Thursday January 20th, 2022 2:21PM

Column: State on edge as Bulldogs try to end 41-year drought

By The Associated Press
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The picture making the rounds on social media sums up the anxiety of an entire state.

“For The Love of God Beat Bama,” a roadside sign pleads. “Go Dawgs.”

It's been 41 long years since Georgia won its only consensus national championship, a couple of weeks before Ronald Reagan was sworn into his first term as president.

Since then, five other Southeastern Conference teams have won it all, a hefty haul of 15 championships in total, while the Bulldogs and their red-and-black faithful have been left to agonize over close calls, bad luck and squandered potential.

“It’s soooo overdue,” said Shedrick Wynn, who played for the Bulldogs two decades ago and still lives not far from the Athens campus. “Just think about all the teams in our conference that have won a championship since the last time we did.”

Here’s where that stands:

Alabama has captured a whopping seven titles. Florida and LSU have claimed three championships apiece. Auburn and Tennessee both added a trophy to their case, as well.

That pesky, glaring omission on Georgia’s resume is really the only thing holding the Bulldogs back from staking their claim to being in a truly special class of program, right up there with Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide dynasty.

In every other aspect — recruiting, financial resources, fan base, national respect — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has quickly built a powerhouse that is every bit the match for his former mentor in Tuscaloosa.

“You can think back to how many great teams have been at the University of Georgia since 1980 that haven’t won a championship,” said current Bulldogs star Jordan Davis, who anchors the defensive line. “We just want to take that opportunity and be different. And at the end of the day, that’s what we came here for. That’s what we’re grinding for. We want to do something absolutely special in our time here.”

Perhaps it’s only appropriate for Alabama to be standing in the way again, just like it was four years ago when the teams met in another all-SEC national championship game.

The Bulldogs and their fans are still bearing the scars of that fateful night in Atlanta, when Bama rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit behind backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who tossed a 41-yard touchdown pass on second-and-26 to bring the overtime thriller to a sudden, shocking conclusion.

Georgia has a chance to heal those wounds — and, really, 41 years of heartache — in Indianapolis on Monday night.

Not surprisingly, those entrusted with this massive task are eager to downplay the burden they face.

Who can blame them?

When you look at all those who came before them, who didn't get it done — from Terrell Davis to Hines Ward, from Thomas Davis to David Pollack, from Richard Seymour to Champ Bailey — it can seem downright overwhelming.

“Do I know that means a lot to a lot of people? Yes," quarterback Stetson Bennett said. “Am I trying to play some kind of savior by winning a national championship for millions of people? No. I don’t think that’s my job.”

Not long after saying he's treating it as just another football game, Bennett acknowledged the crimson elephant in the room.

“I know it means a lot to a lot of people,” he said. “Is it just another game? No, I’m not silly. But I don’t think 20-year-old kids can put that kind of pressure on yourself — because you might go crazy.”

That's certainly good advice. The Bulldogs wouldn't have any chance of winning if their level of consternation matched the fan base.

Those folks have been forced to make do with ever-fading memories of the 1980 Bulldogs, a magical team led by a gritty quarterback named Buck Belue, who spent much of the season handing the ball to a freshman phenom from Wrightsville, a guy named Herschel Walker who ran like no one who's worn the “G” before or since.

They can still see Walker turning Tennessee safety Bill Bates into a flat spot in the road in his very first game. They can still see Belue delivering an improbable 93-yard touchdown pass to Lindsay Scott to beat Florida. They can still see coach Vince Dooley being carried off the field after a Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame sealed the national title.

There's nothing wrong with cherishing those memories.

But, in time, they grow a bit stale. The generations that follow don't have a stake in them. They want some memories of their own.

“We’re not trying to wash away the guys like Herschel and Buck,” Wynn said. “We just want some new blood in there, you know what I mean?"

The 89-year-old Dooley plans to be at Lucas Oil Stadium for the big game. He hopes to see this group of Georgia players hoist Smart onto their shoulders when the clock strikes zero, just as his players did for him all those years ago at the Louisiana Superdome.

Dooley never thought the wait would drag on this long.

“My only thoughts in those days were what is the next game and the next year,” he recalled.

Dooley nearly won another championship in 1982, Walker's final season, but the undefeated, top-ranked Bulldogs were knocked off in the Sugar Bowl by No. 2 Penn State.

Twenty years later, Georgia made another run at the title with a stellar team coached by Mark Richt (and Wynn playing an important role on the defensive line).

But a stunning loss to Florida — who'll forget Terrence Edwards dropping a sure touchdown pass in the waning minutes? — cost the Bulldogs a chance to play for the national championship in the pre-playoff era; they finished No. 3 in The Associated Press rankings.

Five years later, Georgia was denied again by a pair of SEC losses, including an inexplicable home setback to South Carolina, and settled for the No. 2 spot in the final AP poll behind national champ LSU.

Ten years later, another No. 2 finish, the title snatched away by Tagovailao to Devonta Smith.

Now, here we go again, that long-denied championship hovering right within the Bulldogs' grasp.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which struck Dooley just a few weeks ago (he had only mild symptoms and has since recovered), the former coach expects a huge contingent of Georgia fans to converge on Indy because of “the significance of the game and as hungry as they are.”

They're also extremely skittish, and not just because of what happened in seasons past.

Georgia spent much of the season as the unanimous No. 1 team, rarely falling behind and looking downright unbeatable with a defense touted as one of the best in college football history.

Then came the SEC championship game on the first Saturday of December. Led by Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young, underdog Alabama ran roughshod over the Bulldogs in a 41-24 victory.

Dooley likes his team chances in the rematch.

“It's tough to beat good teams again for the second time," he said.

If Georgia fans are looking for another omen of hope, let's not forget the Atlanta Braves ended their own 26-year championship drought a few months ago by winning the World Series.

That's got to be a good sign, right?

In the meantime, the Bulldog Nation will be holding its collective breath. If they're finally able to exhale late Monday night, they probably won't have to wait nearly as long for the next championship.

“Once we get that win,” Wynn said confidently, “it might open up the floodgates."


Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry


More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25 Sign up for the AP’s college football newsletter: https://apnews.com/cfbtop25

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