ATHENS – Frank Ros saw this coming. He didn’t predict that the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs were going to win the SEC championship and play in the College Football Playoff necessarily, but he said he saw great potential and a formula for success when assessing the team way back in the summer.
A former linebacker and senior captain of Georgia’s last national championship team, Ros said there was one trait that stood out to him more than any other about the 2017 team: leadership.
“They remind me of the ’80 team a lot because you’ve got a lot of seniors,” Ros said in an interview for DawgNation’s Georgia Greats series back in August. “You’ve got a lot of guys who came back with a purpose who easily could’ve taken the money and ran. That, to me, if you look at most teams that have success, they have a very strong senior group.”
Ros couldn’t have known then how spot-on he actually was. Following the lead of 31 seniors – including the “Big Four” of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter – the 2017 Bulldogs have posted a 12-1 record, won the SEC title and will face No. 2 Oklahoma in the CFP semifinals on Jan. 1 in the Rose Bowl. The Bulldogs departed Athens by bus Tuesday afternoon and flew out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, bound for Los Angeles.
Georgia will be making just its second appearance in the Rose Bowl and first since Jan. 1, 1943. The Bulldogs won that game 9-0 over UCLA to claim the 1942 national championship.
Georgia has claimed just one other consensus national title since that game, and that was produced by Ros’ 1980 team. That squad is best remembered for a freshman tailback from Wrightsville, named Herschel Walker who came in and set college football on its ear.
Nobody appreciates Walker’s exploits more than Ros ― as a senior he was appointed Walker’s “big brother” and the two men remain best friends – but he said it was the senior-dominated leadership that set that team apart. He said that’s what distinguishes this 2017 team, as well.
“That is one overarching thing that we’ve all seen develop over this season, the leadership,” said Ros, who recently retired as a Coca-Cola executive. “It’s played itself out like it was supposed to play out. These younger guys are seeing these seniors work and place expectations on themselves. The younger guys see that and they try to do things the same way. That’s been developing over the whole season.”
Ros will get no argument from Kirby Smart. Georgia’s second-year coach was Alabama’s defensive coordinator when it won four national championships during a seven-year span before he joined the Bulldogs. Smart said one of the similarities between those teams and this one is the veteran leadership and experience.
That manifests itself in a lot ways, but the key, Smart said, is that those veteran players are in position to make plays.
“I think the leadership of seven or eight seniors has been tremendous for the offseason workouts and setting the tone in practices,” Smart said. “But [even more important is] the value of experience. I mean, you could have a freshman that’s better than a senior, but the senior plays better in big moments because he’s got poise; he got an understanding.”
Smart pointed to the momentum-changing plays that Bellamy, the senior outside linebacker, made against Notre Dame and Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. In both games, Bellamy executed strip-sacks of the opposing quarterbacks at just the right moment.
“I don’t think you can put a number of wins on that,” Smart said. “But I think it played a major factor for us.”
Buck Belue was a junior quarterback on that 1980 team. He, too, said he sees a lot of similarities between that squad and this one.
“Well, you have to start with spectacular quarterback play,” Belue said, joking but also speaking some truth. It’s been so long it’s hard to compare, but I like the way our defense is playing this year. Our guys were hunkering down in ’80, that’s for sure. I think that what goes overlooked about our team, is just how good Erk Russell’s defense was in 1980. They led college football with 44 turnovers, I think it was. It was just outrageous the way they were able to force turnovers. This defense has been hunkering down a lot and that reminds me of the ’80 team.”
Couple that with a strong running game and excellent coaching, and Belue said you have the formula for success. He pointed out that, while Walker was a singular force as a tailback the likes of which rarely has been seen in football, the Bulldogs are getting similar production out of the position.
Walker had 1,616 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns during the 1980 season. Chubb and Michel have combined for 2,123 yards and 26 touchdowns through 13 games. Freshman D’Andre Swift has added another 597 yards and 3 TDs, and the Bulldogs are 10th in the nation with 263.5 yards rushing a game.
“So instead of one guy, it’s three,” Belue said. “There’s not better production in college football than what those guys are doing this year. We were certainly getting the best running back play of anybody in the country, and I’m in awe of what they’re getting out of those three running backs. It’s a different day and time, but those guys are impressive.”
Strong running games and good defense have been common themes whenever Georgia has enjoyed great success on the field. That extends even to the last time the Bulldogs played in the Rose Bowl 75 years ago.
Halfback Charley Trippi received the “Helms Award” as the game’s outstanding player after rushing 27 times for 115 yards in the victory over the Bruins before 90,000 people. The Bulldogs also blocked a punt for a safety for their other score.
Trippi turned 96 years old on Dec. 14 but remembers that trip to Pasadena as if it were yesterday. He said one of the keys to the Bulldogs’ victory was taking the game seriously.
“That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Trippi said. “It took us three days to get there on a train, but that’s because Coach [Wally] Butts would have it stop every day and we’d get out and practice, or just run. We had fun, but we went out there with a purpose. We went there with the intention of winning the game. And we did.”
Three-quarters of a century later, the Georgia players are saying the same thing about the trip that awaits them. They are traveling by charter jet, will practice at the Los Angeles Chargers’ StubHub Center and will lodge at the posh Hotel InterContinental downtown. They will visit Disneyland, among other sites.
But they’re intent on making it a business trip.
“At the end of the day, we have to go out there and play our football,” Michel said. “The past doesn’t dictate the present. We’ve just got to go out there and perform.”
Ros is one of many who has predicted the Bulldogs will win. But now there’s a playoff system, so even if they get past Oklahoma on Monday, there remains the title game in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
Georgia just needs to stick to its formula, Ros said.
“Once you get to this stage of the year ,three things have to happen,” he said. “Control the lines of scrimmage, limit turnovers and create turnovers. And special teams always play a huge role. Can you flip the field on them? Defense wins championships, sure, but there is a lot of hidden yardage on those special teams.
“I think these guys can do that.”
Ros will be there to find out. He and Walker, Terry Hoage, Scott Woerner, brothers Bob and Steve Kelly and several members of the 1980 team plan to convene in Los Angeles this week and be among the 95,000 in the Rose Bowl for this historic occasion.
“And we plan to be in Atlanta, too,” Ros said confidently.