In a conversation with D.J. Shockley about the torrent of transfers among college quarterbacks , the matter of the game he famously missed arose. It always does. It's one of the great What-Ifs in Georgia history. (And recent Georgia history is strewn with What-Ifs.)
Having waited four years -- one as a redshirt, three more as David Greene's understudy -- to be the No. 1 quarterback, Shockley had lifted the Bulldogs higher than most anybody figured. They were ranked No. 13 in the preseason Associated Press poll. After seven consecutive wins, they were No. 4. USC was No. 1, Texas No. 2 and Virginia Tech No. 3.
Shockley hurt his left knee in the first half of Victory No. 7 and didn't return. The Bulldogs held on to beat Arkansas 23-20, but the gloom had already descended. His injury was diagnosed as a sprain -- no surgery required, Mark Richt reported afterward -- but was listed as doubtful for the next week's game, which was against Florida in Jacksonville.
Florida had already lost twice -- to Alabama and LSU -- and was, with Georgia being unbeaten, all but out of the SEC East race. At that point, not winning the East had become a Gator trend. They hadn't done it in Steve Spurrier's final season, hadn't done it in any of Ron Zook's three years in charge. Now Urban Meyer was head ball coach in Gainesville, and there were still questions as to whether his spread offense, as imported from Utah, would cut it in the mighty SEC.
Game day in Jax -- it was Oct. 29, 2005 -- dawned with most folks figuring Shockley wouldn't play against the Gators but the Gators themselves not fully convinced. Here's Shockley: "I went out on the field before the game just to walk around, and Charlie Strong (then Florida's defensive coordinator, more recently head coach at Louisville and Texas, now at South Florida) started walking right behind me. He just followed me around. He wanted to make sure I wasn't going to play."
Shockley didn't. Georgia lost, barely. The Bulldogs cut the lead to 14-10 on a throwback pass from running back Thomas Brown to quarterback Joe Tereshinski III -- desperation is the mother of throwback passes -- but could draw no closer. When the new week's polls were released, the once-beaten Bulldogs had fallen to No. 11 and were well and truly out of the national championship race. (No playoff back then, only the BCS.)
Shockley returned for the next game -- Georgia had a bye in between -- and threw for 304 yards against Auburn. That was the Devin Aromashodu Game. The receiver caught a pass on fourth-and-10 with two minutes remaining and the Tigers down 30-28 and fled for what appeared to be the go-ahead touchdown. Georgia's Paul Oliver punched the ball loose just before Aromashodu crossed the goal line.
Auburn's Courtney Taylor recovered the fumble in the end zone. Officials signaled a touchdown, which would have been better for Georgia. (The Bulldogs and Shockley would have had 1:52 to answer, which they might well have done.) But the fumble couldn't be advanced by Auburn, only recovered. The ball was placed at the 3. John Vaughn kicked the game-winning field goal at 0:06.
That made Georgia 7-2. It would upset LSU in the SEC championship game -- Shockley was MVP -- to reach 10-2. That paired the Bulldogs against West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, relocated to the Georgia Dome because of Katrina. Georgia fell behind 28-0 and lost 38-35. They would finish 10th in the final AP poll. One talking point of that offseason: Did Willie Martinez, having just completed his first year as defensive coordinator, know what he was doing?
Another talking point. Let's Shockley had played against Florida and Georgia had won. Let's say the Aromashodu catch hadn't become an absolute-worst-case scenario. Let's say Georgia had been unbeaten after the SEC title game. Would it have played for the BCS title?
Nope. USC and Texas had started the season 1-2 in the polls. Neither lost. USC would have two Heisman winners in its backfield by the time the Rose Bowl arrived; in Vince Young, Texas had maybe the best player not to win a Heisman. The same thing that happened to Auburn in 2004 -- going undefeated but never being able to pass USC and Oklahoma, higher-ranked teams that didn't lose, either -- would have happened to the Bulldogs.
And would Georgia have beaten Florida with Shockley? One prominent figure seems to think so. Shockley again: "I ran into Urban a few years ago and I told him about Charlie Strong following me around. He laughed. He said, 'He knew there was no way we'd have stopped you.' "