Belief makes Georgia Bulldogs a threat to win it all again

Georgia football-roster-2022 season

Credit: Miguel Martinez for Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Miguel Martinez for Atlanta Journal Constitution

1/15/22 - Athens - Players, including Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett, celebrate during the parade. The Georgia Bulldogs football team, the 2022 College Football Playoff National Championship winners between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide, celebrate with a parade in Athens, GA, on Saturday, January 15, 2022. Miguel Martinez for Atlanta Journal Constitution.

Editor’s Note: Georgia’s first national championship in 41 years will have an impact more far-reaching than the football program. In Sports, this is the third in a series of stories examining how the title will impact fans, admissions, recruiting and politics.

Buck Belue was excited about Georgia winning the national championship in 1980, beside himself like everybody else, really. But he was even more excited about what it meant going forward.

A junior quarterback when the Bulldogs defeated Notre Dame 17-10 on Jan. 1, 1981, Belue almost immediately thought ahead to his senior season. They could do it again, he thought to himself. They should do it again.

“I just looked around the locker room and knew we had the talent to run this thing back and do it again,” said Belue, now an Atlanta sports radio host. “That rejuvenated me right away. It’s a long, draining season trying to win the national championship. But I was so excited looking around and seeing we had the personnel to come right back and do it again the next season. It was going to be my senior year, and that energized me.”

Indeed, there were some major pieces coming back. There were stars such as Lindsay Scott, Jimmy Payne and Eddie “Meat Cleaver” Weaver, stalwarts like Wayne Radloff and Tim Crowe and up-and-comers like Freddie Gilbert and Clarence Kay. Oh, and a tailback named Herschel Walker.

Alas, the bloom was off that rose by Week 3.

On Sept. 19, 1981, the Bulldogs committed nine turnovers and lost on the road to eventual national champion Clemson, 13-3. That loss would be the only blemish until Dan Marino and Pitt ripped out Georgia’s hearts with a final-seconds touchdown pass in the Sugar Bowl.

The rest of the season was a bunch of routs. The 1981 Bulldogs won 10 games by an average of 26.4 points.

“Look, we really should have won three national titles in a row – ‘80, ‘81 and ‘82,” Belue lamented. “And I would have been a part of two of those. But we weren’t able to do it.”

That’s because repeating is very hard to do.

Only 12 schools have done it dating to the 1930s, including Minnesota, the only one to do it three times (1934-36). Most of those were mired in controversy during the poll era.

Only Alabama and USC have repeated as national champions since the Bowl Championship Series era began in 1998, and one of those was shared. Since the College Football Playoff era began in 2014, the number is zero.

So, again, repeating is hard. Georgia coach Kirby Smart, himself part of five national championships at Alabama, will second that.

“We’ve got to do a tremendous job explaining to our kids how the wind blows at the top,” Smart said Jan. 11, the day after Georgia’s 33-18 national championship win over Alabama. “I’ve seen it firsthand. It is not easy. As you climb that mountain, it is windy up there. And there are a lot of kids to replace, some tremendous leaders. Hopefully that will carry over into the younger ones.”

Twelve of the players that started in the national championship game have moved on, including seven on defense. But like Georgia’s 1981 squad, a lot of key players will be back. Notably, quarterback Stetson Bennett is among those returnees. While that remains a polarizing subject within the fringes of Georgia’s fan base, it’s not for Smart or for national pundits.

Smart told ESPN’s Rece Davis in a post-championship interview that sticking with Bennett this past season taught him to “trust your gut” on personnel decisions. He continues to like what Bennett, in combination with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, brings to Georgia’s offense.

“He paired with coach Monken really well, because coach Monken is a great play-action shot guy,” Smart told Davis. “That’s what Stetson does best. And that complemented our football team because of our offensive weapons outside. The ability to play-action throw and run the ball helped us tremendously. But I’ll never doubt my gut in that he’s a winner and a leader and a really special player.”

Numbers back Smart’s gut. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Bennett topped Aaron Murray for the best pass efficiency rating in Georgia history at 176.7. He finished third in the nation in yards per passing attempt at 9.97. In the playoffs, Bennett had the best numbers of all quarterbacks for passes of more than 20 yards, going 7-of-11 for 305 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. Alabama’s Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young was 5-of-16 for 207 yards with two TDs and two interceptions.

But while the city of Blackshear is throwing a parade in Bennett’s honor Sunday, the debate over whether his decision to come back really is a good thing for the Bulldogs continues to melt down fan-site chatrooms.

“Georgia couldn’t be in better hands than they are with Stetson coming back,” Belue said. “The team believes in him, the coaching staff believes in him. And why wouldn’t they? He won me over with his performance in the playoffs against Michigan and Alabama. He was playing at a really high level. I think most of the Bulldog Nation is excited to have him back, just like the team is. You have to believe in the guy now. He’s already shown that he can do it.”

And belief, Belue said, is half the battle when it comes to competing for championships. More than anything else, Georgia winning the 2021 national championship turned doubt into belief.

Unsure before, the Bulldogs know they can do it.

That was the case in 1981 as well. Forgotten by now is the fact that Georgia players back then were hearing as much about the national championship drought as they were this past season. It had been 38 years since the last title when the Bulldogs finally broke through in New Orleans.

And while Georgia was unable to repeat in 1981 or ‘82, it was right there again. The 1982 team, featuring a Heisman-winning Herschel, was the last to go undefeated during the regular season until this past year. They, too, lost in agonizing fashion on fourth-and-11 to quarterback Todd Blackledge’s Penn State team in the Sugar Bowl.

Such unpleasant memories fade further into the background with Georgia winning it all in 2021 -- and taking down Alabama in the process.

“We slayed two dragons with one sword this year,” said Jeff Dantzler, who hosts Georgia’s “Dawg Talk” postgame show. “To finally beat Alabama and win the natty again was incredible.”

Not only does Georgia no longer have to answer questions about the drought, but it heads into the coming season as true believers. Not long after the 33-18 championship result was finalized, Las Vegas handicappers posted the Bulldogs and Alabama as co-favorites to win the 2022 championship with identical 13/4 odds.

“It is about belief,” Belue said. “Winning the title energizes the whole campus and the fan base. It was so obvious to see then, and I think you see it now. Everybody’s excited about Georgia football, and I think that’s especially true this time.”

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