UGA bandwagon is gassed up and pointed toward Indy

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Caption
Georgia fans cheer on the team to a 10-3 victory over Clemson during the first quarter of the Duke's Mayo Classic Saturday, Sept 4, 2021, in Charlotte, N.C. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Georgia’s victory over Clemson could be the best win any FBS team registers this regular season, which has, counting byes, 12 weeks to run. By felling the No. 3 Tigers on a neutral field, the Bulldogs jumped from No. 5 to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll. Alabama and Georgia could well be Nos. 1 and 2 in their almost-inevitable meeting on Dec. 4 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It would be a shock if the loser of such a game was omitted from the College Football Playoff.

Wordy paragraph made shorter: Georgia is sitting pretty. The only way Georgia could be sitting prettier is if its offense manages a touchdown over the next three months. (Kidding! Sort of.)

It’s impossible to discount the worth of that one victory. No matter what happens from here on, the Bulldogs can always say, “We beat Clemson on a neutral field,” and Clemson has made the playoff six years running. But we recall another opening victory over the Tigers, this one in Death Valley, this one featuring not just great defense but great offense, too.

On Aug. 30, 2003, Georgia beat Clemson 30-0. Lots of folks missed the noon kickoff, traffic having been snarled by an accident. (Yours truly made it, though only just.) Fred Gibson had a big day. David Greene had a big day. D.J. Shockley scored a touchdown. David Pollack had an interception and was credited with forcing the strangest fumble ever. Legend holds – see below for further details – that Clemson center Tommy Sharpe was so unnerved by the raging Pollack that he upchucked on the ball just before he snapped it to Charlie Whitehurst, who dropped it. You would’ve, too.

The Bulldogs finished No. 3 in the 2002 polls, going 13-1 and winning the SEC for the first time since 1982. They missed the BCS title game only because Miami and Ohio State went unbeaten. Mark Richt suspended eight players for the Clemson game because they’d sold their SEC championship rings on eBay. (Where was NIL money back then?) Didn’t matter. In their first test of a new season, the Bulldogs looked even better than they had in 2002, which was saying something.

As Richt met the media afterward, this chatty correspondent mentioned to Vince Dooley, then Georgia’s AD, that he’d never seen Georgia play a better game. Dooley winced. “The thing about opening games,” he said, “is you don’t know how good the other team is.”

Clemson turned out to be pretty good. It went 9-4 and beat Tennessee in an all-orange Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The Tigers also lost by 28 points to Wake Forest, which finished 5-7. Georgia would lose three games – two to LSU and Nick Saban, one to Florida and, um, Ron Zook. The Bulldogs finished No. 7 in the AP poll. Some among us believe that should have been the best team of Richt’s early years. Greene would describe the season as “a tough 11-3.”

The Clemson of today isn’t to be confused with the Clemson of Tommy Bowden, who was fired three games into the 2008 season and replaced by wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney. It has, however, been a while since Clemson seemed so feeble. It amassed 180 yards against Georgia. That total would have marked a slow half for the Tigers of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne.

Credit: ACC

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No. 5 Georgia upset No. 3 Clemson in the Duke's Mayo Classic in Charlotte, N.C., to open the 2021 college football season.

Credit: ACC

But maybe Georgia’s defense really is that good. Maybe Clemson’s defense is the best the Bulldogs will see. For now, it’s enough to proclaim Georgia the favorite in every game until the SEC championship, and maybe then. What if Bama loses at Texas A&M?

Since the Bulldogs got good again, they’ve lost one regular-season game in which they were a healthy favorite, that being the South Carolina debacle of 2019. Other losses – at Auburn in 2017, at LSU in 2018, at Alabama in 2020 and Florida in Jacksonville last October – came against worthy opponents away from Sanford Stadium. In the main, Smart has been darn good at keeping his team centered.

(Forget Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Non-playoff bowls are entities unto themselves.)

Let’s assume Auburn, even under a new coach, and Florida, even without Kyle Pitts and Kyle Trask, won’t be easy. The cold truth, however, is that it’s hard to imagine Georgia not going 12-0. The next 11 games will be a test of preventing justified optimism from becoming, per the pithy Saban, rat poison.

That’s never an easy line to walk. Coaches know not to get too far ahead of themselves, but fans and certain scribes can’t help it. Rat poison alert: On Jan. 10 in the football-mad state of Indiana, Georgia will claim its long-sought national title.A

Oh, and about the fumble: Tommy Sharpe, the Clemson center in 2003, offers a clarification via email.

“While I admit that David Pollack was an extraordinary player who deserves to be in the college football hall of fame. One credit that he does not deserve is the cause of the fumble. It was physically impossible for David Pollack to be the cause of the fumble for the simple reason that he was a defensive end, and I was the center. The true cause of that infamous fumble is much less glamorous than your description of a nervous center trying to mentally reconcile how to block a raging maniac on the opposing side of the ball. Blocking David was never my assignment, and contrary to your description of David my recollection of him as a player is one who was rather quiet and intensely focused. The cause of my vomiting was much simpler. It was because I was fat, and winded. It is a simple mathematical formula. When you place someone who is fat, in 100-degree weather, and you expect them to run fast that can often lead to vomiting. I vomited almost every practice, and almost every game. Most of the time it was on the sidelines. Unfortunately for my quarterback sometimes it was right before I would snap the ball.”

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