The early betting favorites to meet in the 2020 SEC Championship are Georgia and Alabama, but before either team gets that far, they’ll first meet in the third game of the regular season. And, when Kirby Smart’s Dawgs travel to Tuscaloosa, they’ll be heavy road underdogs, with oddsmakers having installed the Crimson Tide as a 7.5-point favorite.
That’s not particularly surprising, since Alabama has won the two schools’ past five meetings — ironically, the last time the Dawgs beat the Tide was the last time they visited Tuscaloosa, in 2007.
So, yes, a UGA win in that game definitely would be considered a major upset, but it wouldn’t be anywhere near the biggest upset win in the modern era of Georgia football (which I loosely define as starting with the Vince Dooley years).
What is Georgia football’s biggest upset win?
I put that question to several fans recently, and the game most frequently mentioned was another one against Alabama — the famous “flea flicker” game in 1965. Bear Bryant’s Tide was the defending national champion and ranked No. 5 when they came to Athens for the nationally televised game and, as one Georgia fan put it: “We were nobody.” Bama was leading 17-10 late in the game when Dooley told quarterback Kirby Moore to run the flea-flicker. Moore passed to Pat Hodgson who, while falling, pitched the ball back to Bob Taylor, who sprinted for the score. Rather than settle for a tie, Georgia went for 2 and secured a win that stunned the college football world.
It was the only loss that season for the Tide, which went on to another national championship, and it put Dooley’s Georgia on the map. As Bryant later told Dooley’s wife Barbara, “Young lady, don’t you forget that I’m the man who made your husband famous.” Dooley recalled in his memoir, “My 40 Years at Georgia,” that Bryant handled the loss with class. “I remember him coming into our dressing room and congratulating our entire team.”
While I consider that win over Bama at the top among Georgia’s upsets, the game that ranks alongside it in my mind incredibly happened just two weeks later, when Georgia hit the road to Ann Arbor to take on mighty Michigan before a crowd of 100,000 at the Big House. By that point, UGA was ranked No. 10, but still was the underdog.
Dooley’s players were much smaller than the No. 7-ranked Wolverines and trailed 7-6 at halftime on the strength of a pair of Bobby Etter field goals. But, it was all Georgia in the second half, and a fourth quarter Dawgs drive, keyed by a 23-yard run by Georgia’s other QB, Preston Ridlehuber, put Georgia up 12-7. Then, QB-turned-All-American-safety Lynn Hughes intercepted a Michigan pass and returned it 38 yards, setting up another Etter field goal, for the final upset score of 15-7.
Bulldog fandom was ectatic — when the flight carrying the Dawgs landed at Athens’ Ben Epps Field, a crowd of 10,000 greeted them — and the national media took notice. Georgia football no longer was a “nobody.”
For fans who can’t remember 1965, another contender for Georgia’s greatest upset victory is the 1985 win over Florida in Jacksonville. The undefeated Gators came into the game ranked No. 1 in the country for the first time in the school’s history, but Georgia knocked off the lizards 24-3, thanks to freshman running backs Keith Henderson and Tim Worley, both of whom ran for over 100 yards that day.
Another of Georgia’s greatest upsets was the Jan. 2, 1984, Cotton Bowl game against Texas. The Longhorns came into the game ranked No. 2 (and would have won the national championship if they’d beaten Georgia). Neither offense could do much except kick field goals that day and Texas led 9-3 when Georgia recovered a fumble, setting up the winning score when QB John Lastinger ran the option to his right and scampered 17 yards with 3:22 left on the clock, diving for the end zone. Hence the the frequently quoted phrase among Dawgs fans, “It’s still 10 to 9 in Dallas.”
One of my favorites among Georgia’s biggest upsets is the only SEC Championship Game I’ve ever attended in person. Led by QB D.J. Shockley, Mark Richt’s Dawgs upset Les Miles’ No. 3-ranked LSU Tigers 34-14. The game included a pair of quick touchdown passes to Sean Bailey, who caught them right in front of me and my son at the Georgia Dome. Georgia’s defense had a big day, and there was an inevitability about Georgia’s win that you could feel from that second superb grab by Bailey. It’s not often that you see LSU fans start to leave with 12:28 left in the game, and their team trailing.
