ATHENS — The two key offensive players on Georgia’s most recent national championship teams deserve better.
ESPN keeps churning out all-time college football lists, and Georgia players keep getting shorted and overlooked.
Brock Bowers and Herschel Walker are the most recent examples of Bulldogs players who do not seem fully appreciated.
Some might wonder why it’s worth the time to dig deeper into such all-time lists to debate the points.
The answer is that perception can quickly overtake reality.
Also, as someone who has served as the chairman of the FWAA Freshman All-American Team since its inception in 2001, there is more than mild interest in my position.
When a program has fought as long and as hard as Georgia to rise to the top, it seems only fair its players get proper recognition.
Coach Kirby Smart knows better than anyone it takes time to change a narrative, and to be clear the Bulldogs had some ground to make up in that area when Smart was hired before the 2016 season.
Georgia has not had a Heisman Trophy finalist since 1992 (Garrison Hearst), which likely contributes to its offensive players getting overlooked.
But last year was a case of the entire program getting snubbed in the preseason.
Amazingly, the USA Today preseason All-SEC first-team did not include any Georgia players on its offense or defense.
This, off a team that produced a record-number 15 NFL draft picks, including the No. 1 overall pick and an unprecedented five first-round selections.
So when Bowers — easily the most valuable offensive player on the Bulldogs’ 2021 national championship team — was not ranked among the Top 50 freshmen of all time by ESPN’s chosen historian in a pay-site article, it was time for a closer look.
Likewise when Herschel Walker was ranked behind Pitt’s Hugh Green as the greatest freshman of all time by ESPN analyst Bill Connelly on that same list.
Connelly, it’s worth noting, dropped Georgia’s national championship defense all the way down to No. 17 on his all-time list — 15 spots behind an Alabama defense that gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter of a national championship game loss.
Bowers should have been an easy call to make ESPN’s Top 50 list, as he was selected as the national Freshman of the Year by two different organizations after earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors.
To put Bowers’ being left off the list into perspective, consider former Purdue receiver David Bell was ranked No. 3 of 10 all-time among freshmen by ESPN in a receiver/tight end grouping.
Bell played on a 4-8 Purdue team where he led his team with 86 catches for 1,035 yards, while Bowers was the go-to target for the national champions with a team-high 56 catches for 882 yards.
A closer look reveals Bowers had 13 TD catches to Bell’s 7 and was the more explosive target with a 15.8 yards per catch average to Bell’s 12.0.
Bowers also had TD receptions of 77 and 89 yards, while Bell’s longest catch went for 54 yards.
Players like Bowers make the difference in teams winning championships, as he equaled Bell’s season TD reception total (7) in Georgia’s final five games of the year, with at least one scoring catch in each.
As debatable as Bowers’ absence from the Top 50 all-time freshman list was, not seeing Walker as the No. 1-ranked freshman player of all time was shocking.
To put it into perspective, Walker played with a separated shoulder suffered in the first series of the first quarter against a legendary Notre Dame defense in the national championship game.
ESPN’s No. 1 Freshman of all time — Hugh Green — was part of a 9-2-1 Gator Bowl team.
Green’s numbers were impressive: 92 tackles, 12 sacks, 5 forced fumbles on a team that ranked 15th in the nation in points per game allowed with losses to Notre Dame (19-9) and Penn State (15-13).
But where was Green in the fourth quarter of the home loss against the Irish in the opener, when the Panthers gave up 13 points?
It’s generally harder to impact the game as a defensive player than as a running back, particularly in prior eras where coaches literally put teams on their superstar’s back.
That was the case at Georgia in 1980, which handed off to Walker — a true freshman — 310 times in 12 games — an average of more than 25 per game.
Walker posted eight 100-yard games — and, get this — four 200-yard games:
• 283 yards vs. Vanderbilt
• 219 yards vs. South Carolina
• 238 yards vs. Florida
• 205 yards vs. Georgia Tech
In today’s college football world, Walker would have won the Heisman Trophy.
Fifty years ago, however, there was a sentiment to lean towards seniors, so senior South Carolina star George Rogers was the Heisman Trophy winner.
Interestingly enough, Walker and Georgia beat Rogers and the then-non-SEC Gamecocks head-to-head in the Bulldogs’ 13-10 victory.
Rogers had 35 carries for 168 yards, but Walker totaled 219 yards on 43 carries in the game. Two of the biggest plays of the game were a Rogers’ fumble inside the UGA 20 and a Walker 76-yard TD run.
Walker finished third in the Heisman voting as a freshman. A true freshman has never won the award, while only two redshirt freshmen have accomplished the feat (QBs Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston).
Green did not finish in the Top 10 of the Heisman Trophy voting as a freshman in 1977 (Notre Dame defensive lineman Ross Browner was fifth).
Charles Woodson was the first defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy in 1997 as a member of national champion Michigan.
Bowers receiving stats vs. ESPN Top true freshmen
Bowers: 13 TDs, 15.8 ypc, 56 catches, 882 yards
1. Mike Williams 14 TDs, 15.6 ypc, 81 catches, 1,265 yards
2. Rondale Moore 12 TDs, 11.0 ypc, 114 catches, 1,258 yards
3. David Bell 7 TDs, 12.0 ypc, 86 catches, 1,035 yards
4. KD Cannon 8 TDs, 17.8 ypc, 58 catches, 1,030 yards
5. Marqise Lee 11 TDs, 15.7 ypc, 73 catches, 1,143 yards
6. Ronney Daniels 9 TDs, 19.1 ppc, 56 catches, 1,068 yards
7. Larry Fitzgerald 12 TDs, 14.6 ypc, 69 catches, 1,005 yards
8. Sammy Watkins 12 TDs, 14.9 ypc, 82 catches, 1,219 yards
9. Tamarick Vanover 4 TDs, 13.8 ypc 42 catches, 581 yards,
10. Calvin Ridley 5 TDs, 15.3 ypc, 63 catches, 967 yards
All-time Georgia running back statistics
1. Herschel Walker (36 games, 1,083 carries, 5,595 yards)
2. Nick Chubb (47 games, 758 carries, 4,769 yards)
3. Sony Michel (47 games, 591 carries, 3,638 yards)
4. Todd Gurley (30 games, 510 carries, 3,285 yards)
5. Garrison Hearst (34 games, 580 carries, 3,416 yards)
6. Lars Tate (46 games, 679 carries, 3,374 yards)
7. D’Andre Swift (43 games, 440 carries, 2,885 yards)
8. Knowshon Moreno (26 games, 498 carries, 2,734 yards)