The outlook for the upcoming college football season has gotten a lot murkier in the past week.
Will the ACC and SEC join the Big 10 and Pac 12 in playing conference-only schedules? If so, what does that mean for traditional in-state nonconference rivalries like Georgia-Georgia Tech? Even the idea of maybe pushing the season back a few months has reared its head again as the COVID-19 pandemic surges back. And, if there are games played this fall, will they be held with or without fans?
Trying to keep track of it all can give you a headache. In sports, it’s better to look back these days than forward … which brings to mind a topic that I’ve tackled a couple of times in past years, but which could use an updating: my all-time favorite Georgia football players.
I first came up with a list back in 2009, inspired in part by then-Georgia player Jeff Owens blogging about his top five all-time favorite Dawgs. (Jeff’s five favorites were Herschel Walker, Knowshon Moreno, David Pollack, Champ Bailey and Greg Blue, two of whom he played with.)
Picking your favorite Georgia Bulldogs is not as easy as it sounds, particularly if you’ve been following the Dawgs as long as I have. I didn’t know Jeff’s criteria in picking his five favorites. However, for my list I didn’t necessarily think about the greatest, best, or most valuable players, though those descriptions certainly apply to most of the folks I ended up picking. Instead, I went with those players that I felt a special connection with, or an affinity for, during their Georgia playing days.
For that original list, I ended up with seven players who made me especially proud, did something a bit out of the ordinary that touched me or impressed me, or who just had a personality that made me a fan, even long after their playing days in Athens were over.
The 2009 list: Fran Tarkenton, Lynn Hughes, Andy Johnson, Herschel Walker, Hines Ward, David Greene and Mohamed Massaquoi.
When I expanded my list to 15 favorites in 2015, I added Jake Scott, Kevin Butler, Champ Bailey, brothers Matt and Jon Stinchcomb, Matthew Stafford, Aaron Murray and Chris Conley.
And, for the 2020 updating, I’ve added five additional favorite players from recent years, to make it an even 20: Malcolm Mitchell, Roquan Smith, Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Rodrigo Blankenship.
Now, a bit of explanation why, among all the UGA greats I’ve seen, these particular players are my personal favorites:
Running through them chronologically, I picked Tarkenton, in part, because he’s the first Georgia Bulldog I really knew anything about when I was a kid, and I followed him during his many years as a record-setting QB in the NFL. Plus, he was from Athens, my hometown, and always impressed me as a very sharp, smart guy.
Hughes became a favorite of mine during Vince Dooley’s first season in Athens, when he shared the quarterbacking duties with Preston Ridlehuber. Later, he switched over to defense, where he twice was named All-SEC at safety, made Playboy’s All-American team, and was an academic All-American. Another connection: I was his paperboy, delivering The Atlanta Journal to him when he lived in the Town House apartments on Lumpkin Street, near Five Points in Athens.
Scott, everybody’s favorite bad boy during his years at UGA (legendary for riding a motorcycle over the top of the Coliseum), was another Athens Y kid, like Tarkenton, though he played his high school ball in Virginia. Known for his fearless play as a UGA defensive back with a knack for snagging interceptions and making great returns, Jake was All-SEC in 1967 and 1968. A star on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame. However, my favorite personal memory of Jake is him running the movie projector in the driver’s ed class I took on the UGA campus one summer.
Johnson was another Athens boy, and one I went to school with from seventh grade on. We played touch football together in junior high, and he went on to be the star QB for the Athens High Trojans, leading our team to a state co-championship with Valdosta in 1969. Andy also was an extremely talented baseball player (he played for the Dawgs and could have signed with MLB) and played basketball and ran track in high school, too. He was one of the most talented athletes I ever saw, but also was one of the nicest. I always looked forward to chatting with him at our class reunions; it was a great loss for Bulldog Nation when he died a couple of years ago.
Herschel, well, he’s everybody’s favorite. No need to spell out why he made my list, except to say what a sheer pleasure it was to watch him run during his days at Sanford Stadium. The. Greatest. Ever.
I’ve always had a soft spot for UGA placekickers, but Butler is on a level all his own in the Bulldog pantheon. After a record-setting career in Athens that included a famous 60-yard field goal to beat Clemson, the College Football Hall of Famer went on to become the Chicago Bears’ best-ever kicker. And, in the years since, he’s built a considerable following as a broadcaster, thanks to his ever-present sense of humor and devotion to all-things Georgia. In addition to being a funny guy, though, he also offers some of the best and most pointed commentary on UGA football, particularly special teams. And, he played a key role in the development of another member of this list.
Ward was a versatile player who did whatever was asked of him — including playing when he was hurt — while at tailback, quarterback and wide receiver during his time in Athens. He went on to NFL success with the Pittsburgh Steelers (winning a Super Bowl MVP award), also won the “Dancing With the Stars” TV competition, had a stint as an NFL broadcaster, and has coached for the New York Jets. A lot of UGA fans would like to see return to Athens some day as a coach.
Bailey, whose two brothers and cousin also played for the Dawgs, was an incredible two-way star in an era of specialization. If ever a player deserved the designation of “iron man,” it was Champ, who was a shut-down defensive back, one of Georgia’s main offensive threats as a receiver, and also a great kick returner. There were times it seemed Bailey never left the field! The consensus All-American won the Bronko Nagurski Trophy as the nation’s top defensive player, and went on to a long career in the NFL, getting elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.
There’ve been quite a few notable Dawgs who were brothers, but probably none more illustrious than the Stinchcombs, both of whom were All-American linemen and academic stars at UGA, and went on to have successful stints in the NFL. Those would be pretty good credentials right there, but they went on to establish the much-missed Countdown to Kickoff fan events that served for several years as a major children’s charity fundraiser. Having enjoyed chatting with Matt a few times over the years, I’m glad to see the articulate College Football Hall of Fame member sharing his expertise as a broadcaster for ESPN and the SEC Network.
