Dawg Days Gone By: the top 10 UGA football games of the pre-Smart era
We’re living through a particularly exciting age of University of Georgia football at the moment—from recruiting coups to Rose Bowl victories to rivalry game winning streaks—and most of the moments that define Kirby Smart’s tenure as the Bulldogs’ head coach are still fresh in our collective memory. But UGA’s football history is rife with dramatic victories, come-from-behind wins, and heroic performances, so as we gear up for another season Between The Hedges, let’s take a look back at some of these historic moments that have come to define the Georgia football program.
UGA vs. GA Tech – 1978
UGA came into this game ranked no. 11, but unranked, 7-3 Georgia Tech came into Athens with their hair on fire. The Yellow Jackets charged to a 20-0 lead, and late in the first half, Coach Vince Dooley decided to hand the reins of the offense over to freshman QB Buck Belue. The switch energized the Dawgs’ attack and they fought back to take a 21-20 lead before Georgia Tech scored to make it 28-21 after a two-point conversion. Led by Belue, the Bulldogs marched down field and scored late in the fourth quarter. And then, 28-27, with the opportunity to kick a point-after attempt to tie the game, Dooley opted for the two-point conversion. The freshman QB came through again and the Dawgs prevailed.
UGA vs. Tennessee – 1980
You have to be wearing a very specific shade of orange to feel at home in Neyland Stadium. It’s a hostile environment that shakes the most seasoned of players, so one might not expect great things from a freshman running back listed third on the depth chart, particularly when this was that running back’s first game of college ball, and especially not when he had to face down Freshman All-American safety Bill Bates. Where all those conditions collided is where Georgia football’s most enduring legend began.
UGA vs. Florida – 1980
With Herschel’s legend growing by the week and the 1980 squad proving to be true contenders, the 8-0 Bulldogs, ranked no. 2 in the country, traveled to Jacksonville for their annual match against the Gators, who were 6-1 and ranked no. 20 after suffering a beatdown at home against an LSU team that finished 7-4. Florida caught Georgia by surprise and held a 21-20 lead late into the fourth quarter. With 90 seconds left in the game, the Dawgs snapped the ball on third-and-long in the shadow of their own goalpost. Buck Belue scrambled to his right and pointed, Lindsay Scott ran to the gap in the Gator coverage, and Larry Munson made one of the most famous radio calls in the history of college football.
UGA vs. Notre Dame – 1981
After racking up 11 wins, the no. 1 ranked Bulldogs received an invitation to play no. 7 Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. Many expected that Georgia would have to open up a passing attack against the Fighting Irish, who would zero-in on Herschel and, being able to focus entirely on stopping one angle of attack—Georgia’s best angle of attack—functionally eliminate the Bulldog’s offense. What they found was that even with a separated shoulder, suffered in the game’s first quarter, Herschel could still amass over 150 yards on the ground and even while only completing one pass, the Dawgs could win. When the clock struck zero, Georgia had earned their 12th win of the season and their first consensus national title.
UGA vs. Auburn – 1996
In the midst of the disappointing 1996 season, the 3-5 Bulldogs traveled to Auburn in mid-November for their annual tilt. The month before, they’d lost to the no. 7 Volunteers at home, and the week before, they’d gotten thrashed by Steve Spurrier’s Florida team, the squad that would ultimately give the Gators their first national championship. Needless to say, the situation seemed grim as the Dawgs prepared for another rival, the 20th ranked Auburn Tigers.
But Jim Donnan’s Bulldogs—including future UGA coach Mike Bobo, future Pittsburgh Steeler great Hines Ward and future NFL Hall of Famer Champ Bailey—found themselves in a pitched battle with Tommy Bowden’s Tigers. The contest occurred in the first season that Division I college football had implemented overtime rules, and the SEC’s first-ever overtime game put the concept to the test: It would take four overtimes to decide a winner. And even if all of that doesn’t sound familiar, odds are you’ve seen at least a part of this game: This was the origin of that famous photo of Uga, reared back on hind legs, snapping at an Auburn player. That player avoided a bulldog bite, but the Tigers did not.
