How Kirby Smart got Georgia this far this fast

Alabama vs. Georgia will be a titanic clash. (0:37)

The perennial powerhouse Crimson Tide will duel with the up-and-coming Bulldogs as Atlanta becomes the center of the college football universe. (0:37)

Bang, bang, bang. Just like that, Georgia was rolling toward an epic comeback against Alabama in the 2012 SEC championship game.

Down 32-28 with less than a minute to play, quarterback Aaron Murray went to work inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. First, Murray found Arthur Lynch on the sideline for a quick 15-yard gain. Then, he fired a 23-yard strike through the heart of the defense to Tavarres King. And to bring the drama to a fever pitch, he sidestepped the rush and connected with Lynch again for another 26 yards.

The clock showed 16 seconds and no timeouts as Lynch fell to the turf on the Alabama 7-yard line. The offensive line hauled tail downfield. Guard Chris Burnette and center David Andrews looked at one another and realized they were making the same gesture to spike the football. But Murray wasn't on the same page.

"He's looking at the sideline," Burnette recalled. "He's not responding to me, to David, anybody. He just says, 'Get lined up.' He doesn't call a play, doesn't give us protection or anything. We get to the line, and we're panicked. The ball gets snapped, and we're rolling."

The rest unfolded in slow motion. Murray took the ball and knew exactly where he wanted to go with it, turning to his right where Cris Conley had a step on his defender in the flat. But Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley broke into the backfield like a blur, leaped over the right tackle and got a hand on the pass, slowing it down just enough. The ball fluttered to Conley like a knuckleball, where he cradled it in his gut as he went down at the 5-yard line.

"When he fell, it became clear like, 'Oh my gosh, the clock is going to keep running, he's not going to score,'" Burnette said. "... We were just standing there looking at it. I remember it going from 0:03 to 0:02 and just dropping my head, and I remember seeing Arthur Lynch dropping his head and just walking off. It sunk in that quickly. It was all over."

To this day, it's all anyone wants to talk about from the 2012 season: Should Georgia have spiked it? Burnette says yes. Lynch says no. Linebacker Amarlo Herrera is somewhere in the middle.

"We should have spiked it, but I thought it was a great call," Herrera said. "Everybody was sad because we knew they got away with one."

Alabama's evisceration of Notre Dame in the BCS title game weeks later only added to the Bulldogs' pain. Burnette threw a watch party for friends and teammates, but quickly realized it was a terrible idea.

"Ten minutes had passed and Alabama was laying the smackdown on Notre Dame and it all set in," Burnette said. "The room got deathly silent because it all set in that, 'This would be us. We would be the ones smacking them right now if we would have had just a little more time to get those five more yards.'"

They couldn't finish watching and changed it to the movie "The Sandlot."

Had then-coach Mark Richt just called for the spike, had Georgia scored and won and gone on to beat Notre Dame to claim the school's first championship since 1980, he might not have been fired. Had he done better than a 1-3 record against Alabama, he might have never left.

In turn, former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who ran onto the field and jumped into his players' arms that afternoon in 2012 to celebrate winning an SEC title, might have not been hired as his replacement.

On Monday, it's Smart's turn to see whether he's up for the task of toppling the Tide when Georgia plays Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship presented by AT&T in Atlanta, right next door to the recently demolished Georgia Dome.

All anyone wants to know these days is how Smart turned Georgia into a championship contender in the span of just two seasons. But go back to 2012 and ask Burnette and members of that team about it. The gap between Alabama and Georgia was almost nonexistent then, they'll say.

"I felt like we weren't that far away even before he got there," Burnette said. "I've always felt like we're right on the cusp. We had the talent, we had the leadership, we had really good coaching. But there was always something missing to get us over the top, and it seems like Kirby found what it is."

Smart opened his fingers an inch or so apart as he addressed his Georgia team for the first time back in 2015. The difference between Georgia and Alabama, he told them, was only that much.

"It's just this little bit," linebacker Davin Bellamy recalled Smart saying. "It's the margin for error."

