ATHENS – Vince Dooley likes everything he has seen about the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs. But he wouldn’t compare them to his 1980 team, which went undefeated and won Georgia’s last national championship.
That’s not necessarily because he doesn’t think this bunch is as not as good as that one was.
“No, not really,” Dooley said of the comparison. “You know, 1980, if you look back at it, it was challenged so many times.”
That’s true. While this latest team has had one narrow escape, 20-19 at Notre Dame, Georgia’s last national champion was pulling a Houdini act seemingly every week. That season opened with a 16-15 win at Tennessee, then followed with close contests of every sort after that.
Best remembered from 1980 was the Buck Belue-to-Lindsay Scott 93-yard touchdown pass that allowed the Bulldogs to escape Jacksonville and the Florida Gators with a 26-20 victory. But there was also a narrow escape against Clemson at Sanford Stadium and the 13-7 win over South Carolina that required a late fumble recovery and two 50-plus yard Rex Robinson field goals to secure. Few probably recall that Georgia managed to beat Mississippi only 28-21 that year as Herschel Walker missed much of the game with an injury.
Even the national championship-clinching victory over Notre Dame was a one-score affair in which the Fighting Irish actually doubled-up Georgia in offensive production. The Bulldogs took advantage of five Notre Dame turnovers to win 17-10.
“In fact, I found out recently that Notre Dame didn’t take us very seriously when we played them that year,” said Dooley, who went to South Bend and threw out the first pitch at Chicago Cubs’ game when the Bulldogs played up there on Sept. 9. “When they studied our films, they were looking at the Tennessee game, which was just barely won, the Clemson game in which they knocked us all over the place, and we had two big plays. Then you take the Florida game, where it looked like we were beaten, and before that, South Carolina. So just looking at us, they weren’t intimidated. But they underestimated us.”
And, of course, Georgia had to win at Auburn. As always, any championship the Bulldogs ever win has to go through Auburn. UGA has played it western cousin in mid-November pretty much every year going back to the 1920s. It is, after all, the “Deep South’s” oldest rivalry.
The truth is, the Dogs have had their hearts broken on The Plains as much as they’ve left victorious while in the championship hunt. The contest in 1980 was a typically hard-fought affair. The Bulldogs pulled away at the end behind Walker for a 31-21 win.
No, while this 2017 team doesn’t look much like that 1980 squad, Dooley said it does resemble quite a bit the 1982 bunch. And that’s fitting, seeing how Kirby Smart’s current Bulldogs are the first ones to start out 9-0 since that Dooley team did it 35 years ago.
“It was much more dominant, offensively particularly,” Dooley said. “They were just better than everybody we played that year.”
Well, pretty much everybody until they got to the biggest game. No. 1-ranked Georgia lost to No. 2-ranked Penn State 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl.
But after a slow start, it was a fun a ride during the regular season. It was Walker’s Heisman Trophy season – a couple of years too late, many believe – and the Bulldogs for the most part ran over and around opponents.
John Lastinger, the starting quarterback in 1982, did not realize Georgia was 9-0 for the first time since then until his daughter, Lindsay, “put it out on a tweet.”
“I had no idea until then,” said Lastinger, today a financial analyst in Valdosta. “One similarity that sticks out right away is both teams love to run the football. It was obviously a different era then, and we had a guy named Herschel Walker. But the cohesion of the offensive line and the way they came together is similar. We stepped it up to another level against Florida, and a lot of that was our offensive line.”
Of course, that team had to get through Auburn, too, and that was no easy task. The Bulldogs squeaked out The Plains with a 19-14 victory that required everything they could muster.
“I remember it was a cool day, an early afternoon kickoff,” Lastinger recalled. “It was a remarkably quiet day over there, then on the last play of third quarter they pitched it out to Lionel James on the last play, and he went 80 yards for a TD, and that place was rocking. It was a battle in the fourth quarter, and we had a great drive to win it. Just a typical Georgia-Auburn war.”
That’s when Larry Munson ushered forth his famous call, “Look at the sugar falling from the sky; look at the sugar falling from the sky!”
Of course, there will be no such finality to anything that happens Saturday. Georgia is going to be in the SEC Championship Game regardless of the outcome against Auburn. And the Bulldogs will have no idea where they’re going to be in the postseason until they play out the string currently ahead of them and faces whomever they shall in the title game.
Whatever happens, Dooley is enjoying the ride, too. As long as he’s in town, the Bulldogs’ Hall of Fame coach heads over to the Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall football complex every Monday and picks up the SEC statistics and Georgia game notes from UGA sports communications director Claude Felton. Dooley studies all the numbers and trends carefully, not unlike he used to do when he was coaching the team himself.
While he enjoys comparing these teams of old to the ones currently going to battle under the UGA flag, Dooley acknowledged that the game is significantly different now than it was.
But one thing that never changes, he said, is the need for a good, strong defense. And if there’s one aspect Dooley likes about Georgia’s 2017 team, it’s the defense.
“The defense is just so fast,” Dooley said. “That’s what makes them so good, in my opinion. Team speed.”
Some things never change.