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, 1971, and 1978, and we now turn our attention to another great Bulldog team that failed to capture either a conference or a national title.
Heading into the 1983 campaign, the Red and Black had just completed a dominant 33-3 run during which the ‘Dawgs claimed three straight SEC titles, won one national championship, and played for another. However, the most critical participant in that stellar stretch, Herschel Walker, had departed for the USFL following his Heisman Trophy-winning junior season, so it fell to Vince Dooley to figure out how to replace the most legendary player in Georgia’s long history.
Predictably, the key proved to be field-position football and opportunistic defense. The 1983 Bulldogs finished in the top ten nationally in scoring defense, surrendering just 13.5 points per game, and the Athenians were led by two-time All-American rover Terry Hoage, whose fifth-place finish in that year’s Heisman Trophy balloting was the highest ever by a defensive back. Fellow All-American Kevin Butler kept Georgia in games by hitting 78 per cent of his field goal attempts.
The Bulldogs entered the autumn as a preseason top 15 team in both major polls, and they appeared not to have missed a beat in their opener against quarterback Rick Neuheisel’s UCLA Bruins, who were ranked twelfth in the coaches’ poll and were bound for a second straight Rose Bowl victory. With Walker sitting in the Sanford Stadium stands as a spectator for the nationally-televised night game, Georgia racked up 228 rushing yards and brought in four interceptions, the last of which safety Charlie Dean returned 69 yards for the clinching touchdown in the final 30 seconds of a 19-8 Red and Black victory.
The win extended the Bulldogs’ regular-season winning streak to 20 games, dating back to their 1981 loss to the national champion Clemson Tigers by shores of Lake Hartwell. Georgia returned to Death Valley in its next outing, and the Classic City Canines found themselves trailing the Fort Hill Felines, 16-6, after 45 minutes of play. Quarterback Todd Williams caught fire in the final period, however, completing ten of 17 passes for 157 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
With 38 seconds showing on the clock, Butler connected on the field goal that snarled the score at 16 points per side to forge the first series tie in two decades. The Tigers would not lose another game all year, completing a third straight perfect run through the ACC to card a second consecutive 9-1-1 record and earn a final ranking of eleventh from the Associated Press.
Though the ‘Dawgs defeated the South Carolina Gamecocks by an 18-point margin the following Saturday, Williams was injured in the game against the Garnet and Black, so the sophomore signal caller was succeeded under center by senior John Lastinger as the Athenians prepared to commence conference play. A 20-7 triumph over the Mississippi St. Bulldogs set up a showdown in Oxford with the Independence Bowl-bound Mississippi Rebels. Billy Brewer’s first Ole Miss club fell to the Red and Black, 36-11.
In Nashville against the Vanderbilt Commodores, in a play immortalized by Larry Munson, Hoage preserved a 20-13 win by batting away the would-be tying touchdown pass. The Kentucky Wildcats, winners of five of their first six games that autumn, were on their way to receiving a Hall of Fame Bowl bid, but that did not save them from a 47-21 trouncing between the hedges.
After tuning up with a 17-point homecoming victory over the Temple Owls, the fourth-ranked Bulldogs met the ninth-ranked Florida Gators in just the second Cocktail Party clash ever to pit a pair of top ten teams. Facing a 9-3 deficit, Georgia began a third-quarter drive at its own one yard line and proceeded to march 99 yards in 16 plays to notch a 10-9 victory. The Orange and Blue would return to the Gateway City for the postseason, and the Sunshine State Saurians’ Gator Bowl victory over the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes would win Florida a No. 6 ranking in the final postseason polls. The 1983 campaign would prove to be Charley Pell’s last full season with the Gators, and he would leave Gainesville having gone 0-5 against the Bulldogs.
The following Saturday, in Sanford Stadium, the No. 3 Auburn Tigers snapped No. 4 Georgia’s string of three straight SEC championships when Bo Jackson led the Plainsmen to a 13-7 win over the Red and Black. Auburn went on to conclude an 11-1 season with a Sugar Bowl victory to cement a final poll position of third. The Bulldogs closed out the regular season by outlasting the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, 27-24, in the Engineers’ first autumn of ACC play.
The Cotton Bowl extended an invitation to the Athenians, who would face the undefeated and second-ranked Texas Longhorns in Dallas. The ‘Horns had deprived the ‘Dawgs of a shot at the national championship 35 years earlier in the Orange Bowl, and Georgia returned the favor on January 2, 1984: Texas, clinging to a late 9-3 lead, fumbled a punt to give the Bulldogs possession deep in Longhorn territory, and Lastinger went 17 yards on a third-down option run to score the touchdown that gave Georgia a 10-9 win.
Texas wound up ranked fifth in the final polls, stung by the knowledge that, had the ‘Horns held onto the ball, they’d have ended up as the No. 1 team in the nation, as top-ranked Nebraska had fallen to the Miami Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl, also by a single point. The ‘Canes claimed their first national title, and Georgia ended the year ranked fourth by the coaches and the sportswriters alike.
Though they fell a touchdown short of claiming four consecutive Southeastern Conference crowns, the 1983 Bulldog seniors completed their careers with a 43-4-1 record over their four years of college. That ledger was the best in college football during that period, and the 10-1-1 campaign that capped off that exceptional run featured a 3-1-1 mark against teams that finished the year ranked in the AP top 20.