As Georgia embarks on its first Southeastern Conference contest of the Kirby Smart era, Saturday’s road tussle at Missouri is a stark reminder of just how difficult it is to string together a slew of wins, then capture the title tilt in Atlanta to be crowned champions of what in most years is the toughest league in the land.
It has always been extremely difficult to win the SEC – that’s a newsflash.
When Tech and Tulane left in 1963 and 1965, and the conference was at 10 teams, with six, then seven league games, the path to glory wasn’t easy, but the schedule could slant one team or another’s way and there was the beauty of co-champions. For example, Georgia and Alabama shared the SEC championship in 1966 and 1981, both posting undefeated league marks. In 1989, Bama, Auburn and Tennessee were tri-champs. It doesn’t say co-champs on those SEC Championship banners, which fly forever.
Well, with a pair of expansions — Arkansas and South Carolina joined the SEC in 1992, and the SEC Championship Game was born, then Missouri and Texas A&M were inaugurated in 2012 — there are now 14 teams, eight games and the big one in the Georgia Dome. That’s a lot of heavy lifting required just to get to big one, and another great foe standing in the path of glory. To win the whole thing, the big prize of college football, two more wins after that are now required.
Smart’s charge and challenge is to take Georgia to the very top, multiple national and SEC crowns and NO losses to Tech. It is a lofty goal, but the natural resources, the hungry fan base, the financial support, facilities and an incredible annual bumper crop of in-state talent to fuel Georgia’s rightfully grandiose dreams.
The Bulldogs have reigned supreme before, and Smart is tirelessly working to again get Georgia back to the SEC’s mountaintop.
Arguably the greatest decade in Georgia football history was the fabulous 1940s. A year after winning the Orange Bowl and coming close to the title, Georgia won its first SEC championship in 1942, led by Heisman Trophy winner Frank Sinkwich and his sterling understudy Charley Trippi. After defeating UCLA 9-0 in the Rose Bowl, the Bulldogs were voted No. 1 in a majority of polls, earning the consensus national championship.
With the country joyous over the greatest victory of all, the Allied triumph of World War II, Georgia roared to incredible heights. With Trippi, Johnny Ranch, Jack Bush and Joe Tereshinski amongst the numerous standouts, Georgia won its second conference title in 1946, defeating North Carolina 20-10 in the Sugar Bowl to cap a perfect 11-0 campaign, with every victory coming by double digits. The Bulldogs were voted No. 1 in a pair of polls.
Coach Wallace Butts led the Bulldogs to a third SEC title in 1948, further establishing Georgia not just as a Dixieland power, but as one of the elite programs in all of college football.
As great as the ‘40s were, the 1950s marked the hardest of times for the Bulldogs. Georgia reached its lowest of lows, falling eight straight times to Tech from 1949-56. But Butts had one last run at glory. The Bulldogs of 1959, led by Fran Tarkenton and Pat Dye won a thriller over Auburn, edged Tech, then beat Missouri in the Orange Bowl to finish 10-1 as SEC champions with a No. 5 national ranking.
After some tough times in the early 1960s, a young Vince Dooley took over as the Bulldogs coach in 1964 and enjoyed immediate success, leading the Bulldogs to SEC championships in 1966 and 1968, with a slew of All-SEC performers highlighting phenomenal rosters.
There were several close calls in the 1970s, including the powerhouse 11-1 1971 squad, the ’75 Cotton Bowl team and the ’78 Wonderdogs. But it would be the great Junkyard Dawgs of 1976 that would bring home Dooley’s third, and the school’s seventh conference title. That team had a shot at the national title, but fell to powerhouse Pitt in the Sugar Bowl.
A fully stocked team missing just one piece then put together the greatest run in program history, and one of the most successful stretches in college football annals.
Herschel Walker highlighted the best freshman class in program history, which joined Georgia’s greatest senior class. All the pieces came together and the Bulldogs of 1980 captured the national and SEC championships with a perfect 12-0 record. Georgia would follow it up with two more SEC titles, the ’81 and ’82 seasons coming up just shy in the pursuit of another national crown.
Georgia was on the verge of SEC championships again in the 1980s, but losses to Auburn cost the Bulldogs in 1983, 1987 and 1988 (along with a crusher at Kentucky).
The Dogs had the best team in the SEC East in 1992, but lost by three to Tennessee and two to Florida and was shut out of the first conference title game.
Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs of 1997 had a great season, but it was Tennessee that made it to Atlanta.
Georgia finally broke through and won that elusive 11th SEC crown in 2002, as Mark Richt’s Bulldogs roared to a 13-1 record and No. 3 national ranking. The Dogs lost in Atlanta the following year, missed a third straight trip the following season due to a crushing loss to Tennessee, then captured another crown in 2005.
And that’s where we sit. Georgia had a great team in 2007, but didn’t make it to Atlanta. The Dogs fell to far superior LSU in the ’11 title tilt. Then came the most heart-breaking loss since the ’83 Sugar Bowl, in which Georgia fell 27-23 to Penn State for the national title. Alabama edged the Dogs 32-28, with Georgia on the doorstep.
Unfortunately, as the favorites in the East the last three seasons, Georgia was beaten out by Missouri, Missouri again, and Florida with first year coach Jim McElwain to play for the SEC title.
That’s a major reason Kirby Smart is back home in Athens.
Georgia is a prime contender to play for the SEC championship in 2016, but it is going to take a couple of strong recruiting classes to get the depth of talent back to an elite talent. Smart and his staff are well on the way to accomplishing that mission. Maybe just maybe, the Bulldogs of 2016 can forge on ahead of schedule and accomplish something special.
It starts Saturday night, the first of eight straight conference contests. Win seven or eight of those, then that all-important state title against Tech, and maybe, just maybe, the Bulldogs will be on the doorstep of a lucky 13th SEC championship.
That’s the Smart plan