With tickets now in hand and Nick Chubb taking tackles in practice, Georgia Bulldogs fans are getting increasingly excited about Kirby Smart’s first season as head coach. It’s just two weeks until the meeting with North Carolina in this year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, dubbed the Bill Bowl by my son, who has degrees from both schools but is a die-hard Bulldog. On paper, it looks like a pretty good matchup, with both teams boasting a mix of highly talented returnees and inexperienced newcomers.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this first meeting of the Dawgs and the Heels since 1971 will join the pantheon of Georgia’s greatest opening games.
While there’ve been an awful lot of cupcake games against directional schools to begin seasons, UGA has played in quite a few high-profile openers, too. In addition to sometimes opening with an SEC opponent, back during the Vince Dooley years even major programs were willing to travel for a paycheck rather than insist on a home-and-home deal, and Georgia managed to lure some pretty well-known opponents to Athens, including UCLA, Oregon, Oregon State, California and Baylor.
Of course, there’ve been tough openers the Bulldogs haven’t won, including the debacle in the Power Rangers uniforms against Boise State in the Georgia Dome in 2011, the 2009 team’s flop opener on the road against Oklahoma State, and a couple of mid-1970s openers against Tony Dorsett-era Pittsburgh that resulted in a tie and a loss.
Perhaps the most frustrating opener for Georgia was the nationally televised 1968 game in Knoxville. You might think UGA would have been pleased with the 17-17 tie since they’d been a touchdown underdog to the previous season’s No. 2, but on the last play of regulation time the refs awarded Tennessee a touchdown catch, despite the fact that video replays showed the ball bounced off the infamous artificial Tartan Turf and into the receiver’s hands.
Fortunately, the Dawgs generally have fared better on opening day. With fingers crossed that the upcoming game against the Heels joins this list, here, in Letterman-style reverse order, is a baker’s dozen of Georgia’s best opening games over the past five decades.
Honorable mention goes to Georgia’s 56-25 romp over Oregon State in 1971. The Beavers weren’t all that good back then, but the game is a personal favorite because it was the first game as starting quarterback for my Athens classmate Andy Johnson; it was a big day for Buzy Rosenberg, who returned five punts for 202 yards and two touchdowns; plus the Dawgs scoring 56 points in the Dooley era was a mindblower. Now, let’s count down the Top 12:
12. Georgia’s 42-23 win over South Carolina in Athens in 1995. Converted cornerback Robert Edwards instantly emerged as a star in front of a national TV audience, scoring five times (four runs and a pass reception) in a big win for Ray Goff’s squad. Unfortunately, a season of promise went downhill the next week in Knoxville for the hard-luck Dawgs when Edwards sustained a season-ending injury in the third quarter of another standout performance.
11. Georgia’s 28-17 win over Tennessee in Athens in 1988. I’d pretty much forgotten about this game until my son asked me about it, probably because it was one of those run-it-down-their-throats wins so typical of the Dooley years. But, with both teams ranked (Georgia No. 12 and the Vols. No. 18), it was a well-regarded victory at the time, with Rodney Hampton running for 196 yards and two TDs and Tim Worley adding another 144 yards and another two scores. As my buddy Scott recalled, “We literally pounded UT into submission in 4thquarter with our run game.”
10. Georgia’s 35-14 win over Oklahoma State in Athens in 2007. The Cowpokes came into the season with some national buzz, but the 13th-ranked Dawgs didn’t waste any time, with Georgia’s first score coming less than a minute into the game. The Dawgs, with Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Moreno and Thomas Brown leading the offense, were ahead 21-14 at the half. Then the Georgia defense shut down Okie State completely in the second half as the Dawgs tacked on another couple of scores.
9. Georgia’s 48-13 win over Boise State in Athens in 2005. The Broncos came into this opener ranked No. 18 to Georgia’s No. 13, but it was all Dawgs, as the defense shut down State’s vaunted passing attack and D.J. Shockley kicked off his senior season as the Dawgs’ QB throwing for five touchdowns and running for another, setting a school record.
8. Georgia’s 30-0 win over Clemson at Clemson in 2003. The Dawgs came into that game shorthanded due to two defensive starters being injured and eight other players being suspended. But the defense came up big and four Bulldogs, including backup QB Shockley, ran for more yards than the Tigers did as a team.
