Are the 2012 Bulldogs the Best Georgia Squad Never to Win a Title?: A Look Back at 1971

Michael Chang

Though this college football season will produce neither a conference championship nor a national title for the Georgia Bulldogs, it remains one of the best uncrowned seasons in school history. In that regard, the 2012 Bulldogs resemble the 1971 Georgia squad.

The Georgia Bulldogs have had a special and successful season in 2012, despite the unfortunate fact that the Red and Black fell just short of claiming the Southeastern Conference crown and, consequently, narrowly missed out on the opportunity to play the Notre Dame Fighting Irish for the national championship. While we await the Capital One Bowl against the Nebraska Cornhuskers on New Year’s Day, we are left to ponder this team’s place in Georgia lore. So far, we have looked at 1912, 1931, 1941, and 1945, and we now turn our attention to another great Bulldog team that failed to capture either a conference or a national title.

The Classic City Canines had several solid seasons following that 1945 campaign, but all of them---1946, 1948, 1959, 1966, and 1968---came in autumns in which the Athenians captured conference crowns and, in a couple of cases, national titles bestowed by such minor selectors as the Litkenhous and Williamson polls. At the end of that 1968 season, Vince Dooley’s fifth Georgia club dropped a Sugar Bowl date with the Arkansas Razorbacks, then the Bulldogs proceeded to post back-to-back .500 seasons in 1969 (5-5-1) and 1970 (5-5).

Nevertheless, “Dooley’s ‘Dawgs” were ranked 18th in the Associated Press preseason poll heading into the fall of 1971, and the Red and Black quickly demonstrated that they deserved to be slotted higher than that. Georgia built up a 56-7 lead and cruised to a 56-25 victory in the season opener against the visiting Oregon St. Beavers, in which a record-setting performance was delivered by Bulldog cornerback Buzy “Super Frog” Rosenberg. He returned five punts for 202 yards, taking two of them back for 66- and 79-yard touchdown returns.

Quarterback Andy Johnson, who had been named Playboy’s preseason sophomore of the year, ran the ball 27 times in the Athenians’ 17-7 win over the Tulane Green Wave the following week. The Bulldogs’ first road outing, against the Clemson Tigers in Death Valley, got off to a rocky start, as Georgia led only by a touchdown following a first half at Fort Hill during which the Country Gentlemen led the Classic City Canines in first downs (7-3) and in total yards (146-77). The Red and Black offense shifted to a two-tight end set for the third quarter, however, and the visiting Athenians went on to post a 28-0 win over Clemson.

That shutout was the start of a superb season for Erk Russell’s defensive unit. When the autumn was in the books, Georgia was ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense, seventh in scoring defense, and ninth in total defense. That happy trend continued the following week, when the Red and Black beat the visiting Mississippi St. Bulldogs, 35-7. From there, it was off to the Magnolia State to deliver a 38-7 thrashing to the Mississippi Rebels in Jackson. Ole Miss went on to conclude a 10-2 season with a Peach Bowl victory to cement a No. 15 final ranking.

The Bulldogs’ next three wins were by shutout, over the Vanderbilt Commodores (24-0 in Nashville), Kentucky Wildcats (34-0 in Athens), and South Carolina Gamecocks (24-0 in Columbia). Sporting an 8-0 record and ranked seventh in the country, the Classic City Canines headed to Jacksonville for their date with the Sunshine State Saurians. Because Johnson had suffered a deep thigh bruise against the Palmetto State Poultry, quarterback James Ray made his first start of the season against the Florida Gators, and he acquitted himself well in a 49-7 throttling of the Orange and Blue.

That set up a matchup of top ten teams in Sanford Stadium when the sixth-ranked Auburn Tigers rolled into Athens looking to extend their ten-game winning streak, which had begun in the Iron Bowl following the Plainsmen’s loss to the Bulldogs the year before. Auburn’s Pat Sullivan likely won himself the Heisman Trophy successfully completed the theft of the Heisman Trophy from Cornell’s Ed Marinaro with a standout passing performance in the Tigers’ 35-20 victory between the hedges. The War Eagle wound up in the Sugar Bowl, posting a 9-2 record and receiving a No. 12 final ranking.

The Red and Black rebounded against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in a nationally-televised Thanksgiving night game at historic Grant Field. The Engineers led by a field goal at intermission, but Andy Johnson directed a dramatic final drive that included an 18-yard completion on fourth and ten en route to the game-winning touchdown that made the score 28-24 for Georgia with 14 seconds remaining in the game. The impressiveness of the comeback was underscored by the later revelation that the telephone connection between the press box and the sideline had gone out during the game, necessitating that backup quarterback James Ray call his own plays before signaling them in to the huddle.

Though the loss in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry had caused the Bulldogs to finish second to the undefeated, second-ranked, and Orange Bowl-bound Alabama Crimson Tide in the SEC standings, the Athenians’ first ten-win season since 1966 catapulted the Bulldogs into the Gator Bowl, where Vince Dooley found himself looking across the field at the North Carolina Tar Heels’ head coach, Bill Dooley, his brother.

In Jacksonville on New Year’s Eve, the student-athletes from the nation’s two oldest state-chartered universities engaged in a defensive struggle featuring a combined 20 punts. Johnson and his fellow sophomore, Jimmy “The Greek Streak” Poulos, directed an 80-yard third-quarter march culminating in a 25-yard run to paydirt by Poulos. The 7-3 Georgia victory prompted one sportswriter to observe, “Vince won the toss and ran the clock out.”

At 11-1, the Bulldogs had earned a No. 7 final ranking and enjoyed the best season in Athens in a quarter-century, since Charley Trippi led the Classic City Canines to an undefeated record in 1946. By beating the Tar Heels, SEC runner-up Georgia claimed victories over the top three finishers in the ACC standings, by a combined 59-3 margin. For just the third time in school history, the Red and Black had won eleven games in a single autumn, and no bunch of Bulldogs would win that many again until the Athenians went 12-0 in 1980.

Go ‘Dawgs!

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