UGA’s path to a rare national title: first the Rose Bowl, then Atlanta

The quarterback of the University of Georgia’s most recent national-champion football team understands, perhaps better than most, the magnitude of the prize the current Bulldogs seek to win. 

“What I was thinking in 1980 was, ‘Gosh, this is such an awesome opportunity because it has been so rare for us,’” Buck Belue recalled. “You just cherished the opportunity to make it happen – for yourself, the team, the school, the fan base, everybody.” 

Almost four decades later, a shot at a national championship remains a rare occurrence for Georgia’s football program, explaining the frenzy in which Bulldog Nation currently finds itself. 

By the time the 1980 Bulldogs came along, it had been 38 years since Georgia’s 1942 team, led by star players Frank Sinkwich and Charley Trippi, won UGA’s first consensus national championship. And now it has been almost as long – 37 years – since the 1980 Bulldogs, led by Herschel Walker, won the national title. 

Georgia is two wins from making such history again, needing to beat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., on Monday and then Alabama or Clemson in the College Football Playoff championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Jan. 8. 

Two more wins, and the Bulldogs and their passionate fan base will have made it back to the top of the college football world, finally. 

“There’s still, hopefully, two more big tests to pass, but right now all of our dreams are coming true,” said Jeff Dantzler, an Athens radio personality and lifelong UGA fan. 

That the Bulldogs’ playoff path begins in the iconic Rose Bowl, where Georgia last played 75 years ago, and potentially could end in Atlanta amplifies the excitement. 

“As excited as everybody is about the Rose Bowl against mighty Oklahoma, if Georgia can win this one, I think the next week is going to be insane,” Dantzler said. “Especially considering the opponent would be either Clemson, which is an ancient rival, or Alabama, which has been the kingpin.” 

Not coincidentally, the biggest names in UGA football history were part of the school’s rare national championship teams.

Three of the four Bulldogs whose jersey numbers have been retired played on those teams -- Sinkwich, Trippi and Walker. Georgia’s athletics headquarters building, Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, bears the name of the coach of the 1942 team, Wally Butts. A nearby statue depicts the coach of the 1980 team, Vince Dooley, hoisted on the shoulders of two players. 

If Georgia wins two more games, names from this season’s team may be similarly celebrated across the state for generations to come -- Kirby Smart, a former UGA player in just his second season as the Bulldogs’ coach; Nick Chubb, a tailback who has more career rushing yards than any player in SEC history except Walker; Sony Michel, another star tailback; Roquan Smith, winner of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top collegiate linebacker; Jake Fromm, a freshman who has thrived as the unexpected starting quarterback after an injury to Jacob Eason in the season opener; and others. 

Speaking from personal experience, Belue said a national championship would be “life-changing” for the players involved. 

“There is a sense of pride and a bond in just knowing you were part of a team that got it done,” said Belue, now 58 and a long-time Atlanta sports-radio host. “When you speak to a local Rotary Club or Touchdown Club down the road, you are introduced as a national champion at Georgia. That’s meaningful stuff. 

“I think it does open some doors for you. Then you’ve got to go in and produce.” 

Belue added with a knowing laugh: “And I’m just guessing here that if they get it done, Fromm is going to get a lot of free golf in the years to come.” 

The last time Georgia claimed college football’s national championship, Jimmy Carter was finishing his term as president. Smart had just turned 5 years old. 

The Bulldogs have had some painful near-misses since then, including the 1982 team’s 27-23 Sugar Bowl loss to Penn State with the national title at stake and the 2012 team’s 32-28 SEC Championship game loss to Alabama with a berth in the national-title game on the line. 

Compounding Georgia’s angst, teams from bordering states – Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Florida and Florida State -- have won eight of the past nine national championships. 

“That has been excruciating,” said Dantzler, 45, a Bulldogs historian. “And so many of those teams won with a lot of players from Georgia. The feeling was, ‘Why not us? When is it going to be our time again?’ And now the feeling is, ‘This is our time.’ 

“There’s also this feeling that it’s not going to be a one-and-done type thing. The potential is there, with what (Smart) is doing in recruiting, for Georgia to be a regular contender for SEC championships and for the playoffs.” 

Georgia’s 1980 national championship was undisputed: The Bulldogs’ 17-10 victory over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 1981, capped an undefeated season and earned the Bulldogs the No. 1 ranking in all of the major polls of the time, including the Associated Press and coaches’ polls. 

The 1942 team’s championship was more convoluted. Georgia finished No. 1 in six rankings systems, the school’s basis for claiming years later, at Dooley’s prodding, a “consensus” championship for that season. Ohio State finished No. 1 in five rankings systems, including the Associated Press poll, which at the time didn’t account for bowl games. 

While Georgia defeated UCLA 9-0 in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1943 – the Bulldogs’ trip to Pasadena took four days by train -- Ohio State didn’t play in a bowl. The Buckeyes also claim the national title for that season. 

In three other seasons – 1927, 1946 and 1968 – Georgia was ranked No. 1 in at least one of the many final national polls, although other teams were the widely recognized champions in each of those years. 

The method of determining college football’s national champion changed most recently in 2014 with the advent of the four-team playoff. Georgia is in the playoff for the first time, conveniently coinciding with the first season the national champion will be crowned in Atlanta. 

“Having a local team involved in the championship game ... would provide a really cool and unique experience for metro Atlanta,” said Dan Corso, president of the Atlanta Sports Council. “It would be (a scene) like we’ve never seen.” 

But to play for the national championship in a new stadium about 70 miles from their campus, the Bulldogs first must win a game in a 95-year-old stadium, designated a National Historic Landmark, some 2,200 miles away.

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