For Georgia, the national championship banished all doubt

January 11, 2022 Indianapolis, IN - Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart speaks as defensive back Lewis Cine and quarterback Stetson Bennett sit next during Champions News Conference in Indianapolis on Tuesday, January 11, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

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January 11, 2022 Indianapolis, IN - Georgia's head coach Kirby Smart speaks as defensive back Lewis Cine and quarterback Stetson Bennett sit next during Champions News Conference in Indianapolis on Tuesday, January 11, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

As rabid as Georgia fans can be, they spent 40 years dealing with doubt. They’ve always believed their beloved Bulldogs belonged among the nation’s best programs. Sometimes, though, belief seemed closer to wishful thinking.

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Georgia won a national title and three SEC championships in Herschel Walker’s three giddy seasons. Vince Dooley had taken three conference titles pre-Herschel, so it wasn’t as if he got lucky with one recruit. Still, the post-Herschel years were less bountiful. Dooley wouldn’t win the SEC again. From 1983 until now, Georgia has claimed three conference crowns. From 1981 through Jan. 9, 2022, it reaped no national titles.

Over that span, Alabama won the SEC 11 times, taking seven national titles. Florida won the league seven times and took three national championships. Auburn’s numbers were seven and one; Tennessee’s were five and one. Clemson and Florida State each won three national titles after Jan. 1, 1981, the day the Bulldogs outlasted Notre Dame in a Sugar Bowl that saw Buck Belue complete one pass. (To his credit, the completion to Amp Arnold sealed the deal.)

This wasn’t USC or Oklahoma or Ohio State casting aspersions from afar. These were Georgia’s nearest neighbors talking a brand of smack that grew more barbed with every decade. Even Georgia Tech had its 1990 national championship to wave in its ancient enemy’s face. To its critics, Georgia was an impostor. It had the massive stadium and the hallowed hedges and the absolute best mascot, but where were the trophies?

Yours truly was in the room Nov. 9, 1991, the day Florida’s Steve Spurrier offered his withering dismissal after thumping the Bulldogs 45-13. “Why is it during recruiting season they sign all the great players. … What happens to them?” As if on cue, the 1992 Bulldogs of Ray Goff and Eric Zeier and Garrison Hearst came within seven points of an undefeated season; excruciating losses to Tennessee and Florida kept the Bulldogs from representing the SEC East in the inaugural conference title tilt. Ten years would pass until Georgia graced that game.

Yours truly was on a press bus to the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, 2014, the night Auburn and Nick Marshall, the quarterback who’d played cornerback at Georgia, would meet FSU for the final BCS title. Two journalists sitting behind me were running down teams apt to win big the next season. Georgia was mentioned – and dismissed. “Georgia is always overrated,” one said.

As good as Georgia could be, as many 5-stars as it signed, something always got in the way. The 2007 Bulldogs lost two regular-season games and were ranked fifth in the final BCS ratings; LSU lost two regular-season games and won national title. Florida under Urban Meyer had three 10-win seasons; in two of those, his Gators became BCS champs. Georgia under Mark Richt had nine 10-win seasons but never made reached a national championship game. The Bulldogs beat Auburn nine times over 11 seasons; in the two exceptions, the Tigers played for the BCS title.

Nick Saban alit in Tuscaloosa in 2007, giving the Bulldogs – borrowing a word invoked by a reporter during a Zoom session last week – a new bogeyman. (Saban expressed unfamiliarity with the term.) Four times over nine seasons, the Bulldogs led Bama by double figures in some sort of championship game in Atlanta; four times they lost. Georgia was favored in both meetings with the Crimson Tide this season. The first saw it lose 41-24. The second brought deliverance.

Monday’s victory changed every dynamic about Georgia football. Had it beaten Cincinnati for the title, those primal doubts about not being able to handle Saban and Co. would have lingered. Had the Bulldogs lost yet another championship game to Alabama, the noise regarding Kirby Smith’s loyalty to Stetson Bennett would have risen to a sonic boom.

Sure enough, Bennett’s fumble enabled Bama to nose ahead with 10:14 remaining. Yet another collision with the Tide was tracking its inevitable path. Fittingly, it was the much-derided Bennett who flouted precedent and dashed all fears. Georgia scored the game’s final 20 points, its quarterback throwing two touchdown passes. After Kelee Ringo returned his interception to score in the final minute, Bennett wept happy tears.

Theron Sapp is forever remembered as the Drought Breaker for scoring the touchdown in 1957 that ended UGA’s eight-year losing streak to Bobby Dodd’s Tech. Bennett and Ringo and Adonai Mitchell and Brock Bowers and their many mighty teammates did more than snap a dry spell. They brought home the only trophy that matters. If this program hasn’t always been where its supporters believed it should be, it is now.

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