Georgia Anxious for a Return Visit
By BJ Bennett
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Georgia is a state of distinctly vibrant color and tone. This week, the hue is overwhelmingly red and black.
Folks in Georgia, an established blueblood of the Deep South, have long been known to squeeze every last bit out of a good thing. There, a simple glass of sweat tea can make a meal. A friendly conversation can carry an afternoon. While good is always encouraged to stop by and visit, greatness, in the Peach State, makes itself at home.
Step foot in the red clay and you'll immediately be immersed in a history rich filled with accomplishment and merit. You can still feel the passion and perseverance of the heroes from the civil rights movement. The treasured sounds of Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and the Allman Brothers echo across the plains. This is where Iconic images from Gone With the Wind, Driving Miss Daisy and the Dukes of Hazzard mesh with the famed words of Lewis Grizzard and Sidney Lanier.
For a state as diverse in geography as it is in culture, sports oftentimes ties communities, those in the low country and those in the mountains, and people, black and white, together like a favorite highway backroad. The 1995 Atlanta Braves, the 1996 Summer Olympics: memories consume just as wild jasmine does a picket fence. Cross state lines and you won't have to peer through the weeds to see which legacy most prominently lives on through the winks and words of fans today.
The 1980 Georgia Bulldogs stand as the school's only national championship team in modern football history. Coached by the legendary Vince Dooley, the Bulldogs emerged unscathed through a slate that included Tennessee, Clemson, Florida, Auburn, Georgia Tech and, ultimately, Notre Dame. From the beginning, a 16-15 edging of the Volunteers in Knoxville, this group had the feel of a team of destiny. The Bulldogs would go on to win six games by one score, the 1980 Lindsay Scott miracle in Jacksonville and the national title bout with the Irish included. Dooley, Scott, and a quiet running back from Wrightsville named Herschel Walker, would guide Georgia to in-state immortality.
Names like the aforementioned officially extend Sunday’s reverence back a day. In the state of Georgia, being good gets you a round of applause. Being great gets you a round for the rest of your life.
“They almost won it the two years after we did in 1981 and 1982; just a couple of plays away from winning those Sugar Bowl games,” remembered UGA All-American kicker Rex Robinson, title-winner in 1980. It’s been a long road, you know, 20 years or so between SEC championships. It would be great to be able to put that crowning achievement on this season with a national championship.”
For Mark Richt’s Bulldogs, 2012 has been a tale of two seasons. Following an early October drubbing at the hands of South Carolina, and an uninspiring escape from Kentucky, Georgia has found a new rhythm, a new attitude. In their last five games, the Bulldogs have not allowed more than 14 points to a single opponent, that high total coming against FCS Georgia Southern. Georgia has won their last four games by a combined score of 162-34.
“I think the way they have played the past three or four weeks, they have played with a lot of confidence. I hate to use the word ‘swagger’, but I think it applies a little bit,” Robinson detailed. “I think that really gives us an opportunity to play well in the bowl game, in the championship game if that is what happens. I think the guys have really matured to the extent that it doesn’t matter who is on the field with them, they are going to play well and always give themselves a chance to win.”
Looking back, Georgia’s lone blemish, and the backlash that came with it, stands as this team’s turning point. What it no longer has to be, however, is the Bulldogs' defining moment.
“I believe that without struggle, without a little adversity, it’s kind of hard to move forward, but the ‘Dawgs have finally put it together,” explained former UGA All-American running back Tim Worley. “Now that they are playing together, they are playing together as a team and as a whole, they are playing up to what we thought they could play up to.”
This is a program, a fan base, anxious to be on the big stage. The situation is a simple one: a win over 11-1 Alabama would catapult Georgia into the BCS National Championship Game against Notre Dame. The Bulldogs’ 1980 title game victory came over, of all teams, the Fighting Irish. With considerable momentum, some historical aligning and potentially a blueprint for success, Georgia enters this Saturday evening with a grand opportunity.
“Alabama lost to Texas A&M and I think the wildcard there obviously was Johnny Manziel. He just was out of control and running so well. We don’t really have that guy, but I think if our offensive line continues to mature as they have, even though we are more alike to Alabama than Texas A&M and play more of a pro-style offense, if our guys can give Aaron a little bit of protection and open a few holes just to create some balance, I think our chances are very, very good,” Robinson added.
While the defending national champion Crimson Tide will undoubtedly be well represented in the stands, the Georgia Dome awaits as a potential homefield advantage for the state’s flagship school. Georgia disappointed in their big picture audition last season, falling 42-10 in the SEC Championship Game to top-ranked LSU. This chance at redemption offers a much-bigger prize. Many around Athens and Atlanta feel that the foreshadowing for this game has a distinctly-different feel.
“I think the guys are pumped, I think the coaches are pumped. I do believe with the backing of the fans and the support of the fans and the school, it is awesome to see the Georgia Bulldogs on that potential national championship stage,” Worley acknowledged. “We have been trying to get back there for the longest. It has to remind people of that 1980 national championship against Notre Dame. It’s an exciting time and it’s about time, it’s been over 25 years and I would love to see the ‘Dawgs win this whole thing.”
This weekend the best of the best from college football’s best conference will play with it all on the line. More so, school and state pride will be on full display as Georgia measures itself against the most iconic program in the region. A team of 85 will take on a favored, more heralded group of their peers; not alone, rather with what seems like close to ten million strong aiding their cause.
“Once a ‘Dawg, always a ‘Dawg. I have no regrets from when Vince Dooley came to North Carolina and recruited me. I signed my name on the line and that was the place for me. I can remember watching Georgia when Herschel Walker came along and I said ‘that’s what I want to do, that’s where I want to run the football’. It’s an honor just to be a part of the red and black. Everywhere we go you always see Georgia fans and support. We have some of the best fans in the world," Worley reflected. "To this day, there are still people who remember. They remember the Georgia Bulldogs, they remember the long runs, the games with my teammates back in the day. It’s great to be a Georgia Bulldog.”
From the gold sprinkled hills of Dahlonega and the peach-filled prairies of Fort Valley, down to the blue waters of Savannah, Georgia is a state of distinctly vibrant color and tone. This week, the hue is overwhelmingly red and black.
Georgia football has long been good, a very real feather in the cap of those who proudly live in the "Empire State of the South". Saturday presents an opportunity to inch closer to something more. Though they've oftentimes grown wary of waiting, the people of the Peach State again have greatness knocking at their front door. While everyone is welcome in their parts, this is a guest they desperately hope stops and stays.