Herschel Walker played his last Georgia game on Jan. 1, 1983. The Bulldogs’ three-year yield with the greatest collegian ever – three SEC titles, one national championship. In the 35 seasons since, they’ve managed three SEC titles, no national championships.
The three years with Herschel – and the 10-1-1 season in his immediate aftermath – set a Georgia standard that, for sustained excellence, has been approached only once since. That came in Years 2 through 5 under Mark Richt, which saw the Bulldogs take two conference titles and play for a third. There wasn’t much separating Georgia from a national championship back then. Indeed, had the College Football Playoff been in place, Richt’s teams might have won it a time or two. But it wasn’t, and they didn’t.
And here we are in 2018, still waiting for some band of Bulldogs to do as Herschel and Belue and Lindsay and Meat Cleaver Weaver – and Dooley, too – did almost 40 years ago. Georgia came excruciatingly close on Jan. 8 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but Nick Saban cogitated and conjured up Tua Tagovailoa, and Georgia was the Nearly team yet again. The feeling, however, is that its moment of deliverance is close at hand.
For a while, a national title seemed Richt’s manifest destiny. His 2002 team was unlucky that both Miami and Ohio State exited the regular season undefeated. The 2003 team, maybe his best, lost twice to Saban’s LSU. His 2007 Bulldogs were undone by a BCS reshuffle on the final weekend. In 2012, Georgia fell five yards short of Saban’s Alabama. Three or four times, Georgia under Richt was no worse than the nation’s third- or fourth-best team. We’ll wonder forever how the playoffs-that-never-were might have unfolded.
Kirby Smart arrived in Athens with the CFP fully in effect. Math fact: It’s easier to be one of four than one of two. (Ask Alabama, your reigning titlist despite finishing second in the SEC West and being the playoff’s No. 4 seed.) There’s a real chance that Georgia and Bama could both go 12-0 and, the outcome of the SEC championship notwithstanding, grace the field of four. There’s a real chance the next two/three/four Januarys could see Georgia and Alabama – plus Clemson; never doubt Dabo – duke it out to the exclusionary of Northerners and Westerners and everybody else.
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As he enters Year 3, Smart has Georgia positioned as his predecessor did – as a giant reborn, a proud program ready to rid itself of a legacy of tripping over the big moment. We’ve always known that the Bulldogs claim resources the likes of which only a handful of schools can match. Since Herschel, we’ve seen those resources brought to bear only on occasion, and never for very long.
Peak Richt essentially ended on Sept. 27, 2008, the night Saban’s Crimson Tide came to Sanford Stadium and blacked out the Blackout. Only in 2012 did a Richt team again stamp itself as a national contender, and those Bulldogs lost 35-7 at South Carolina. The lasting image of Richt’s time at Georgia – we stipulate that he’s the second-best coach in school annals – was of gifted teams that lost the wrong game. (Examples: Many given Saturdays in Jacksonville. Also: A week after routing Saban’s LSU, the 2004 Bulldogs lost at home to Tennessee. Flip those results and Georgia would have played for the SEC title.)
Smart has everything going for him now that Richt had 15 years ago – plus a few things more. Smart has his Saban pedigree, which is different from Richt’s Bobby Bowden background. Like his mentor, Richt didn’t much sweat the details. Like HIS mentor, Smart sweats every detail. He mightn’t be as amiable as Richt, but he’s not inclined to leave any “i” undotted.
Smart also has time on his side. Four of the biggest losses of Richt’s tenure came at Saban’s hands – the 2003 Skyler Green game in Baton Rouge and that year’s SEC title tilt; the 2008 Blackout and the five-yards-away game of 2012. Those came over a nine-year span. Saban is 66. He might coach until he’s 70. There’s no way he’s coaching at 75. College football will change when he steps aside. In the SEC, who’s more apt to fill the gap than Saban’s longtime aide-de-camp?
The caveat is Florida. The Gators are the only SEC East program that can approximate Georgia’s assets, but they’ve been undercooked since Urban Meyer retired to spend time with his family. Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, sprigs of the Saban Tree, tried and failed. Dan Mullen, whose apprenticed under Meyer, did nice work at Mississippi State, a job that comes with a hard ceiling. Florida is different. If Mullen gets it going in Gainesville, the sky’s the limit – and Georgia’s dynamics will change. But that’s a sizable “if,” and Smart has a head start.
The only guarantee in college football is that Saban’s team will make the playoff. Smart isn’t yet Saban, which means Georgia isn’t yet Alabama. But the Bulldogs appear poised to trade yearly blows with King Crimson in a way only Clemson has lately. (In Georgia’s case, such blows might be twice-yearly.) Georgia has big-time recruits, clever coaches and rabid fans. Heck, it even has an indoor practice facility. It would be a surprise if the Bulldogs don’t win a national championship by the time Justin Fields leaves.