The next year saw another major upset win for the Dawgs, over Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Georgia had lost four of its previous five games (including to unranked Vanderbilt and Kentucky) and No. 5-ranked Auburn was a two-touchdown favorite, but Tigers QB Brandon Cox spent much of the game flat on his back with a Bulldog on top of him. Georgia jumped out to a 30-7 halftime lead thanks to three interceptions (and a touchdown) by safety Tra Battle, and cruised to a 37-15 win, with tailback Kregg Lumpkin running for 131 yards and a TD and freshman QB Matthew Stafford throwing for 219 yards and two touchdowns and running for 83 yards. The upset ended Auburn’s chances at an at-large BCS berth.
Other fan favorite upset wins by the Dawgs include the 1997 victory over Florida, when a Jim Donnan team featuring Mike Bobo, Hines Ward, Robert Edwards, Champ Bailey and Kirby Smart beat the 20-point favorite Gators 37-17 … the 2001 upset of Tennessee in Knoxville for Richt’s first major win (the “hobnail boot” game) … the 1976 game against Florida, when the Gators were ranked No. 10 and seeking their first SEC football championship, but the Dawgs, led by QB Ray Goff, came back from a 27-13 halftime deficit to win 41-27 — with the aid of UF coach Doug Dickey’s infamous “fourth-and-dumb” call … the 1986 win over Auburn at Jordan-Hare with backup QB Wayne Johnson (the “Between the Hoses” game) … the 1991 upset in Athens of No. 6 Clemson (the eventually ACC champion) in probably the biggest win of Goff’s coaching career at Georgia … the 2012 upset of No. 2-ranked Florida, which was assured when Jarvis Jones punched the ball out of a Florida receiver’s hands and Georgia recovered … the 1966 game in Jacksonville when Heisman winning QB Steve Spurrier threw three interceptions as Georgia won 27-10 over the previously unbeaten Gators … the 2014 upset of No. 9 Auburn in Athens, in which the Dawgs scored 34 unanswered points to win 34-7 … the 1964 win over Georgia Tech by Dooley’s first team … the 1970 upset of an Auburn team led by the passing duo of Pat Sullivan and Terry Beasley, which Dooley later said was “one of the biggest of my career” … and, most recently, the 2016 upset in Athens of Auburn by an unranked Dawgs team that was a double-digit underdog on a day that saw the Tigers’ offense, one of the nation’s best, held to zero first downs in the second half.
And, yes, a lot of those games involve Florida and Auburn.
Of course, upsets go both ways, and Georgia has been on the losing end of some unexpected doozies.
Some cite the 1974 loss to lightly regarded Miami of Ohio in the Tangerine Bowl as the Dawgs’ worst upset (though, frankly, Georgia, which finished 6-6, didn’t really belong in a bowl that year). Others opt for the 2010 road loss to a Colorado team that finished the year 5-7 and fired its head coach midseason … the 2004 game where Tennessee ended third-ranked Georgia’s 17-game home winning streak with a 19-14 upset … the 2006 loss in Athens to Vanderbilt, in which a Commodores team that would finish the season 4-8 left Sanford Stadium with a 24-22 win over the 14th-ranked Bulldogs … the 2007 loss to an unranked Tennessee team that kept Georgia out of the BCS in a season in which they finished ranked No. 2 … the 2014 overtime loss to Tech in Athens … and the 2018 Sugar Bowl loss to Texas.
However, three other games stand out to Georgia fans as really painful upsets.
One is the 2002 loss to Florida, when a previously unbeaten and clearly superior Georgia team, which was ranked No. 4 coming in, went 0-13 on third-down conversions against a struggling Ron Zook Gators team. That 20-13 upset cost Georgia (which finished 13-1 that year) a shot at a national championship.
Then there’s the 2014 loss to the Gators when a Florida team that would get rid of coach Will Muschamp that season rushed for 418 yards to beat No. 11 Georgia. Many view that upset as the beginning of the end for Richt at UGA.
And, finally, we get to the game that one fan called the “leader in the clubhouse” for worst upset ever: last season’s South Carolina debacle. Once again, a vastly superior Georgia team lost to a Muschamp team in perhaps the biggest upset in the country last season — and one that cost Georgia a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Yes, the wound is still fresh, but I have a feeling that, even 20 years from now, that game still will stand out as one of Georgia’s most unexpected and most inexplicable losses.