Missed opportunity still stings Dawgs

ATHENS, Ga. -- The days are passing. The azaleas have come and gone. The humidity of a Georgia summer is unpacking its bags, settling in for its interminable, sweaty stay. The 2013 Georgia Bulldogs will begin their voluntary workouts next week, when the next SEC championship game will be closer in time than the last one.

The calendar may speak clearly. But in the Georgia football building, it still has not been fully heard. Last December, the Bulldogs came within seconds of playing for the crystal football. They not only lost the SEC championship game to Alabama 32-28, but they lost on a fluke play. With nine seconds to play and the ball on the Tide 8, quarterback Aaron Murray threw a pass to Malcolm Mitchell in the end zone.

"Back-shoulder fade," Murray said recently. "We did it all year long. Killed teams on it. It was either going to be a touchdown or an incompletion."

On the roulette wheel, the colors are red and black -- Georgia's colors. Wherever the ball landed, red or black, touchdown or incompletion, meant Georgia couldn't lose.

But roulette isn't that absolute. There are 18 red pockets and 18 black pockets. There are also two green ones, where neither red nor black wins.

Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley leapt and got a finger on the ball. It fluttered to his left, where Georgia flanker Chris Conley did what years of training taught him to do. He caught the ball. Conley went down at the 5, and time expired.

"The one color on the table," Murray said with a laugh. "It came up. God. Ugh."

Back-shoulder fade. We did it all year long. Killed teams on it. It was either going to be a touchdown or an incompletion.

--Georgia QB Aaron Murray

Murray beat himself up that first night. He couldn't figure out how Conley ended up with the pass. Murray threw it to Mitchell. He didn't know that Mosley tipped the ball until he watched the video.

You could replay that play a thousand times and not have the same thing happen. Just ask the Dawgs. It still replays in their heads.

In the first offensive meeting after the game, Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told his players, "People tell you, 'Hey, you'll get over it. The sun'll rise tomorrow.' We ain't going to get over it. It's gonna hurt us. The only thing we can do is go back to work and really get ready to play this bowl game."

Murray doesn't lie awake and think about the game anymore. He spent a month doing that. Sleep deprivation and the Capital One Bowl victory over Nebraska convinced him to move on.

But "move on" is relative. It's a new season. The Georgia team is not the same. NFL teams drafted eight Dawgs, seven of them from the defense. But a game like that does not dislodge so easily.

It was not just the stakes. It was that Notre Dame played so poorly against Alabama. That Georgia team -- just like Oregon (overtime loss to Stanford) and Ohio State (NCAA probation) -- saw a BCS title within reach.

It was not just the loss. It was that the game captured the imagination of the public. The new Georgia season may have begun. Winter conditioning gave way to spring practice, which is giving way to summer workouts. But the fans haven't been so occupied. Everywhere the Georgia players and coaches go, they hear about the game again.

"I saw a fan at the Masters," Murray said, "an Alabama fan, and he came up to me and he was like, 'Hey, I'm an Alabama fan, but that game y'all played against us was the greatest game I've ever seen in my life.' It's true. I mean it really was one of the best SEC games that there's been in a long, long time."

Bobo said, "Every time I run into somebody in the grocery store, they tell me their story of how they felt that night."

Bobo's reply?

"Me too, buddy."

The coaches and the players handle it as best they can. Murray never watched the video again. Conley, who caught the pass, can't tell you how many times he has watched it.

"It's a blessing and a curse of being your toughest critic," Conley said. "In that moment when you watch it, it's hard to appreciate the opportunity of that game because, you know, it hurts. You wanted to win that game. You wanted to go on. But in retrospect, you have to be thankful for the opportunity."

The game gave Conley new perspective on why he must work hard 12 months a year.

"Because you know in the summer," he said, "and in the preseason, and in the first games of the season, you're not just preparing for that opponent you're going to see in Week 1 or Week 2. You're preparing for that end-of-the-season opponent who has honed his skills, who's getting ready to go to the NFL. You're getting ready for that opportunity and you have to approach things with that mindset. So it gives you more of a long-term approach to your preparation and games."

That's the attitude that Georgia head coach Mark Richt wants. Richt has won for 12 seasons (118-40, .747) at Georgia by separating his emotions from his judgment.

"When we as men become what we do," Richt said, "we put ourselves in a pretty dangerous spot."

Those 12 seasons include two SEC championships and six SEC East titles. But Richt hasn't taken Georgia to a BCS Championship Game yet. And he hasn't come as close as he did last December.

"It's typical of my personality, when stuff like that happens, I usually stuff it pretty good and just move on," Richt said. "And sometimes you just gotta move on. You got a ballgame. You got to recruit. You got this. You got that. You got Christmas. Life goes on. You can't sit there and cry about it."

Stuffing the pain doesn't mean you get it out of your system. It just means you shove it in there deeper. And then it takes more effort to dig it out.

"Sometimes," Richt said, "the farther away I get from that type of thing, and the more time that I might have to reflect -- my life slows down a little bit -- yeah, we were just so close, so close to being able to play for a championship. Win an SEC, obviously, and play for a national championship, which we've not been able to do at Georgia since I've been here."

The tone of his voice softened, and he dug out a small piece of the hurt.

"It was just, tough," he said. "It was tough."