How Far They’ve Come

Patrick Garbin, Staff
GA Varsity

Scrolling through The Dawgvent recently, I stumbled upon an interesting post indicating how dominant the Bulldogs have been thus far this season—and how statistically impressive “especially when you consider how far they've come since last year.”

The post prompted me to ponder Georgia football’s biggest turnarounds of all time from one season to the next. I really delved into this, considering more than simply game total improvement but also scoring margins and strength of schedules. Thus, my opinion of the top five (5 to 1), followed by the next five (6 to 10), single-season turnarounds in Bulldog history:

5) 1954 (3-8 to 6-3-1): Of all the seasons Georgia has played at least 11 games, only once has it won fewer than four contests: the 3-8 campaign of 1953, when the Bulldogs featured an adequate offense with standout senior quarterback Zeke Bratkowski, but a deplorable defense which allowed 23 points per game (when the average major-college team averaged 17 that season). The 1954 season was anticipated to end even worse for Georgia, as head coach Wally Butts’ squad was preseason picked at the bottom of the SEC. Instead, the Bulldogs’ much more conservative offense made far fewer mistakes than before while the defense, led by linemen Don Shea and Pud Mosteller, yielded only 9 points and 239 yards per game. By mid-November, Georgia was shockingly 6-1-1 and ranked 20th in the country. Despite dropping the final two games of the season to Auburn and Georgia Tech, Butts received SEC Coach of the Year recognition.

4) 1997 (5-6 to 10-2): The best example of the program’s improvement from year one of a head coach to year two, the 1997 Bulldogs even more so signified the instant achievement after mediocrity over a significant time period—like four years. From 1993 through 1996—Ray Goff’s last three seasons as head coach and Jim Donnan’s first—Georgia totaled a substandard .500 record and made only one postseason appearance. However, quarterbacked by Mike Bobo while also featuring Hines Ward, Robert Edwards, and Matt Stinchcomb, the Bulldogs’ offense was substantially better in 1997 than before, including rarely committing a turnover (12 compared to 29 in 1996). Defensively, which included the emergence of sophomore cornerback Champ Bailey, Georgia’s bend-but-don’t-break defense allowed just 17.2 points per game—the team’s lowest in five years. Speaking of five years, the Bulldogs capped their turnaround campaign with a 10th victory in a January 1 bowl game for the first time since 1992.

3) 1980 (6-5 to 12-0): I’ve always thought the popular notion that the 1979 Bulldogs “lacked one piece” (i.e., Herschel Walker) to be successful was somewhat inaccurate, as well as the idea that it was solely Walker who was responsible for the instant achievement from a mediocre season to a national championship. I think of it more so as Georgia in 1980 suddenly figured out how to win close ballgames. After dropping the first three games of the ’79 season all by a touchdown or less, the Bulldogs won half of their 12 games in ’80 by no more than a touchdown. Although Herschel undoubtedly spearheaded the turnaround, there were standout performances from the likes of Buck Belue, who became a much more accurate passer and not so much a running quarterback under new offensive coordinator George Haffner, and defensive lineman Jimmy Payne, who had missed nearly all of the 1979 campaign with an injury. But more so than 1979, and perhaps every other season in the annals of Bulldogs football, Georgia in 1980 was a complete team, excelling in all three facets of the game.

2) 1991 (4-7 to 9-3): In my opinion, although decimated with injuries and suspensions, the 1990 team remains the worst at Georgia since at least 1961. Its 282.1 average yards of offense are the fewest for a Bulldog team in the last 40 years, whereas the 396.9 yards yielded on defense are the most in program history, resulting in a four-win campaign which should’ve been more like two wins. A year later, after head coach Ray Goff had reconstructed his coaching staff, including bringing in innovative offensive coordinator Wayne McDuffie, following the emergence of freshman phenom Eric Zeier after the Bulldogs had started three different quarterbacks the season before—none of whom particularly stood out—and with the team mostly healthy and suspension-free, Georgia experienced its biggest turnaround of the modern area during a campaign which had literally been dubbed in the preseason as “Operation Turnaround.”

1) 1910 (1-4-2 to 6-2-1): I cannot say enough about Georgia’s 1910 season—my opinion of arguably the most important campaign in the history of the football program. In 1909, the Red and Black not only had won just one of seven games, but scored only 14 points the entire year. With just five players returning from the season before, most of Georgia’s heralded newcomers failing to meet entrance requirements, and the team’s schedule thought to be the most difficult in its history, the 1910 season was expected to be no better. However, Georgia had lured Alex Cunningham from the Gordon Military Institute to be its head coach—one who wouldn’t stick around for only a season or two like all the Red and Black coaches before him. In turn, Cunningham brought with him from Gordon a number of standout players, like quarterback Hafford Hay, lineman John Henderson and, most prominently, halfback Bob McWhorter. In only a year’s time, Georgia football went from a losing program—an afterthought which scored only 14 points—to being recognized as one of the better programs in the South (scoring 281 points), laying the foundation for a team which ultimately became prominent on the national level.

The Next Five (6 through 10):

1927 (5-4 to 9-1): Georgia’s 1926 squad lost to Yale, Furman and Alabama by an average of 18 points. A year later, the “Dream and Wonder Team” demolished nearly every opponent, including a staggering five in a row by 28+ points, while Yale, Furman and Alabama were defeated by an average of 17 points.

1971 (5-5 to 11-1): Losing all five of its games by no more than 10 points, the 5-5 Georgia team of 1970 was one of the best .500 squads you’ll find. A year later, featuring very experienced offensive and defensive lines (eight of the 10 combined starters were seniors) and the emergence of sophomore Andy Johnson after consecutive seasons of inconsistent play at quarterback, the Bulldogs took a giant leap forward in 1971.

1941 (5-4-1 to 9-1-1): From 1940 to 1941, halfback Frank Sinkwich goes from merely a primary contributor to a do-everything type player, resulting in head coach Wally Butts fully utilizing the passing game, leading to national prominence including Georgia’s first bowl team.

1978 (5-6 to 9-2-1): Albeit featuring a respectable defense, the 1977 Bulldogs were Vince Dooley’s lone losing campaign in 25 seasons. A year later, having lost nine of 11 starters on defense, according to a particular media outlet, Georgia was projected to battle Vanderbilt for 9th and 10th-place in the 10-member SEC. Instead of 9th or 10th, the “Wonderdogs” of 1978 somehow nearly capture the SEC crown, achieving a 9-1-1 regular-season mark.

1920 (4-2-3 to 8-0-1): Although experiencing a winning season, Georgia’s 1919 squad went winless in its final five games (two losses and three ties). In 1920, or another year after World War I and the two-year interruption of the football program, the Wildcats-turned-Bulldogs produced one of what remains only three undefeated seasons in Georgia history and an S.I.A.A. championship, while remarkably holding seven of their nine opponents scoreless.

Agree or disagree with my rankings? Can you think of any other substantial turnaround seasons in Georgia football history?

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