7. Georgia’s 19-8 win over UCLA in Athens in 1983. This nationally televised night game saw the Bruins led by high-powered QB Rick Neuheisel, who wound up getting picked off four times (three in the fourth quarter). Good thing, as the Dawgs didn’t have much going on offense in the rainy second half. The win was saved when Charlie Dean intercepted a Neuheisel pass and ran it back for a score with 33 seconds left on the clock.
6. Georgia’s 36-24 win over California in Athens in 1976. The Golden Bears were ranked No. 15 and been the nation’s leading offense the previous season. California QB Joe Roth threw for 237 yards in the first half, including two long TD passes that gave the Bears a 21-12 lead at the half. But Roth was intercepted three times in the second half and Georgia, using the QB tandem of Matt Robinson and Ray Goff, scored 24 unanswered points.
5. Georgia’s 13-7 win over Clemson in Athens in 1982. This nationally televised game on Labor Day night (the first night game in Athens in many years) matched the two previous seasons’ national champions. The Dawgs came in ranked No. 7, but unsure whether Herschel Walker (nursing an injured thumb) would be able to play, and the Tigers were No. 9. The key was the Georgia defense, which intercepted Clemson QB Homer Jordan (an Athens native) four times and blocked a punt that turned into a touchdown for the Dawgs. Kevin Butler provided the difference with two field goals.
4. Georgia’s 31-28 win over Clemson in Athens in 2002. The Dawgs won a lot of squeakers in that season of destiny, starting with the opener, which included a Fred Gibson 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. UGA led 21-14 at the half, but Clemson led 28-21 at the start of the fourth quarter and defensive star David Pollack was in the locker room cramping. A Shockley pass to Terrence Edwards got the score tied up and then Georgia took back the lead with a Billy Bennett FG with 5:19 remaining. Clemson missed a 46-yard field goal attempt with 1:43 left but was hoping to get another shot when Georgia faced fourth-and-1 at its own 38. Mark Richt went for it, sending Musa Smith over the top and the Dawgs got their needed first down with just seconds left on the clock.
3. Georgia’s 45-21 win over Clemson in Athens in 2014. The 12th-ranked Dawgs set the college football world abuzz with this win over the No. 16 Tigers, as Todd Gurley was amazing and Nick Chubb made an impressive true freshman debut. Clemson actually led 21-14 before Georgia tied it up on a 100-yard kickoff return by Gurley. Then the Dawgs took command of the game in the second half and shut the Tigers down. The season didn’t wind up living up to that game, but it was an impressive performance.
2. Georgia’s 16-15 win over Tennessee in Knoxville in 1980. All UGA fans know this one well and can probably recite Larry Munson’s call of Herschel’s first touchdown run, leaving his footprints on the Vols’ Bill Bates. What you might not recall was that Georgia’s starting tailback in that game was Donnie McMickens, and Walker was listed third-string, behind Carnie Norris. But the game was a hard-fought win for the Dawgs. The Vols led 15-0, missing a 2-point conversion, before Georgia finally got on track after Walker took over. However, the game was still in doubt late, with the Vols fumbling at the Georgia 5.
A few years back, I did a poll of Blawg readers, and 79 percent picked that 1980 win as Georgia’s greatest opener ever. I have to conclude, though, that a lot of those folks weren’t around to see the game I rank as truly the Dawgs’ best opener ever …
1. Georgia’s 18-17 win over Alabama in Athens in 1965. A nationally televised game back when that was a rarity, this one was completely unexpected. Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide came in as the defending national champion and would go on to win another title that season. But, on this day, the Dawgs came from behind to win on a trick play, the legendary flea-flicker, with Kirby Moore passing to Pat Hodgson, who flipped the ball to a trailing Bob Taylor, who went 73 yards to tie it up. Georgia then went for 2 and the win, and the defense held as Bama missed a desperation field goal attempt. Still gives me goosebumps.
Those are my picks for Georgia’s best opening games. Feel free to share your own favorites.
A SOUTHERN RIVALRY
Dawgs vs. Heels? It’s a longstanding rivalry, dating back to the good-natured dispute between UGA and UNC over which is the oldest state-chartered university.
But that’s not the only arena in which the two Southern states face off. Atlanta has pretty much supplanted North Carolina as the Hollywood of the South. And, going back a ways, Coke is a product of Georgia while Pepsi began in North Carolina.
Along those lines, another Georgia-North Carolina smackdown involves a legendary Athens soft drink! Check out my hometown boy’s take on Budwine vs. Cheerwine.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.