UGA vs. Tennessee – 2001
As exciting as that ’96 Auburn game was, Georgia wandered in mediocrity for decades after Herschel Walker left, ceding SEC East dominance to Florida and Tennessee. But when UGA hired Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt to be their new head coach for the 2001 season, things looked up. Expectations are always high for a Georgia coach, and after starting the season 2-1, fans were still largely positive on Richt even after a loss to no. 21 South Carolina. And with a trip to Neyland Stadium looming, no one would begrudge this first-time head coach and his unranked Bulldogs a loss to Philip Fulmer’s no. 6 Tennessee Volunteers. Instead, Richt gave Bulldog Nation a signature win and a legendary Larry Munson moment.
UGA vs. Auburn – 2002
In Mark Richt’s second year, he built on his initial success in Athens by piling up wins—including ranked victories over no. 22 Alabama and no. 10 Tennessee—on his way to the rivalry game against Auburn. Georgia walked into Jordan-Hare Stadium with a 9-1 record, a loss to Florida their only blemish, but it was a blemish that—should the no. 7 Dawgs lose again and the Gators continue to win—would cost them the SEC East title and a shot at an SEC Championship. Auburn had a narrower path to Atlanta, but with a win over Georgia and a loss by Arkansas, the no. 24 Tigers could compete for the championship.
With all this on the line, the contest was hard-fought, to say the least. But with 1:25 left in the game, things looked bleak for the Dawgs: after reeling off 14 points in the second half to close the gap to 21-17, the trailing Bulldogs’ offense stalled out in Auburn’s red zone. On fourth down with 15 yards to go, David Greene hurled a rainbow-arc pass to the back of Auburn’s end zone to find a leaping Michael Johnson and punched Georgia’s ticket to the championship—a game they would win decisively, giving Georgia their first SEC title in 20 years.
UGA vs. Florida – 2007
In 2007, Georgia entered the back half of their season feeling cautiously optimistic. They were 5-2—with two losses against South Carolina and Tennessee and a dramatic overtime win against Alabama—and neck-and-neck with UT and Florida for the SEC East title. But heading into Jacksonville, Dawg fans weren’t hopeful. Urban Meyer’s Florida won the national championship in 2006; Tim Tebow, the Gators’ sophomore QB phenom, had captured the nation’s attention; and the Dawgs had lost all but two of the previous 17 games. Georgia would need some magic to win, and they found it in sophomore QB Matt Stafford, freshman running back Knowshon Moreno and one of the most famous end zone celebrations in college football history.
UGA vs. Auburn – 2007
After their win over Florida, the 2007 Bulldogs vaulted up the rankings, reaching no. 10. After a win over Troy at home, the Dawgs would welcome no. 18 Auburn into Sanford Stadium. The race for a spot in the SEC title game—in both divisions—remained tight, so this game had plenty on the line. Early in the week leading up to the game, rumors began to circulate about a possible uniform change for the Bulldogs, and as game day came closer, those whispers grew louder. Fans urged one another to wear black to the game, and when the gates opened, legions of black-clad Bulldogs filled the stands. Pregame warmups seemed to quash the rumors: The players appeared on field in their traditional home reds. But when the team burst through the super G banner, they were wearing black. The stadium rocked in response, and that energy carried the Bulldogs to a 45-20 victory.
UGA vs. Alabama – 2012
Mark Richt’s 2012 Georgia Bulldogs entered the season highly ranked and proved their mettle on the way to an 11-1 season, the lone loss coming against then-sixth ranked South Carolina. Alabama, in their sixth season under Nick Saban, followed a similar trajectory, with their only stumble coming against a 15th ranked Texas A&M team. By the time the two met in Atlanta for the SEC Championship, the Bulldogs had reached no. 3 in the rankings, and the Tide had the no. 2 spot. The winner of the contest was bound for the national championship. The stakes were high, but the quality of play was higher.
The titanic fight saw six lead changes, a successful fake punt, an Alabama fumble on Georgia’s one-yard line, an endzone interception and a field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown. Finally, with UGA down 32-28 and just over a minute left in the game, Aaron Murray drove the Dawgs to Alabama’s eight-yard line. The final play is burned into the memory of Bulldog fans who saw it and is far better seen than read. It’s a result that didn’t go the Dawgs’ way, but it was an appropriately dramatic finish for one of the most exciting football games Georgia’s ever played.