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, 1945, and 1971, and we now turn our attention to another great Bulldog team that failed to capture either a conference or a national title.
Little was expected of Georgia in 1978. The Classic City Canines lost eight defensive starters, including all three linebackers and all four defensive backs, from a 1977 squad that had posted the only losing record (5-6) of the Vince Dooley era. The Bulldogs, whom the preseason prognosticators had picked to finish eighth in the SEC, were underdogs in their season opener against the visiting Baylor Bears, and the Southwest Conference club leapt out to a 7-0 lead between the hedges. It was only due to two fourth-quarter fumble recoveries and three Rex Robinson field goals that the Red and Black emerged victorious by a 16-14 margin.
Next up were the Clemson Tigers, who also were favored to beat the Bulldogs after Charley Pell’s Country Gentlemen entered the autumn ranked in the AP top 20 for the first time since 1960. Against what Coach Dooley called “the Tigers’ greatest team ever,” Georgia started three sophomores in the secondary, and one of them, cornerback Scott Woerner, recovered the Jungaleer fumble that led directly to a field goal by Robinson, a fellow sophomore. Another Clemson fumble produced a second Robinson field goal, and the Red and Black led, 6-0, at the break.
The third quarter opened with an eight-minute, 18-play drive during which the Bulldogs traversed 80 yards for the game’s only touchdown. Georgia’s 12-0 victory over the Tigers was sealed when Woerner and the Bulldogs’ other sophomore corner, Bob Kelly, both picked off Orange and Purple passes in the end zone. Over the course of the campaign, Clemson would lose 15 fumbles and throw five interceptions, but six of those turnovers occurred in Athens.
The 1978 Tigers fielded two of the top ten vote-getters in that year’s Heisman Trophy balloting, won the ACC championship, and finished 11-1 to earn the highest final poll ranking (No. 6) in school history. The Classic City Canines’ shutout victory over the Fort Hill Felines appeared all the more remarkable after only one other regular-season opponent succeeded in holding the Country Gentlemen to fewer than 28 points. Georgia’s triumph over what was to become the Bulldogs’ most heated rival of the 1980s not only ruined Clemson’s bid for the Tigers’ first national championship in any sport, it also persuaded Coach Pell that it was impossible to finish a fall with a No. 1 ranking by the shores of Lake Hartwell. He accepted the head coaching job at Florida at the end of the regular season, leaving assistant head coach and offensive line coach Danny Ford to take over for the Gator Bowl.
Unfortunately, the Red and Black did not survive the Palmetto State circuit unscathed, as the favored South Carolina Gamecocks defeated the ‘Dawgs, 27-10, in a night game in Williams-Brice Stadium the following Saturday. After that setback, however, the Athenians began earning their reputation as the “Wonderdogs” by overcoming deficits on very nearly a weekly basis.
The Mississippi Rebels took a 3-0 lead on Georgia before the Bulldogs scored 42 unanswered points. The favored and Liberty Bowl-bound LSU Tigers went out in front of the Red and Black, 14-0, in a night game in Baton Rouge, then freshman split end Lindsay Scott returned a kickoff 99 yards to spark a 24-17 Bulldog win.
After drubbing the Vanderbilt Commodores, 31-10, between the hedges for homecoming, the Athenians played their third road night game of the season. The Kentucky Wildcats went up, 16-0, in Lexington before Georgia mounted a comeback capped off by the last-second Robinson field goal that gave the ‘Dawgs a 17-16 victory.
The Red and Black dispatched VMI, 41-3, to tune up for their date with the Florida Gators. The Sunshine State Saurians took a 3-0 lead in Jacksonville, but, for the third time in a six-season span, the outcome in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party was determined by a fourth-quarter two-point conversion attempt. When Florida’s attempt to tie the game resulted in an interception, Georgia got the ball back at the 25 yard line with a 24-22 lead and nearly seven minutes showing on the clock. Some 16 plays later, following three third-down conversions and a fourth-down pickup, the Red and Black ran out the clock at the Gators’ 18 yard line, sealing the fate of the Orange and Blue coach and effectively creating the vacancy that Coach Pell would later fill.
A 22-22 tie with the Auburn Tigers on the Plains denied the conference crown to the ‘Dawgs, whose 5-0-1 league ledger put left them a half-game behind the eventual Associated Press national champion Alabama Crimson Tide. However, the Athenians had one more comeback left in them against the Peach Bowl-bound Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who took a 20-0 lead on the Red and Black in Sanford Stadium.
Facing a seemingly insurmountable deficit, Coach Dooley yanked starting quarterback Jeff Pyburn and inserted freshman backup Buck Belue, who directed a touchdown drive just before the half. A third-quarter Woerner interception led to another Georgia score, and a 72-yard punt runback by the selfsame Bulldog defensive back (who finished the autumn as the country’s eighth-best punt returner) put the Red and Black up by one. The Engineers responded with a 101-yard kickoff return and a two-point conversion to put the visitors back up, 28-21, but Belue found Amp Arnold for a fourth-down touchdown pass and a subsequent two-point conversion to secure a 29-28 Bulldog win.
The Classic City Canines’ 9-1-1 ledger earned them a No. 7 ranking in the coaches’ poll and a berth in the Bluebonnet Bowl, where the Wonderdogs’ luck ran out at last. After coming from behind in six of their nine wins, the Athenians built up a 22-0 halftime lead on Bill Walsh’s Stanford Cardinal in Houston, only to see their advantage evaporate in the 25-22 loss that dropped Georgia to 15th in the final UPI poll.
Despite the season’s disappointing ending, the Wonderdogs claimed a permanent place in Red and Black lore by demonstrating the resiliency to overcome adversity over and over again. The Bulldog offense was paced by tailback Willie McClendon, who broke Frank Sinkwich’s 37-year-old school rushing record with a 1,312-yard rushing effort that remains the high water mark for a Georgia senior. That season also marked a sea change in the Classic City Canines’ fortunes, as Coach Dooley’s teams had finished at or below .500 in conference play four times in the previous nine years, yet 1978 represented the first of six straight seasons in which the Athenians finished either first or second in the SEC standings.