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, 1978, and 1983, and we now turn our attention to another great Bulldog team that failed to capture either a conference or a national title.
For many of you, I know, these excursions into Red and Black lore have felt like recitations of ancient history from, well, an ancient historian, but now we have arrived at a season almost all of you will remember: 2003. Mark Richt’s third season as the Classic City Canines’ head coach opened with raised expectations and multiple problems. For the first time in two decades---since the 1983 season highlighted in our last installment---Georgia entered an autumn as the defending SEC champion, and that achievement carried enough cachet to earn the ‘Dawgs preseason rankings of No. 9 in the coaches’ poll and No. 11 in the sportswriters’ poll.
The voters who bestowed those lofty rankings were ignoring several glaring deficiencies, however. The quarterback tandem of David Greene and D.J. Shockley would be forced to work behind a completely new offensive line made up entirely of underclassmen. The defense would start the season without such injured starters as rover Greg Blue, free safety Kentrell Curry, defensive end Will Thompson, and nose tackle Ken Veal. Eight other players, including three defensive backs, were suspended at the outset of the autumn, and, arguably, only a loophole in the NCAA rules had prevented Coach Richt from having to sideline several other players after selling their SEC championship rings in the offseason.
The Bulldogs were slated to open the season on the road against the Clemson Tigers, who would be hosting their border rivals from Athens for the first game ever played in Death Valley in the month of August. Newly-renovated Memorial Stadium would welcome 83,000 fans for a sweltering noon contest about which The Tiger’s Andrew Gibbons wrote: “Clemson has had this game circled on their schedules for a year,” dating back to the previous autumn’s clash in Sanford Stadium, won by the Bulldogs by a 31-28 margin.
The Jungaleers were doomed from the start, as Clemson center Tommy Sharpe got sick at his stomach and vomited on the football just prior to sending the first snap of the season to sophomore signal caller Charlie Whitehurst, who, quite understandably, fumbled. Though the Tigers came into the contest with the more highly touted receiving corps---Athlon, Lindy’s, and The Sporting News all rated first-year wide receivers coach Dabo Swinney’s position group as one of the ten best in college football---it was Georgia flanker Fred Gibson who got behind Clemson cornerback Justin Miller for a 56-yard touchdown reception from Greene. Later in the game, 2002 SEC player of the year David Pollack registered a sack on a Whitehurst option play and intercepted a screen pass to preserve the shutout in a 30-0 laugher. Clemson went on to complete an uneven season with a Peach Bowl win, a 9-4 record, and a No. 22 ranking.
Following an easy 29-10 win over the Middle Tennessee St. Blue Raiders in which redshirt freshman Michael Cooper scored the first two touchdowns of his collegiate career, the Bulldogs took care of business against the 25th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in Sanford Stadium. The stat sheet appeared largely even, as each team tallied 19 first downs and the Red and Black led only narrowly (378-350) in total yardage, but Georgia led by ten after one quarter, by 17 at the half, and by 24 after three periods in the course of claiming a 31-7 victory.
The following Saturday, in Baton Rouge, the Classic City Canines outplayed Nick Saban’s eleventh-ranked LSU Tigers in defeat. Georgia gained 23 first downs to the Bayou Bengals’ 16 and generated 411 yards of total offense to Louisiana State’s 285, but the ‘Dawgs were doomed by their failure to capitalize on opportunities. The Red and Black crossed the Tigers’ 40 yard line six times in the first half yet managed just three points. The visitors’ other five deep drives ended in a punt, a fumble, and a trio of missed field goal tries by the ordinarily reliable Billy Bennett. LSU went on to win, 17-10.
The Athenians bounced back between the hedges two weeks later, scoring 31 second-quarter points on the visiting Alabama Crimson Tide while the defense had ‘Bama quarterbacks running for their lives in a 37-23 victory that was nowhere near as close as the score suggested. In Knoxville the following Saturday, the No. 13 Tennessee Volunteers threatened to take a halftime lead on a visiting Georgia squad that had outplayed the Big Orange in the opening 30 minutes. Trailing by six points, the Vols had the ball on the Bulldogs’ one yard line with seven seconds remaining in the second quarter when Sean Jones scooped up a Casey Clausen fumble and returned it 92 yards for a touchdown. The Red and Black tacked on 21 points in the third quarter and cruised to a surprisingly easy 41-14 win over a Tennessee team that would go 10-3 and finish ranked fifteenth.
The Athenians struggled on the next three Saturdays. The Vanderbilt Commodores held a 2-0 halftime lead on the Bulldogs in Nashville before Georgia roared back to notch a 27-8 triumph. The UAB Blazers hung around all afternoon at homecoming, finally falling when Bennett broke a fourth-quarter tie with the field goal that eclipsed Kevin Butler’s school scoring record and delivered a 16-13 victory to the ‘Dawgs. In Jacksonville, the 23rd-ranked Florida Gators bested Georgia by that same score when placekicker Matt Leach drilled a 33-yard field goal with 33 seconds showing on the scoreboard. The Sunshine State Saurians would close out the season in the Outback Bowl and be ranked 24th in the final AP poll.
Left with no margin for error in their bid to repeat as SEC East champions, the Bulldogs shut down the visiting Auburn Tigers in a 26-7 win. The Athenians held the Plainsmen to just 54 first-half yards, and Odell Thurman sealed the deal with a thrilling 99-yard interception return. The victory was Georgia’s first over Auburn in Sanford Stadium in twelve years. The Red and Black claimed a share of the division title with a 30-10 thrashing of the Kentucky Wildcats at home.
Against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets at historic Grant Field, the Bulldogs forced four turnovers and blocked a punt in a 34-17 win, and the Athenians returned to Atlanta one week later as the SEC East co-champion with the highest BCS ranking. Unfortunately, in the Georgia Dome, third-ranked Louisiana State showed how much the Bayou Bengals had improved since the two teams’ September showdown. The Red and Black fielded the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation, yet the Tigers racked up 444 yards of total offense and battered the Bulldogs, 34-13. The ‘Dawgs had not previously given up more than 29 points under defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
The loss sent the Classic City Canines to the Capital One Bowl, where Georgia won a 34-27 overtime thriller against the 12th-ranked Purdue Boilermakers, who finished 9-4 and dropped to No. 18 after the loss. The Bulldogs, who were ranked sixth in the final coaches’ poll and seventh in the season-ending sportswriters’ poll, lost three games, but those setbacks all came at the hands either of the eventual national champion or of the only team to beat the eventual national champion. Moreover, a second straight season with a double-digit victory total and an SEC Championship Game appearance demonstrated that, after Coach Richt’s squad knocked the lid off the program in 2002, Georgia had staying power among the conference and national elite.