It was November 13, 1971, and the college football spotlight was clearly focused on Athens, Georgia.
And for good reason! That afternoon between the hedges of Sanford Stadium a No. 7-ranked, 9-0 Georgia team was hosting a No. 6-ranked and 8-0 Auburn team … a Tiger team that included one of the nation’s leading Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback Pat Sullivan.
I can’t ever recall a more hyped, anticipated college football game — at least in the regular season (though Georgia-Notre Dame this year was in that conversation) — than the Georgia-Auburn game of ‘71. Tickets that day were nearly impossible to come by and the old railroad tracks behind the then open stadium and east end zone were packed with students and other Dawg faithful who had camped there the night before. And for scalpers up on the Sanford bridge, Christmas came early for them that afternoon.
Nearing the press box that day, I noticed the Auburn band already in its place in the lower North Stands a full hour before kickoff, repeatedly striking up the Auburn fight song. And in the press box, things were also packed to capacity as media from all over the country descended on Sanford Stadium. In fact, I remember a New York Times reporter sitting just a few seats down from my spot.
Respective head coaches Vince Dooley and Shug Jordan were calling it not just the biggest Auburn-Georgia game ever, but the biggest game period since they’d both been at their respective helms. In addition to national championship implications, everyone was thinking it would be the game that either won or lost Sullivan the Heisman Trophy.
But while the Tigers entered the game with a quick-striking, explosive offense that featured Sullivan throwing to ace receiver Terry Beasley, the Bulldogs countered the Auburn attack with a defensive unit led by Chip Wisdom, Chuck Heard, Mixon Robinson, and Buzy Rosenberg … a defense that had allowed 25 points to Oregon State in the season opener but then had surrendered only four touchdowns in the next eight games combined.
Georgia was also formidable on offense, paced by the Bulldogs’ dynamic sophomore duo of quarterback Andy Johnson and tailback Jimmy Poulos. While Athens native Johnson was en route to becoming Georgia’s best-ever running quarterback, backup quarterback James Ray was the Bulldogs’ passing leader that season. And the Bulldogs had three All-SEC offensive linemen paving the way up front in Tom Nash, Royce Smith, and Kendall Keith.
And the game certainly matched the week’s buildup preceding it. It was back and forth for most of the contest but after the Bulldogs, led by Johnson and Poulos, fought back to within 21-20 of the Tigers, Sullivan and his All-America buddy Beasley took control for the Tigers. The Georgia defense couldn’t halt this lethal passing combo down the stretch and Auburn left the stadium still unbeaten with a 35-20 whipping of Dooley’s Dogs … Sullivan passing for 248 yards and four touchdowns with two of those scores going to Beasley, the final one being a 70-yard knockout punch that Beasley tallied in the right corner of the West end zone. And indeed, that performance would lock up the ‘71 Heisman for Pat Sullivan.
For Dooley, the game was one of his “most bitter losses ever.” He later said, “Sullivan was a superman having a super day, and Terry Beasley is a boy wonder.”
But, at season’s end, the Bulldogs would finish higher than those Tigers in the national rankings, claiming 7th in the final Associated Press poll. The Auburn loss would be Georgia’s only defeat that season en route to an 11-1 record, which included a thrilling last-second win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta and then a 7-3 triumph over North Carolina in the Gator Bowl, the Tar Heels being coached by Vince’s brother, Bill Dooley. Auburn, meantime, would go on to lose to both Alabama in the Iron Bowl skirmish and then to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, by blowout scores of 31-7 and 40-22, respectively.
Normally, I wouldn’t include a Georgia defeat in a list of my greatest sports assignments but because of the electricity surrounding that 1971 Bulldogs-Tigers meeting, which was played before the largest crowd (62,891) ever to attend a football game in Georgia to that date, this game rates the exception.
As will another UGA game as we continue up the ladder to No. 1 in this particular series.
Next Week in South Carolina issue: No. 8, A World Series Matching Two Life-Long Favorites…