LINCOLN — The most vivid memories of the Georgia-Auburn game pretty much all end with the Tigers' tipped and bobbled 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 that supplied the 43-38 final score.
Mark Richt just as clearly recalls what followed.
Aaron Murray hurriedly completed passes of 22 and 28 yards as Georgia, which already had scored 21 fourth-quarter points to rally, threatened to steal it right back. The Bulldogs were at the Auburn 25 with eight seconds left.
“Obviously, the thing that happened at the end was very devastating to watch, but people sometimes forget there were 25 seconds left on the clock,” said Richt, in his 13th year as Georgia's coach. “We get down to the 25-yard line and have a shot at the end zone, and we get on the 20 (after an offside penalty) and have another shot at the end zone.
“We could have turned it right back around and won it again. It would have been even more glorious.”
That may be the story of the Bulldogs' oh-so-close season, and the reason the preseason No. 5 team is 8-4 and playing Nebraska in the Gator Bowl, instead of chasing something bigger and better.
Georgia was good enough to beat top 10 opponents South Carolina and LSU in September. It was talented enough to lead Auburn on the road in the final minute Nov. 16, and to take Clemson to the wire in Death Valley before losing 38-35 to start the season.
But not finishing those latter two games, and blowing a 27-14 lead at Vanderbilt, were hard knocks for a team that next season will return 16 of the players it expects to start in the Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.
“If there's anything that we learned — anything at all — it's that little things do matter,” Richt said. “The smallest things do matter. One thing that you could have done better or I could have done better could make the difference in winning and losing, and that's the margin in our league.”
Georgia already had its “what-if” season a year ago, when it missed upsetting Alabama in the SEC championship game and headed for the Capital One Bowl instead of the BCS national championship game. The Bulldogs completed a 12-2 season by beating Nebraska 45-31.
A decimating run of injuries had a lot to do with the “what-ifs” in 2013, similar to what Nebraska experienced en route to its own 8-4 season.
“I can name about 10 names of key players that were out that we really needed to win,” Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith said. “But at the same time, we had freshmen playing with us that gave us opportunities to win. But we fell short.
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“That's water under the bridge now. We can't do nothing about it. We can't cry about it. You've just got to move on. But at the same time, we had the potential to be a championship team this year. But injuries hurt us, other uncontrollable factors happened … we've just got to finish what we can, and that's this season.”
Auburn rode its good fortune all the way to the national championship game. Georgia tight end Arthur Lynch reminisced that the Bulldogs almost did the same thing last season.
But this season was different. In addition to the injuries and the almost unthinkable play at Auburn, Georgia was bitten by two questionable targeting calls at Vanderbilt, the second of which kept alive the Commodores' go-ahead drive.
Lynch said you could look and say that the Bulldogs could have gone 10-2 or 11-1, maybe even played again for an SEC championship, “but that's not how the chips fell.”
“I call that speculative history,” Lynch said. “You can speculate all you want. But at the end of the day the facts are facts, numbers are numbers and you've just got to deal with what you're given.”
Richt said the Auburn game actually showed what the Bulldogs are all about. Georgia was already out of the SEC East hunt and running “up against a buzz saw” with the Tigers, yet didn't fold when down 37-17 early in the fourth quarter.
“I'm proud of the team and how they put themselves in position to win that game,” he said. “It's just a shame that we didn't do what was in our control to end the game, but you've got to give Auburn credit for their fighting spirit. You can see where they're at right now. They're a pretty good team.”
Lynch hesitated when asked if he would be pulling for Auburn against Florida State on Jan. 6, though the senior said he ultimately would want the best representation of the SEC.
“I'm still hurting a little bit from that loss,” he said.
It was that kind of season — and maybe one that will help make 2014 different.
“Every game we played we still could have won, but we just made a lot of rookie mistakes,” Smith said. “That just comes from inexperience and guys being so young. But nobody ever gave up. Nobody ever laid down. Everybody played as hard as they can. That's all you can ask for.”