The 1980 national championship game was on ESPN Classic the other day. Someone on the message boards remarked how it seemed as if Georgia got all the breaks that day. No one was complaining, but it was true that most of the balls bounced Georgia’s way en route to the win over Notre Dame. The Dawgs were outgained and completed but a single pass, but good defense and a couple of opportunistic scores made the difference. “We’ve been a team of good fortune,” said Vince Dooley leading up to the Sugar Bowl, and that good fortune continued to the end.
Mark Richt’s standing after eight seasons has been a favorite topic this offseason. His accomplishments speak for themselves, but what’s ahead? Is that elusive national title still to come? Is he, as some have suggested, closer to the hot seat than we might admit? Some of the discussion I’ve seen chalks the talk about the lack of a national title up as a matter of luck and circumstance. Georgia’s had seasons under Richt just as good as those of teams that have gone on to play for the title, but the timing was just wrong.
Luck and circumstance can definitely play a role in a national title. Dooley tipped his cap to good fortune in 1980. We all remember Clint Stoerner’s fumble that contributed to Tennessee’s 1998 title. Florida plays in the 2007 Sugar Bowl and not for the national title without a huge upset of USC by UCLA. And of course there’s the avalanche of events at the end of the 2007 that allowed LSU to lose its regular season finale and still win the national title with two losses.
It’s one thing to grant the frequent role of luck and fortune in a championship season, but I hope that doesn’t lead us to just shrug off the pursuit of a national title as a whimsical spin of the wheel of fortune. In many cases this decade, the Dawgs have had the opportunity to make their own luck. Sometimes they have, and sometimes they haven’t. While the Dawgs haven’t had the best of luck getting to the national title game, they’ve still had plenty of breaks go their way during the Mark Richt era.
Why Georgia was unlucky: The one-loss season remains the best result from a Mark Richt team, and it’s true that several teams have made it to the BCS Championship with similar or worse records. But in 2002 Miami and Ohio State made it through the regular season unscathed, and Georgia had to “settle” for its first BCS bowl and first trip back to the Sugar Bowl in nearly two decades.
Why Georgia should consider themselves lucky: Really, this should be plenty:
Without that single play, Georgia doesn’t even win the SEC East. Much of the 2002 season went that way. We remember 13-1, the long-awaited SEC title, and how close Georgia came to a perfect season, but how close was Georgia to a much more ordinary season?
You can start with the very first game. Clemson, kicking against the wind, came up just short on a game-tying field goal. A week later, South Carolina fumbled just yards away from a winning touchdown. Then it was on to Alabama where a late Crimson Tide interception put Georgia behind and required a last-chance drive culminating with Billy Bennett’s heroics. Even the win over Tennessee, hardly something you’d credit to luck, was closer than many of us remember. The Dawgs raced out to a lead but had to hold on as the Vols took all of the momentum in the 4th quarter. Richt rolled the dice and pitched to Tony Milton on a late 4th down gamble to seal the win.
Auburn and even South Carolina fans might have felt as if the Dawgs had plenty of luck in 2002. Even though they came up short against Florida, what was remarkable about the season was how many times the Dawgs came out on top in close games. Credit Richt, Greene, a cultural change, or whatever you like – after losing those kinds of close games to South Carolina, Auburn, and BC in 2001, many more went Georgia’s way in 2002 than didn’t.
Why Georgia was unlucky: The Dawgs had a really good shot at knocking off eventual national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. A Georgia win would’ve put the Bulldogs down the same path that LSU took to the national title. It also would’ve put Ole Miss in position to win the SEC West and give the Bulldogs a more manageable opponent in the SEC Championship game. Though Georgia outgained LSU 411-285 and passed for 314 yards, three Georgia turnovers and three uncharacteristic missed field goals from Billy Bennett kept Georgia out of the endzone until Tyson Browning’s dramatic late game-tying touchdown on a 93-yard screen pass. A poor kickoff and a busted coverage gave LSU the opening to win a close 17-10 game.
Why Georgia should consider themselves lucky: It’s hard to consider good fortune in a three-loss season, but just getting to the Georgia Dome was a small stroke of luck in 2003. The Bulldogs finished deadlocked in the SEC East standings with Tennessee and Florida. With all other tiebreakers unable to settle the issue, Georgia’s higher BCS ranking earned them the trip to Atlanta. The quirk of that BCS-related tiebreaker made season-ending nonconference games with Georgia Tech and Florida State mean as much for Georgia and Florida as any conference game. Only after Georgia beat Tech and Florida narrowly lost to FSU did the Dawgs emerge as the SEC East’s representative to the conference championship game.
Why Georgia was unlucky: Even with Darren McFadden’s flashes of brilliance and 190 yards, Georgia’s midseason game against Arkansas seemed destined to be a boring midseason win for the #4 Bulldogs. A second quarter knee injury to quarterback D.J. Shockley made the game one of the pivotal points in the season. The Dawgs held on to beat Arkansas, but they’d drop their next two games and fall out of the national title picture.
Why Georgia should consider themselves lucky: Even with the injury to Shockley and a shocking end to the Auburn game that resulted in a home loss, the Dawgs won the SEC East and rebounded to win the conference title. They still needed help to win the division, and that help came from a very bitter foe. Georgia’s loss to Auburn on the heels of the earlier loss to Florida would have given the division to the Gators. It took Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks to knock off Urban Meyer’s first Florida team and hand the Gators their third conference loss. The Dawgs made the most of their chance to win another SEC title, but they had to back in to the opportunity.
Even if Georgia had finished 2005 undefeated, the odds were slim to none that they’d vault past either Southern Cal or Texas for a shot at the national title. The eventual result – a conference title and a BCS bowl bid – was about as good as it was going to get.
Why Georgia was unlucky: Few teams in the nation finished the 2007 as well as Georgia. The Dawgs plowed through rivals Florida, Auburn, and Georgia Tech before providing Hawaii with a brutal reality check. The Dawgs rose so high that the remarkable chain of events during the final weeks of the regular season had Georgia in position to play for the national title if the final poll remained consistent. The pollsters insted vaulted SEC champions LSU ahead of Georgia and into the BCS Championship. It was a pipe dream for a two-loss team that hadn’t won its conference to play for the national title, but 2007 wasn’t your typical season.
Why Georgia should consider themselves lucky: A season that finished so strong nearly fell apart before it got going. On the heels of a shocking blowout loss at Tennessee, it was all Georgia could do to stay in the game at Vanderbilt and avoid a consecutive loss to the Commodores. Vandy built a 17-7 lead and held on for much of the game, but the Bulldogs drew even with just over 6 minutes remaining. Vanderbilt responded with an impressive drive, and for the second year in a row Georgia didn’t seem to have an answer as Vanderbilt drove for the game-winning score. The Bulldogs forced a season-saving fumble on their own 7 yard line and put together a drive for their own before Brandon Coutu won the game with a field goal at the final whistle.
Think about that point in the 2007 season had Georgia dropped to 4-3 with a loss to Vanderbilt and Florida still to come. Put it in the context on the heels of a 4-loss 2006 season. It’s simplistic to point to a fumble as the turning point which brought the team from the brink of a meltdown to a national title contender in less than two months, but that’s the way the breaks go in this game, isn’t it?