ATLANTA The dry erase board lie right where Kenarious Gates kicked it: Face down, right next to the helmet he discarded and the chair he knocked over.
That board, along with its clones littered around Georgia's sideline, has become the calling card of Georgia victories this season, with written statements being held up for cameras and fans alike. It might have been the "Grown Man Football" board the Bulldogs held up after introducing Missouri to the SEC. The team has sent all sorts of messages, some mixed, in 2012.
But Gates and his teammates were not on the sideline writing. They were back on the field desperately searching for an SEC Championship win against the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide. It would not come. In the aftermath of Alabama's 32-28 win in the Georgia Dome Saturday evening to claim the conference championship, all of Georgia's words and emotions were left on the field. The board remained still; no messages were written. A student manager later piled it onto others, a blank canvas left for dead in a sea of confetti and streamers.
Few words follow defeat.
But Gates and his teammates received one final gasp against Nick Saban's vaunted defense and stood primed to capitalize on an overturned interception ruling for his quarterback, Aaron Murray. The discarded materials lay motionless on the sideline. Georgia's entire team crowded the thick white sideline boundary. With 45 seconds remaining, the offense had one last chance against the nation's top-ranked defense needing 72 yards and a touchdown.
The ball was in Murray's hands.
For the redshirt junior signal-caller and the Bulldogs it must have felt fitting in that moment, after all the doubt and negativity surrounding Georgia's place in the national championship picture. Murray has been labeled a talented quarterback who comes up short in the big moments. His coach, Mark Richt, has led his team to back-to-back SEC title game appearances and still cannot rekindle the magic of 2005, his last conference title.
In those last 45 seconds, when Murray drove the Bulldogs to the eight-yard line, those shortchanged memories were distant. Georgia was on the doorstep of the BCS Championship game. Five points shy. Ten seconds remaining. Clock ticking.
"Spiking the ball takes time. We had plenty of time to call the play, so we called the play and we were taking the goal was to take a shot at their back right end of the end zone," Richt said.
The route that could have provided a coach's career's worth of validation was ran by sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell on a fade route.
The pass was tipped.
When Georgia wideout Chris Conley, the unintended target, unassumingly caught the pass, he was tackled short of the endzone. Time expired. Alabama defenders sprinted toward their sidelines just as the conclusion became apparent to the red- and black-clad fans looming over the endzone Georgia had just fallen five yards shy of. Murray took off his helmet, threw his hands up in disbelief and told Conley he should have knocked the ball to the turf. For his part, Conley kneeled in the front corner of the endzone he could not reach for two minutes, overcome and alone.
"It's tough, I mean, maybe the guy misses the tackle and Chris waltzes in," wide receiver Taverres King said of Conley's game-ending predicament. "What did you say? Five yards short? Oh, that's crazy, man."
And so it continues for the Georgia program, a top-caliber program that continues to fall short in a league where there is no room for error. The Bulldogs played three ranked teams this season, it lost to two of them. Murray, in particular, has still only beaten one team in his career that finished (or will finish) ranked in the final AP poll; he has not performed up to his potential in many of those games, either. Negatives are easier to recall.
Such a repetitive trend would seem to point toward necessary change, but Richt is a man relishing in consistency. He has matched wits with championship-winning coaches and elite teams in this venue the past two seasons, each time falling short. But most programs nationally would kill for similar opportunities, and Richt would still fight for his kids.
"I want to say something else," the 11th-year head coach said in response to a big-game losses question, "If anybody thinks our guys didn't play their tail off and Aaron Murray didn't play his tail off, they are crazy. That's unbelievable somebody would even bring that up."
This loss to Alabama was not 2011-esque, when Georgia fell to top teams in rather unspectacular fashion: Boise State and LSU outclassed the Bulldogs in the Georgia Dome while Michigan State pulled off an overwhelming second-half comeback in the Outback Bowl. Those losses signaled a inherent problem.
This one? Only heartache, an empty look in the player's eyes as they slowly walked off the field. They fought for it and would have earned the win "It's tough," Murray repeated over and over after the loss. but it just wasn't their night.
On a night that saw an SEC Championship record six lead changes, the Bulldogs held the lead as late as the fourth quarter with four minutes remaining, until Alabama receiver Amari Cooper got loose for a 45-yard touchdown reception. Murray, who had blocked off the media this week to focus on Alabama and academics, was not spectacular but did not shy away from the key moments: He finished with 18-of-33 with 265 yards and a score after completing five passes on the final drive to give Georgia a chance. In the process, his team took the preeminent program in college football down to the wire.
When the team finally made it from the field through the tunnel to the locker room, the space was quiet. Dead silent.
King said it was the quietest locker room of his career: No bowl pronouncements, no consolation, no moral victories.
"I told them I was disappointed but I wasn't disappointed in them. That was the main thing," said Richt, who has led the program to five SEC title games, winning in 2002 and 2005. "I told them they were warriors in there. ... You know, it was a knock-down, drag-out fight and everybody swung to the end. We had a chance at the end. We just didn't get it done."
Falling is often described as resembling peace, but it appeared to be more familiar with forlorn tranquility Saturday night around Georgia's locker room. They said all the right things, but all the wrong tears had already been shed. It happened again. Another conference championship lost.
This one was more competitive, but the message was the same: The Bulldogs were runners-up, and it hurt like hell.
"I shook every man's hand in there and told them I was proud of him; or if his head was in his hands, I just rubbed his head and told him I loved him."
As Richt, flanked by security guards, slowly walked around the endzone his team fell short of one last time, deliberately clapping and thanking fans, confetti and streamers dyed in the colors of the conference he cannot seem to solve blue, yellow and white, the SEC standard stuck to his tennis shoes.
He could not seem to shake them.