2002 was the season for which I’d been waiting all my life. After years of finishing in the middle of the pack in the SEC, Georgia finally broke through. The Dawgs went 11-1 in the regular season, won the SEC championship for the first time in 20 years by beating Arkansas in the Georgia Dome, and just missed out on a chance to play for the national championship.
I have so many memories of 2002: Legendary wins over South Carolina and Auburn; a heartbreaking loss to Florida; a third straight win over Tennessee; David Pollack’s emergence as one of Georgia’s best ever…unforgettable. The Dawgs’ reward for a remarkable season was a trip to the Sugar Bowl to face Florida State.
The Seminoles had the worst record of any team in the BCS, entering the game with four losses. Still the game was intriguing, as it matched Mark Richt with his coaching mentor, Bobby Bowden. Just two years before, Richt had been on Bowden’s staff at Florida State. Now the two would be on opposing sidelines.
In all honesty, the Sugar Bowl matchup was a bit of a letdown for me. After the incredible season, and the emotional win in the Georgia Dome, a game against one of Bowden’s weaker teams didn’t to too much to excite me. But anytime the Dawgs play I get up for it. So it was that I settled in at home in Commerce, Georgia to watch the game on New Year’s night.
Georgia took a 3-0 lead on a Billy Bennett field goal. Florida State went ahead 7-3 on Anquan Boldin’s touchdown catch on a pass from Fabian Walker, who was only playing because State was missing its top two quarterbacks due to disciplinary actions.
In the second quarter the Seminoles moved into Georgia territory again. It seemed that Florida State might add to its lead, until Bruce Thorton made a play. The converted running back intercepted a Walker pass and returned it 71 yards for a touchdown to give the Dawgs a 10-7 lead.
Minutes later Georgia got the ball back and DJ Shockley checked into the game. Shockley only attempted one pass all night, but made it count by hitting Terrence Edwards for a 37 yard touchdown. The Dawgs led 17-7 at the half.
The second half featured a dominant performance by the Georgia defense, with State’s only points coming when Boldin switched to quarterback and threw a touchdown pass to Craphonso Thorpe. The Seminole offense managed only 262 yards in the game The Dawgs’ offense featured a healthy dose of Musa Smith (Georgia’s first 1,000 yard rusher since Garrison Hearst in 1992), who rushed for 145 yards on the night. While Georgia didn’t score a second half touchdown, Bennett added three more field goals to ice the game for the Bulldogs. Final score: Georgia 26 Florida State 13.
It was a solid if unspectacular performance by a Georgia team that had been firing on all cylinders at the end of the season, but still a satisfying way to finish off the year. The win gave the Dawgs a record of 13-1, and elevated Georgia to a final #3 ranking in the polls.
Today, more than ten years after that Sugar Bowl, the win seems more significant to me than it did then. It was the final statement in a season that served notice that UGA football was back on the map, and would be the first of three Sugar Bowls in six years for the Dawgs. Also, in my book, any win over a team from Florida is a good win. Nothing like the taste of Sugar on New Year’s Day!