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The Story Behind the Season

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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When four leaders joined to make a statement, they rallied a state along the way.

I was born and raised in Georgia and I have been a 'Dawg fan my entire life. I'm not alone in that.
~Jon Stinchcomb

Excitement is an emotion meant to be shared. As Georgia, literally and figuratively, has traveled far and wide this football season, a very real and very special energy has followed. Long before the first huddle of the year, a select few came together for a cause. Commitment preceded kickoff, a notion that is still ongoing. When four leaders joined to make a statement, they rallied a state along the way.   

Before a mission can be accomplished, its methods must be made clear. Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Nick Chubb and Sony Michel took the first steps in a run for the record books by turning down the NFL Draft for one more year in Athens. In returning, they set in motion a movement; the Bulldogs, correspondingly, have one game to go. Leaving tracks of red clay all the way to California and back, Georgia's grand finale will come not far from where it all began. Monday won't just feature a powerful home crowd, but, also, a poignant homecoming.

"It set a great tone for the rest of the team when those four players came back. They were not satisfied," UGA icon Vince Dooley, long time head coach and athletic director, explained. "I think they are extraordinary young men and all four of them have not only given tremendous physical play, but tremendous leadership in setting the tone with how important this season was and is to them."

The storylines surrounding the national championship game are just like we like 'em in the Deep South: filling, with plenty left for seconds. In addition to the Bulldogs playing for it all in their own backyard, they will be led by a man, in Kirby Smart, who played for Georgia almost a generation prior. In Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Smart will square off with his mentor Nick Saban and the program he won four titles with in eight years. After coming back to come here, four beloved Bulldogs will play leading roles. 

This fall, for Georgia, has required the absolute best from everybody. When returning starting quarterback Jacob Eason was lost for the season just a few plays into the year, the Bulldogs' resolve was truly tested; across the board, the entire team responded. Fast forward to January and true freshman signal caller Jake Fromm ranks in the national top five in passer rating, Chubb and Michel have become the most-productive rushing tandem in FBS history and the defense ranks second in the SEC.

From the outside-looking-in, Eason's injury initially seemed devastating. Not pushing up daises on the season, Georgia, instead, chose roses.

Athens to Atlanta and all places in between, the road back home has been marked with memories.

The Bulldogs' first-ever trip to Notre Dame, and the only pairing between the two outside of Georgia winning the national championship on New Year's Day 1981, was arguably this team's springboard forward. A late Rodrigo Blankenship field goal gave the Bulldogs one-point victory, a performance fit with big plays from the likes of Fromm, Terry Godwin, Bellamy and Carter. In Georgia's debut performance in front of Touchdown Jesus, plenty of red-and-black was in the congregation.

There was the shutout topping of Tennessee in Knoxville, a 35-point venting of Florida in Jacksonville and a 31-point swatting of Georgia Tech as the Bulldogs beat three of their rivals by a combined total of 121-14. After a lone loss on the Plains in early November, Georgia responded with a three-touchdown triumph over Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs had their first league title since 2005, just their third since 1982. Their fan base has been there the whole way. 

Georgia won the conference crown in the same nearby venue where a national championship will soon be awarded. Athens and Atlanta may soon share more than just The Varsity.

If traveling to the Midwest stirred the echoes, playing in Pasadena was a dream come true. Once again, with a cheering section nearly the size of the city of Valdosta, the Bulldogs filled up the Rose Bowl bright red. On the field, Georgia responded in kind. The Bulldogs, in one of the most iconic venues in all of sports, played an instant classic, winning a showdown pundits deemed an all-time great. Georgia edged Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield and Oklahoma 54-48 in double-overtime in the first playoff game ever with extra play. 

Pigskin prophets of sorts, those who made a pact roughly a year before were the ones who made the difference as Chubb and Michel rushed for 326 yards and five touchdowns and Lorenzo Carter recorded ten total tackles. It was Carter who made the play of the day, bursting out like a bold prediction, to fly through the air and block a go-ahead field goal attempt at the start of the second overtime. Two snaps later, Michel sent the Bulldogs to the national title game with a 27-yard dash into the endzone.

Georgia remains in an all-out sprint, with the state still catching its breath.  

"Georgia fans love to travel, particularly places they have never been and this year has been a double-treat," Dooley continued. "In a lot of cases, this is once in a lifetime."

What potentially awaits is timeless. Tales from 1980 are still the stuff of legend around the Peach State, with history forever holding onto all that was. Memories of legends like Herschel Walker and Scott Woerner last like photos on a page. As times change, trophies do not. Already with a place in history, these Bulldogs are playing for a place in the hearts and minds of the masses.

Georgia is a diverse, dynamic state. Home to beaches and mountains, vast farm land and an international city with the busiest airport in the world, it comes in many shapes and sizes. The Bulldogs cover it all like kudzu. Abbeville to Zebulon, Monday will come like Christmas morning.    

In meeting Alabama, what Georgia has is a chance to change the status quo. 

"It's for all of the marbles. I would say if you had an opportunity to play one team in order to be national champs, you would want to go through Alabama," explained former UGA All-SEC running back Willie McClendon. "Without a doubt, the past five-seven years, they have been the number one team, the best team at making that championship game. The road definitely goes through Tuscaloosa and this Alabama Crimson Tide team."

The true value of college football is how it makes you feel. Those sentiments are shared by people who will never meet. Through it all, the bond is the brand. Bulldog fans have watched as rivals Auburn, Florida, Georgia Tech and Tennessee have won national championships since Georgia last has. Over the decades, the pride never left; patience has now been replaced with passion. 

"We need to establish the University of Georgia as being the premier program in the country. We have the players here in the state of Georgia, we can recruit with anybody. We should be at the pinnacle of this dog-gone thing and let everybody catch up with us," McClendon stated. "I played Alabama twice, we were 1-1. They put their pants on just like we did. We're not scared, bring it on, let's go."

These Bulldogs are playing for all that could be, but also all that has almost been. Georgia has been close before; the Bulldogs, playing mere miles from campus, will never be closer than they are now. 

"I was born and raised in Georgia and I have been a 'Dawg fan my entire life. I'm not alone in that. We have felt like we have belonged in this position for years and to finally be here is exciting for all of us," added former UGA All-American tackle Jon Stinchcomb. "The 'Dawgs are playing for a national championship, that's where we belong and that has always been the approach of the Bulldog Nation. That's what we talked about when I was being recruited in the late 90s. It's been a long time coming."

There is a frenzied anticipation around the state, a conviction that was on clear display even in California. This is a team that just continues to find a way. This is a fan base that strongly believes. The program and state are tied together like laces through leather.

Ahead of potential history, there is hope.

"My wife is a teacher and my kids are in school. I doubt very seriously they would be alone in hoping that it would be a state holiday come Tuesday," Stinchcomb smiled.

A season for the ages has been over a year in the making. The who, what, when and where has been truly remarkable for Georgia. The why stands out above all else.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports