Han Vance on Georgia football: While the University of Georgia is the birthplace of American public higher education (1785) and hosted the first football game in the Deep South at Herty Field in Athens vs. non-rival Mercer (Auburn was a little later in Piedmont Park of Atlanta), the University of Alabama has the single greatest college football program in history.
These old football schools collide in Atlanta at 4:00 p.m. Saturday.
The SECCG (SEC championship game) was the first of its kind, dividing a college football league in two and pitting divisional champions against one another in a battle for a conference crown. First held in the state of Alabama, briefly, and featuring the two schools who have met there the most, Florida and Alabama, the Crimson Tide edged Steve Spurrier’s Florida Gators on a late interception, then won their only national championship of the scandal-marred Gene Stallings era. It was the beginning of the end of any Tide dominance, as the interceptor would be found ineligible after playing in games the next season. Spurrier, who went on to win one total national championship, was the central figure in the SEC – which relocated the game to Atlanta – while the Tide were straight garbage for years, having an occasional strong campaign as an aberration. Alabama fans have selective memories: They were garbage.
Georgia had replaced legend Vince Dooley, who won the SEC six times, with former player Ray Goff. It did not work, and he was out of coaching. Jim Donnan got the program to the level of a mid-tier bowl program in four less than great seasons and never coached again. Mark Richt, who had coordinated in every 1 versus 2 national championship game for half a decade, lost another at FSU after taking the Georgia job. He did not go winless, at least.
Georgia finally made the 2002 SEC championship game, after blowing only one contest, down in Florida, which featured what David Pollack calls “the worst call in college football history,” a phantom forward lateral on a handoff on a return of a turnover. DJ Shockley threw a pick-6 off the bench at the end of the first half. Terrence Edwards dropped a late bomb. That team blew one game that they should have won but were probably the best team in the country overall. Favored Miami lost to a least talented of the three Ohio State in the national championship game, while UGA won the sUGAr over FSU. It was the first of three near-national championships for Richt, one of four for Georgia since ’82, the last last year. There has been a whole lot of suffering amidst some clear high points.
That sets the red-and-black backdrop for the big annual league game in Atlanta.
2002 – I was there as the Georgia Bulldogs easily outmatched the Arkansas Razorbacks, but people forget that if they weren’t caught cheating, again, Bama would have been the opponent. Georgia and Bama had met on the capstone that season, the Dogs winning a close game late over a rare strong Bama side. They were ineligible for the SEC championship game and had the second-best SEC team.
2003 – Georgia made it back, after barely being edged in a low-scoring game on the bayou. This time, no such luck. The game got away from Ol’ Georgia, and we were out-cheered throughout by the lesser in numbers Tiger faithful. I left the Dome pissed off, because Richt had tried a lame trick play that was unnecessary in an aborted comeback attempt. Protection was poor. LSU won it all.
2005 – Greene and Pollack had matriculated, but Greene’s backup, who played every third series – a rotational system I hated so badly – and redshirted for the opportunity to start one year, did. DJ Shockley upset a high-caliber LSU in Atlanta. I was divorcing, washed out, watched on TV at the Brookhaven townhouse of a bad-girl I was dating. A bright spot in the dark days of my life.
Then it was a long time with no SEC crowns…
2011 – Dogs played a perfect half of defense. Then the LSU Honey Badger broke free. It was a 42-10 loss to the Bayou Bengals, who had emerged as an unlikely Georgia rival, similar to modern Bama.
2012 – Georgia finally met Bama in the SECCG. Murray and Gurley came up four yards short. Mark Richt finished his career 2-3 in the big game, as Bama won his last would-be national championship.
2017 – Alumnus Kirby Smart avenged Georgia’s only regular season loss by beating Auburn up. Roquan Smith was MVP. Dawgs would go on to beat Oklahoma in double-overtime in the Rose Bowl, before losing to Bama in overtime in the national championship game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
2018 – Rematch of that 2017 game and of the 2012 SECCG.