Georgia’s football team opens its SEC schedule Saturday at Vanderbilt, marking the start of a long journey that the Bulldogs hope will take them to their first conference championship in 10 years.
They last won the SEC in 2005, making this Georgia’s third longest stretch between SEC titles since the league was formed in 1933.
“My mom actually said to me a month ago, ‘You know it’s been 10 years,’” said D.J. Shockley, the starting quarterback on Georgia’s 2005 team. “It just feels kind of surreal that it’s been 10 years since Georgia has won an SEC Championship game.”
The Bulldogs’ longest waits for SEC championships were 20 years from 1982 until 2002 and 11 years from 1948 until 1959.
And while the current drought is only half as long as the longest, which stretched over four head coaches, it has been long enough for the 2005 season to become cherished by championship-thirsty Georgia fans.
“I get it all the time on Twitter, on Instagram or just out and about,” Shockley said. “It’s remarkable that people still can remember that 2005 season — that championship game against LSU in the Dome — like we played it last week. For me, it’s humbling … especially since so many great players and great quarterbacks have come through there since then.”
Among the standout players who have been through Georgia’s program since the Bulldogs’ last conference championship: quarterbacks Matthew Stafford (2006-08) and Aaron Murray (2009-13), tailbacks Knowshon Moreno (2006-08) and Todd Gurley (2012-14), wide receiver A.J. Green (2008-10) and defenders Justin Houston (2007-10) and Jarvis Jones (2011-12).
“It does surprise me,” Patrick Garbin, who has written seven books on UGA football history, said of the championships drought. “I think with the recruiting classes Georgia gets … it shouldn’t be happening.”
The Bulldogs have reached the SEC title game twice since 2005, losing 42-10 to LSU in 2011 and 32-28 to Alabama in 2012 in a game that famously ended with Georgia five yards from a touchdown.
Four programs have won the past nine SEC titles — Alabama three and Auburn, Florida and LSU two apiece. Western Division teams have won the past six.
Whether Georgia’s drought will end this season depends on many factors, some probably unforeseeable, that will play out over the next three months.
This is how coach Mark Richt described the task in preseason: “The bottom line is … hey, let’s find a way to get to Atlanta. Let’s get the job done when we get there and move on to the playoff.”
Georgia opened the season with a non-conference victory over Louisiana-Monroe last week, and the Bulldogs’ first SEC test seems modest to most: an opponent coming off a loss to Western Kentucky. But Georgia will be looking to avoid the kind of trouble it has found on some recent trips to Vanderbilt’s 40,550-seat stadium, where the Bulldogs won narrowly in 2007 (20-17) and 2011 (33-28) and lost 31-27 in 2013.
“We’ve got to play better at Vanderbilt than we have been playing,” Richt said this week.
Saturday’s game marks just the second time in 24 seasons that Georgia will open its SEC schedule against anyone other than South Carolina. But the Gamecocks aren’t far behind, coming to Athens a week later.
Based on this week’s Associated Press poll, winning the SEC championship will be particularly hard-earned by whoever takes it this season. An unprecedented 10 SEC teams are ranked, although Georgia’s first two league opponents aren’t among them. The 10 are: No. 2 Alabama, No. 6 Auburn, No. 10 Georgia, No. 14 LSU, No. 16 Texas A&M, No. 17 Ole Miss, No. 18 Arkansas, No. 21 Missouri, No. 23 Tennessee and No. 25 Mississippi State.
In the SEC’s annual preseason media survey, Georgia was picked overwhelmingly to win the Eastern Division — but to lose the conference championship game.
“Georgia is going to be in the thick of things,” Shockley said. “It just depends on one or two games every year.”
If those games go their way, he figures, the Bulldogs could win the SEC for the first time since beating LSU 34-14 for the title a decade ago.
“I have been yearning for another one, just like all the fans have,” he said.