ATLANTA — Alabama got a hand on the ball, which wobbled into the arms of a Georgia receiver who wasn’t supposed to catch it.
Before the Bulldogs could get off another play, the clock ran out.
The Crimson Tide are heading back to the national championship game.
By a mere 5 yards.
AJ McCarron threw a 45-yard TD pass to Amari Cooper with 3:15 remaining and No. 2 Alabama barely held on, beating No. 3 Georgia, 32-28, in a Southeastern Conference title game for the ages on Saturday.
‘‘I’m ready to have a heart attack here,’’ Tide coach Nick Saban said.
As confetti fell from the Georgia Dome, the Bulldogs collapsed on the field, stunned they had come so close to knocking off the team that has won two of the last three national titles.
‘‘We just ran out of time,’’ Georgia coach Mark Richt moaned.
Alabama (12-1) will get a chance to make it three out of four when they face top-ranked Notre Dame for the BCS crown on Jan. 7 in Miami.
This time, Alabama will head to the big game with a championship already in its pocket — unlike last year’s squad, which didn’t even make it to Atlanta, but got a do-over against SEC champion LSU in the national title game.
Even though the Tide left little doubt it was truly the best team in the country, routing the Tigers, 21-0, there were plenty who thought Saban’s team didn’t deserve a rematch.
There will be no complaints when Alabama heads to South Florida for a dream matchup between two of college football’s most storied programs. The Tide and Notre Dame have each won eight Associated Press national titles, more than any other school.
‘‘This group has been fantastic,’’ Saban said. ‘‘They were able to accomplish something of significance, and something that last year’s team didn’t accomplish, which is win the SEC championship.’’
What a game it was.
After an apparent clinching interception by Alabama was overturned on a video review, Georgia’s Aaron Murray completed a 15-yard pass to Arthur Lynch, a 23-yarder to Tavarres King, and a 26-yarder to Lynch, who was hauled down at the Alabama 8 as the clock continued to run.
The Bulldogs (11-2) were out of timeouts.
Instead of spiking the ball and gathering themselves, the Bulldogs snapped the ball with nine seconds to go. Murray attempted a pass into the corner, but it was deflected at the line and ended up in the arms of Chris Conley in the right flat.
Surprised to get the ball, he slipped down at the 5.
Georgia couldn’t get off another play.
Richt said the offense had the play it wanted at the end, but Alabama ruined it by tipping the pass. If it had fallen incomplete instead of going to Conley, who instinctively caught it, the Bulldogs likely would’ve had at least one more play, maybe two.
Instead, they were done.
‘‘I told the guys I was disappointed, but I’m not disappointed in them,’’ Richt said. ‘‘They’re warriors. We had a chance at the end.’’
The consolation prize will likely be a spot in the Capital One Bowl, though the Bulldogs certainly looked like a team deserving of something better.
‘‘Do I think we’re worthy of a BCS bowl?’’ Richt said. ‘‘Yes, I do.’’
The Bulldogs even got props from Saban.
‘‘It would be a crying shame if Georgia doesn’t get to go to a BCS bowl game,’’ the Alabama coach said. ‘‘They played a tremendous game out there.’’
In a back-and-forth second half that looked nothing like a game in the defensive-minded SEC, the Crimson Tide trailed, 21-10, after Alec Ogletree returned a blocked field goal for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Alabama rallied behind a punishing run game, finishing with 350 yards on the ground, an SEC championship-game record. Eddie Lacy — the game’s MVP — rumbled for 181 yards on 20 carries, including two TDs. Freshman T.J. Yeldon added 153 yards on 25 carries, also scoring a TD.
But the Tide won it through the air.
With Georgia stacking the line, McCarron fooled the Bulldogs with play-action and delivered a perfect pass to Cooper, who beat Damian Swann in single coverage down the left side.
Georgia played like a champion until the clock ran out, though.
Using up their timeouts and forcing a punt, the Bulldogs got the ball back at their 15 with 1:08 remaining. Alabama broke into a celebration when a pass down the middle for Conley was deflected and Dee Milliner appeared to make a diving interception. But the replay showed the ball hit the ground, so Murray and the Georgia offense trotted back on the field for their last gasp.
And what a gasp it was. Just not quite enough.
Todd Gurley led Georgia with 122 yards rushing, including a couple of TDs. Murray was 18 of 33 for 265 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
McCarron was 12 of 21 for 162 yards with an interception, just his third of the season.