His pal Greenie, meanwhile, was the coolest Georgia quarterback I’ve ever seen, maintaining his composure even when he didn’t have much of an offensive line in front of him. Greene also was the most adept at faking the handoff I’ve ever seen, and could make some of the prettiest, most precise passes imaginable. A classy guy, he was, at one time, the winningest QB in NCAA history.
Stafford probably was the most physically gifted QB I’ve seen at Georgia — I wish we could have seen what he could have done if he’d stuck around Athens for his senior season, but, since he was the No. 1 pick in that year’s NFL draft, his leaving early was understandable. He also seems to be a thoroughly nice guy. He took time off from his record-setting career with the Detroit Lions to support his wife Kelly (a former UGA cheerleader) when she had brain surgery, and he’s known as a generous benefactor of worthwhile charities. He’s also a loyal Dawg.
Massaquoi turned heads as a freshman with his acrobatic, nearly impossible catches. I appreciated his talent, but I also liked his attitude, especially when he went through a rough patch with drops, and some elements of fandom started booing him. He bounced back with many more game-changing catches, and also served as a mentor to A.J. Green during his senior year.
I’ve written lots over the years about Murray, who rewrote UGA and SEC quarterbacking record books while also graduating early and beginning graduate studies in psychology, but I think the real reason he made my personal favorites list is he had the biggest heart of any player I’ve ever seen. The way his career at Georgia ended, with an ACL tear on Senior Day, was heartbreaking, but it was typical of Murray that, even after the injury, he went back out on the field until the leg finally gave way beneath him. The best thing you can say about Murray’s time at Georgia is that, as long as Aaron was in a game, you couldn’t write the Dawgs off.
In addition to his success as a wide receiver, which he continues to play in the NFL, Conley was something of a Renaissance man in college — a Dean’s List journalism student, who won SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year honors, and represented the SEC on the NCAA’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. Whether he was writing and directing a “Star Wars” fan film, or playing piano in the hotel lounge on a bowl game trip, Conley was the epitome of what a student athlete should aspire to being.
Mitchell won the hearts of Bulldogs fans on and off the field during his time at UGA. He played a bit at cornerback when the coaching staff asked him to (and won the Charley Trippi Most Versatile Player award). However, he was much more valuable to the Dawgs as a receiver, with a particular highlight being the 2012 game against Florida, in which he broke the Georgia offense out of a slump by catching a Murray pass, breaking a tackle and scoring on a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter, to put the Dawgs ahead. He came back from an ACL tear to start all 13 games as a senior, catching 58 passes for 865 yards. His pro career with the New England Patriots was cut short by injury, but it did see him make 6 catches for 70 yards in the Super Bowl win over Atlanta. Still, off the field was where Mitchell made his name. Having arrived at UGA reading at an elementary school level, he set out to change that and, in the process, fell in love with books. (TV sports outlets loved doing stories about him joining a bunch of Athens women in a book club!) Mitchell went on to write a children’s book, “The Magician’s Hat” (another book is due out this December), and became a leading voice for youth literacy with his Read With Malcolm program and his Share the Magic Foundation. A very special young man.
Moving to the defensive side, Roquan (like Herschel, hardly anyone ever called him by his last name) seemed to be everywhere during the 2017 season, as he ranged from sideline to sideline. Three times in his UGA career he racked up 13 tackles in a single game. The first-team All American was Defensive MVP of the Rose Bowl, with 11 tackles, and was a major reason the Dawgs made it to the national championship game. He became the first UGA player to win the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best collegiate linebacker, and also was voted SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Now with the Chicago Bears (his 107 tackles in 2018 ranks second all-time among Bears rookies), Roquan is Georgia’s most impressive defensive player of the past 25 years.
Two of his teammates, Chubb and Michel, easily are two of UGA fandom’s favorite Dawgs. Chubb ranks No. 2 in school history for rushing yards, and Michel is No. 3. Together, they have the most combined yards of any duo in NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision history. And, despite having lost much of a season to knee injury, Chubb ranks second in SEC history in rushing yards, trailing only Herschel. Michel, meanwhile, served as Georgia’s starting tailback during Chubb’s convalescence, eventually elevating himself from change-of-pace back to virtual co-starter. By the end of their senior seasons, Michel, who had the winning score in overtime in the Rose Bowl, actually was the more versatile of the two backs. But, the main reason they’re both so loved by Bulldog Nation is that they turned down the chance to go pro after their junior seasons in order to return as seniors and lead Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs to within an eyelash of a national title.
Finally, there’s Blankenship, another favorite placekicker. On a roster boasting superstars, “Hot Rod” still found a way to stand out. Initially, it probably was the beard, thick-rimmed black glasses and his penchant for doing TV interviews with his helmet on that attracted attention. However, it was his big leg and talent for booming touchbacks and making clutch kicks, like his record-setting 55-yarder in the Rose Bowl, that lifted him from lovable character to legitimate star — and made him the most popular Dawg, routinely drawing the loudest ovation during pre-game introductions at Sanford Stadium. The winner of the 2019 Lou Groza Award, given to the nation’s top placekicker, definitely will be missed this season — whenever it’s played!
Those are my 20 favorite players, though there are lots of others I look back on fondly, including Pat Hodgson, Buzy Rosenberg, Richard Appleby, Scott Woerner, Terry Hoage, Buck Belue, Bill Goldberg, Eric Zeier, Richard Tardits, Garrison Hearst, David Pollack, D.J. Shockley, A.J. Green, Todd Gurley and Jake Fromm.
Who are your all-time favorite Dawgs football players?