ATLANTA—The heroes of Georgia’s only national championship showed up in Atlanta to celebrate the school’s best chance to snag another one.
Georgia knocked off Auburn 28-7 in the SEC championship, and along the sideline stood a who’s who of Bulldog royalty. Buck Belue, the quarterback who led the 1980 Bulldogs to the school’s lone national title, watched the seconds tick down from the sidelines. Vince Dooley, the architect of so many strong Georgia teams and one sublime one, strolled among the confetti. Earlier, Herschel Walker, the carved-from-granite icon, stepped onto the field alongside Auburn legend Bo Jackson, both of them looking like they could suit up today and carve holes in defenses.
Only one would have needed to. Georgia whipped Auburn in every phase of the game, righting a wrong from earlier this season and setting the school up for its first-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff.
But even as Athens celebrates, there’s reason for concern. Here’s the hard truth that Bulldog Nation would prefer to ignore: for as prestigious as this program is, for all the alumni who’ve gone on to star in the NFL (Walker, Matthew Stafford, Todd Gurley, Terrell Davis, Hines Ward) … this is a program that has a distressing tendency to crumble when the spotlight’s brightest.
Walker, Dooley, and the rest of the Bulldogs couldn’t follow up their 1980 win, losing to eventual national champion Clemson in the 1981 regular season, and losing a winner-take-all Sugar Bowl to Penn State after the 1982 season. Mark Richt got the Dawgs as close as they had ever come since then, winning the 2005 SEC Championship but losing in the 2012 conference final to eventual national champion Alabama. Richt and Georgia parted ways in 2015, in large part because Bulldog Nation was tired of the everything-but-the-big-ones culture that flowered around Richt during his 15 seasons at Georgia.
Enter Nick Saban disciple Kirby Smart, Georgia All-SEC defensive back, class of 1998. He arrived in Athens in 2016 carrying gargantuan expectations, and yet blew through all of those in less than two seasons.
“It caught us all by surprise,” Belue told Yahoo Sports, watching Jake Fromm, the current holder of his old job, gather the victory formation to clinch the SEC championship. “Kirby doing this so fast after just coming in last year? None of us expected that.”
Maybe that’s one of the reasons why Georgia absolutely exploded with delirium as it ran out the clock on Auburn’s year. Isaac Nauta, who’d caught Georgia’s first touchdown, stood on the Bulldog bench and whirled a towel over his head, then held up a commemorative Georgia-tagged SEC CHAMPIONS front page. (The Auburn ones are, presumably, headed for a nearby landfill.)
Nearby, the team doused Smart with Gatorade, and he proceeded to race around the field, dripping and grinning and popping up in a hundred selfies. Just three weeks ago, Smart’s Bulldogs had lost to Auburn in the way nobody ever wants to lose—embarrassed, laughed out of Jordan-Hare Stadium, holders of a nationwide No. 1 ranking for all of four days. You could almost hear the not again sighs out of Athens.
But thanks to the College Football Playoff, this year gave Smart and the Bulldogs an out they hadn’t had before. Georgia’s 9-0 start had already secured the SEC East title, and that meant the Bulldogs would get a rare second chance. Win the SEC championship, and a playoff berth—another shot at redemption—beckoned.
This marked the first Bulldog SEC championship since 2005, three-plus generations in college football terms. High above the field, on Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s astonishing halo video screen, a montage of SEC champions played over the celebrations, a video clip commemorating each year. When 2005 came around, showing then-Bulldog quarterback D.J. Shockley picking his way through a crowd of hapless Gators, the crowd erupted. Shockley wore No. 3 that year, and down below, the current holder of that number, linebacker Roquan Smith, exulted along with his team. Smith anchored the stout Georgia defense, notching 13 tackles—ten of them solo—and a sack, plus two key fumble recoveries that changed the entire complexion of the game.
“You never try to make the moment too big or anything like that,” Smith said of the fumbles. “I just scooped the ball and said, ‘let me get what I can get.’”
He got plenty, and as a result, so did the Bulldogs. Smith’s linebacker teammate, D’Andre Walker, galloped around the field, at one point spotting the still-soaking Smart. “What’s up, K-Smart? What’s up, K-Smart?” he shouted, and Smart embraced him, one of ten thousand hugs on the night.
“These guys could do something that hasn’t been done since we did it,” Belue said. “It’s been an awesome, awesome year.”
Georgia fans of a certain age can draw a line from Belue to Fromm, but it’s worth remembering that the Bulldogs won that lone national championship a decade and a half before today’s crew was even born. The current Bulldogs may not know much about the specifics of that 1980 squad, but they know those Bulldogs have something that this crew wants.
“I know it’s been a long time coming,” linebacker Lorenzo Carter said. “We’re just trying to etch our names into the legacy of Georgia football. We’ve still got work to do.”
“Those are the glory days,” Fromm said of the 1980 squad. “That’s when some of the best players of all time for the University of Georgia played. To be put in similar situation is incredible. I’m extremely thankful to be in this locker room with this group of guys, and hopefully able to accomplish something like that again.”
Coach Dooley, the old mastermind who casts a long shadow over Athens even today, summed up the moment as cheers washed over the field and “Georgia on my Mind” echoed throughout the stadium. Pulling a reporter close, he repeated one word over the sound of celebration:
“Champions! Champions! Champions!”