Bulldogs, fans dreaming big again

Suddenly, it is the dawn of the 1980s all over again and the college football world knows exactly how good it is to be a Georgia Bulldog.

Echoes of old glories will swing from the Georgia Dome’s roof cables at the kickoff to today’s SEC Championship game. Faded memories will be lovingly restored when Georgia plays its most consequential game in three decades.

Winner goes on to play Notre Dame for the national championship.

Loser slides into bowl purgatory, where no amount of Florida sunshine and free trinkets compensate for the death of a dream.

Saturday’s conference championship is the equivalent of a semifinal playoff game, the clearest kind of drama available under a system still grappling with the concept of clarity. For Georgia’s opponent, such stakes are common. Alabama has won three national titles since the Bulldogs won their last in 1980, including two of the last three. The Crimson Tide are a touchdown favorite to keep the penthouse view.

The Bulldogs and their followers are simply pleased to be back in the late-season relevancy business.

“I’m excited about this game as any since I played,” said Mitch Frix, a Bulldog player minted in the early-1980s who is now an orthopedic surgeon in north Georgia. As he was the long snapper for those teams of note so is his son, Ty, the snapper for this one. Two generations of Frixes have now enjoyed the view of promising seasons from between their own legs.

To grow up a Frix was to grow up fully aware of Georgia lore. “That was a part of (Ty’s) life,” said Mitch.

Many Georgia parents, whose faith in ever seeing the Bulldogs rise to 1980s level again may have occasionally buckled, will relive the moment with their children. Today’s game is a generational Bailey bridge. “I’m just really happy for Ty and his buddies to be able to experience this,” Mitch Frix said.

“Time flies, 32 years can seem like yesterday,” said former Bulldog linebacker Frank Ros. “You’re just happy for the guys and hope they can win this thing.”

Ros, now the vice president for Hispanic strategies for Coca-Cola, went on to do some significant real-life stuff after leaving Georgia. But he also is indelibly stamped as captain of the 1980 championship team.

“The players now don’t really realize (the lasting impact of winning big), like we didn’t realize it,” Ros said. “As the years went by you figured it out — man that was really, really, really big. People still remember you and it’s 32 years later. People still remember, and we’re guys in our 50s now. For these young guys, if they can take care of business, this will follow them for the rest of their lives.”

These aren’t your father’s Bulldogs. Time has altered the composition and style of the team. Their quarterback has thrown twice the number of passes for nearly 2,000 more yards than did Buck Belue during the 1980 championship season. As a principal driver of the modern offense, junior Aaron Murray is on the spot like never before. He underscored that this week with his silence, imposing a media gag order on himself. How Murray emerges from his Athens fortress of solitude will be of utmost importance against Alabama.

This team requires two freshmen running backs – Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall – to do the work that Herschel Walker did so spectacularly way back when.

Ros offered them all one bit of advice, borrowed from a former Georgia defensive coordinator who was legendary for his motivational techniques: “Coach (Erk) Russell used to have a term for it – ‘intelligent fanaticism.’ That was Coach Russell’s way of saying you have to play crazy but under control.”

Some of the same advice may apply to the full house of spectators, some who reportedly submitted to scalpers’ demands of four or five times face value for a precious seat. Games likes these bring out the extremes in folks.

We pause here to revive a passage from late humor columnist Lewis Grizzard – a Bulldog to his gizzard – concerning the night Georgia won the national championship in New Orleans:

When we beat Florida 26-21 in the last seconds in 1980, we called it a miracle. And when we beat Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl that same year for the national championship, a woman pulled up her skirt and showed the world the bulldog she had sewn on her underbritches.

Fans in and around the Georgia Dome are advised to keep their undergarments to themselves. But who knows? The scene in advance of the game figures to be as wild as any in the 21–year history of the SEC Championship game.

The aftermath may well depend upon which group will be whooping it up on Atlanta’s surface streets. Bulldog people have a much deeper reservoir of unspent joy.

This opportunity sort of sneaked up on both teams. Georgia took its one loss earlier, an October shellacking at South Carolina. Alabama fell to conference newcomer Texas A&M a month later, and tumbled from the No. 1 ranking.

“I thought the chances of the SEC having a participant (in the national championship game) were absolutely remote,” said CBS’ SEC broadcaster Verne Lundquist. “But you know what? They earned it.” They also had a little help when the right teams in front of them in the rankings – Oregon and Kansas State – had the bad form to lose late.

That awful night in Columbia seems a lifetime away. And the greater glory days of Georgia football seem almost near enough to touch again.

Current players are way too young to remember the teams of the ‘80s. They can only look upon it as a history text badly in need of updating.

“It has been too long,” said Bulldogs receiver Rhett McGowan. “We need to give everyone something else to talk about.”

“I’m proud of my Georgia history, but I came here to win, too,” said linebacker Christian Robinson.

The senior on his last lap around the college game then gave voice to the obligation of those in the present: “If we leave here and (a 32-year-old championship) is all fans have to talk about, then we must not have done anything special.”

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