The roster, Smart knew, wasn't the problem. As he told ESPN, "The cupboard wasn't bare when I got here."

"There was no talent gap between us and Alabama," Lynch said. "You look at that team: Todd Gurley, Alec Ogletree, Aaron Murray, Tavares King, John Jenkins. There were a bunch of draft picks on that field, myself included.

"Keith Marshall was drafted, Malcolm Mitchell played in a Super Bowl, David Andrews played in a Super Bowl. The talent gap was never there."

At last check, Georgia has roughly 35 players in the NFL, including stars such as quarterback Matthew Stafford, wideout A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

But for all the players Richt produced and all the games he won -- he averaged 9.7 wins in 15 seasons -- there was a missing ingredient. Fans grew restless from coming so close and never breaking through.

It hurt, Herrera said, to see Richt ultimately get let go.

"It wasn't his fault," he said. "People just weren't excited, and you need that. I don't think there was energy there anymore."

Lynch saw it, too, and it wasn't just people outside of the building.

"The cancer to life is complacency," he said. "And I'm not saying we got complacent at Georgia, but some things were being done that were just good enough and we weren't exceeding the expectations. And I'll be the first to admit it because I was a part of it.

"Had we won in 2012 against Alabama and won the national championship, does Coach Richt get fired? Probably not. But once we didn't win it, we kind of hit a little lull and people higher up wanted a new face of the program and new juice."

And in Smart, they got that bottled in the form of a 40-year-old rookie head coach eager to make his mark at his alma mater, where he played defensive back 1995-98 and served as running backs coach in 2005 under Richt.

Recruiting was ratcheted up under Smart, and players were struck by his intensity. Defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said that Smart is "not afraid to get on you" and that it's not unusual for him to "take over a whole practice if he needs to."

Lynch was skeptical at first. In fact, after Georgia lost to Florida last season, he got in some hot water when he tweeted that they might be looking for a new coach soon if they continued losing games like that.

Then he visited campus for a scrimmage this past summer and watched Smart up close -- not the plays he called, necessarily, but how he dealt with players.

"It was a totally different take from the way Coach Richt coached," Lynch said. "It was very hands on. It was super intense. It was attention to detail.

"It doesn't surprise me that he could turn it around so quickly after seeing that scrimmage. Really seeing that kind of detail and the way he presents himself on and off the field, it screams a little bit Saban."

Smart has the Nick Saban blueprint all right, but he also had his own approach.

"Kirby is a very, very high-energy, very intense -- he loves football," Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker said. "He's always trying to find a way to make it better for the players, always trying to find a way to find a competitive advantage."

It's hard to describe exactly what that is, but it boils down to attitude. Consider the 2012 SEC title game when Georgia blew a 15-point lead to Alabama, and now think of the Rose Bowl when Georgia trailed Oklahoma by 14 points at halftime and clawed its way back to win in double-overtime, 54-48.

The talent level wasn't discernibly different from year to year.

The mindset was.

"Georgia had a pretty good nucleus of players there," Saban said. "I think they won 10 games the year he took over. Now, [Smart] has done a fantastic job of bringing those players along, getting those players to play with discipline, getting them to play together. They play hard. They're very relentless, and I think this last game was sort of a reflection on the attitude that he's been able to instill to overcome adversity."

Said Smart: "Our kids are so resilient. They never stopped chopping wood. They kept fighting. They believed."

On Monday in Atlanta (8 p.m. ET on ESPN and ESPN App), they'll need that same belief.

"It took the right guy at the right moment," Lynch said. "You have to give Coach Richt a little credit because he was able to maintain a high level of recruiting for so long, but Coach Smart has been able to take that base foundation of Georgia talent and take it to the next level. So I'm not necessarily surprised. But I don't care who you are - I don't care if you're the Jesus Christ of football - that's impressive in it's own right."

Georgia is on the doorstep once again, poised to break through, and again it's Alabama standing in the way.

Five years since the last time these two programs met with so much on the line it's time to see whether Smart can make up a difference of 5 yards.