In 1959, the Georgia Bulldogs capped off an SEC championship campaign with an Orange Bowl victory. Just over two months later, Red and Black defensive line coach J.B. Whitworth passed away, and, the following fall, the Classic City Canines fell back to the pack with a 6-4 season in which the Athenians lost three games by margins of seven, eight, and three points, respectively, prompting head coach Wally Butts to refer to his final Georgia squad the "most hard luck" team he had ever coached. However, there was some good fortune, as well, inasmuch as the Bulldogs claimed half of their victories by three-, four-, and one-point margins, respectively.
Fastforward to 2013, when we saw a Red and Black squad that well might have given Coach Butts’s 1960 ‘Dawgs a run for their money where hard luck was concerned. Following a division championship campaign featuring a one-loss regular season and a Sunshine State bowl victory, Georgia went 8-4 in an autumn in which the Bulldogs unquestionably were the country’s most exciting team. A pair of overtime road wins only added to the thrill of a roller-coaster ride featuring, respectively, margins of three, four, and five points in three of the four losses, and of three, three, three, and seven points in four of the eight victories. Add in a fourth loss (to the Missouri Tigers) and a couple of wins (over the South Carolina Gamecocks and the North Texas Mean Green) that all were closer than the final scores suggested, and you have about as wild a fall as it is possible to imagine.
Unfortunately, it must be conceded, in all candor, that the lows have been lower than the highs have been high. The thrill of being back in Death Valley for another titanic clash with the Clemson Tigers sank to sorrow as Malcolm Mitchell was lost for the season on a touchdown celebration, the offense went into a midgame funk, and the Bulldogs muffed a field goal attempt in a series long noted for special teams heroics.
Likewise, the unbridled joy that flowed forth after an ebullient Aaron Murray lofted the pigskin into the ether in celebration as the final seconds of Georgia’s triumph over the LSU Tigers in Sanford Stadium ticked away evaporated over the course of the next three games, an injury-riddled and season-derailing pyrrhic victory over the Tennessee Volunteers on the unforgiving turf of Neyland Stadium followed by a turnover-hampered deflating loss to the Missouri Tigers and a demoralizing setback suffered at the hands of the Vanderbilt Commodores that represented not only a failure on multiple levels, but also the Red and Black’s worst loss since the 2010 Goat Roast saw the ‘Dawgs fall to the hapless Colorado Buffaloes. That Chris Conley was injured on the last futile play of that dismal outing in Nashville seemed to sum up a season whose ruthless cruelty we only just were beginning fully to appreciate.
Then came a loss to the Auburn Tigers in the most devastating way imaginable; the agony was only underscored by the fact that the game-winning touchdown pass was thrown by Nick Marshall, whose presence on the Plains confirmed that, just as the field conditions in Knoxville were the division-deciding SEC East MVP, so, too, was Mark Richt’s insistence upon strict discipline the SEC West MVP that settled the title game representative from that side of the conference.
I put this year’s Auburn game right up there with the 1982 Sugar Bowl and the 2012 SEC Championship Game on the short list of contests that will never not be scars on my heart, and the crushing defeat left me so wounded that I almost elected to stay home from the season’s final home game, against the Kentucky Wildcats. Nevertheless, the prospect of a blackout and the promise of Aaron Murray’s last outing between the hedges persuaded me to brave the cold so that my son and I could be there for senior night:
The Kentucky game was the season in microcosm, full of sudden shifts from the clouds to the canyons. Georgia returned the opening kickoff 41 yards before proceeding to cover the remaining 59 in just three plays to jump-start a dominant effort featuring 35 first downs, more than 35 minutes of possession time, over 600 yards of total offense, and a 42-point margin of victory that fell a field goal shy of matching the largest in series history after seven straight outings against the Wildcats were decided by fewer than 14 points.
The Kentucky game, in sum, showed what this team was capable of being at its best, which was something the Red and Black had not shown since the Louisiana State game that left Bulldog Nation certain of a third straight SEC Championship Game appearance and hopeful for a BCS bowl berth, yet that is not the lesson anyone took home from Athens that night, as the evening’s enduring image is, and always will be, Aaron Murray being carried from the field after playing his final down in silver britches, which we later learned was several downs too late but nevertheless know was several more downs too soon.
So here we are, down in the dumps at the end of a disappointing autumn that saw the Bulldogs beat Florida, Georgia Tech, LSU, South Carolina, and Tennessee while falling to four teams boasting a combined regular-season record of 40-8, awaiting a fate that may, just may, include the Bulldogs’ first Gator Bowl berth since Vince Dooley’s final season on the sideline (and my first quarter as a University of Georgia student) for a contest that represents, at long last, the delayed culmination of The Movement.
The most hard luck team Mark Richt ever coached could finish with nine wins, marking the tenth time in the last twelve years the Bulldogs would have achieved that milestone. (During that same span, incidentally, the Florida Gators have won nine or more games six times, the Auburn Tigers have won nine or more games seven times, and the Alabama Crimson Tide have won nine or more games eight times.) Still, it is tough to think of the 2013 season as much for what was as for what might instead have been.
When I find myself (as, I confess, I often do) disheartened by what was lost rather than encouraged by what was gained, though, I take the time to remember that 1960 is not the only season 2013 has resembled; this autumn, marred as it was by a boatload of injuries that scuttled a promising start, also echoes the campaigns of 1965, 1977, and 1990, all of which ended on the downswing due to the consignment of too many players to the infirmary.
As much as those hard luck seasons hurt, though, they inflicted the pain that produced the gain; inexperienced underclassmen prematurely thrown into the deep end when starters were sidelined returned the following fall as seasoned veterans, producing an SEC championship in 1966, a one-loss regular season in 1978, and wins over six of the seven opponents to whom the Bulldogs had lost the year before in 1991. Perhaps that process already is underway, as the rebound of the so-called "Wonderdogs" in 1978 was epitomized by a thrilling win over the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets after a second-string signal caller led a successful comeback once the Engineers had taken a 20-0 lead on the Athenians. By that reckoning, Hutson Mason is the Buck Belue of 2013, which offers some sliver of evidence that he could be the D.J. Shockley of 2014.
All that is to say this: We are hurt, but we are not slain, and, where there is life, there is hope; what’s more, where there is a fall, there is a stage that has been set for a second act defined by an ensuing and predictable rise. That anticipated, and perhaps inevitable, upswing already may be underway. If the bowl projections are correct, and the Bulldogs end up meeting the Michigan Wolverines by the St. John’s River, a win in Jacksonville on New Year’s Day could propel the Classic City Canines into the upper atmosphere in 2014. After all, the last time the Red and Black defeated the Maize and Blue was in that injury-riddled autumn of 1965, before order was restored with a conference crown the following year.