunday: 4:06 pm CT (Birmingham, Ala.)
Yesterday's game was my three-year anniversary in my current position. My first day coincided with the second Alabama/Florida SEC Championship Game, and to remember the SEC Digital Network in those days reminds me of how far we've come. Back in 2009, the SEC's Facebook page had 25,000 fans (no "likes" back then) and the only SEC affiliated Twitter account had 12,000 followers.
Three years later, the SEC Digital Network has grown, and is now the type of news generating website I'd envisioned the day I accepted this job over lunch at an Applebee's restaurant (true story). We have 275,000 "likes", and have a team of SEC Twitter accounts that can reach 140,000 followers in one click. We've gone from one person tweeting at our events (me from the SEC's main account) to a team of SEC and Digital Network staff members filling a live Twitter feed embedded on our website. Our special created event hash tag, #SECATL, was used 3,185 times on Twitter this week.
This is all done for you.
Video is night and day too, We’ve gone from producing just game highlights to on field interviews and live streaming press conferences. Because of XOS and their production crew, you had access to just as much coverage (sometimes more) than any media member in attendance. Heck, you even got to see the bus Alabama drove to the Georgia Dome.
I had a plan going into this week, a vision to try and eclipse anything we've ever done here at the SEC Digital Network. Last Sunday evening, I sent out an email to the team, a proposed schedule of content for the week. I wanted us to write about every angle, and amass a quantity of content that could completely cover one of the SEC's most prestigious events.
The result was 30 pieces of original content, a collection of stories and video that brought #SECATL to life. On Saturday alone, there were nine different pieces, including on the field video interviews with game MVP Lacy and McCarron.
You can watch Nick Saban and Mark Richt's post game press conference in their entirety, and view a gallery of photos from the contest. Articles and columns were written by Tim Letcher, Scott Crumbly, Sean Cartell and Brian Rice, providing in-depth looks at everything that took place.
That transformation is a team effort, and I'd be remiss if I credited just myself. Big thanks goes out to the SEC Media Relations staff (Charles Bloom, Craig Pinkerton, Tammy Wilson, Chuck Dunlap, Chevonne Mansfield and Sean Cartell), who give the SEC Digital Network the access to provide many of the behind the scenes stuff you either saw or read about.
Team XOS, overseen by Ben Godwin, had Hannah Chalker (from SEC "Today" fame) and Seth Bradley doing the leg work for all the video shot, along with assistance from Alex Benezzi and Jonathan Rawson.
Without the coordination and help of the group listed (along with many others that also deserve credit, but weren't in Atlanta) what you witnessed this week wouldn't have been possible.
We've come a long way in three years. We hope to go even further the next three. Hope you enjoyed it.