Driving back from Athens (and the less said about that trip, the better) to Atlanta on a sunny Saturday, on a day when the Falcons were getting ready for a playoff game, there was only one topic — the Georgia Bulldogs.
“The most important game in Georgia history” was repeated often, even though it isn’t the first time that the Bulldogs have been in a game with national championship implications. After all, the 1980 Bulldogs played in a de facto national title game, beating Notre Dame 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl behind a freshman running back named Herschel Walker. There was even a president in attendance, with Jimmy Carter squeezing in as a lame duck.
All that seems awfully important and historic: Herschel! Notre Dame! Then, two years later, Walker had Georgia ranked No. 1 again, back in the Sugar Bowl against No. 2 Penn State in as close to a championship game as the old bowl system could produce. The Nittany Lions ended up winning and Walker moved on to the USFL where he eventually wound up playing with the New Jersey Generals under a personal services contract with Donald Trump. Never forget that this is a small world.
Those games were long ago, and there is a recency effect that makes things look larger in the present tense. But what factor, or combination of factors, would make this a program’s “most important game” ever? I don’t think it was just talk radio hyperbole. The pregame air in Athens and Atlanta was that combination of anticipation and apprehension that mark a game as a watershed moment. It’s a different feeling than you get in Tuscaloosa or Birmingham.
Alabama fans want to win, of course. But there’s a peculiar relationship to this year’s Crimson Tide, whether it’s a numbness brought on by the greatest nine-year run in college football history, or the fact this team lost to Auburn, or something else.
The game that is “the greatest” of the current Saban dynasty — the 2009 SEC Championship Game win against unbeaten Florida and Tim Tebow — came with its own battle cry. “Let’s go be champions,” the words spoken by quarterback Greg McElroy as Alabama took the field, were reflective of an attitude. If there is an attitude about this year’s team, a battle cry for the spoiled supporters, it would be more like “Hey, don’t mess up.”
Georgia is at that Alabama of 2009 place in time, or feels like it is. Yes, winning a championship would be exhilarating after 37 long years. But doing it against Alabama — a frequent source of frustration, the team that kept Mark Richt’s best team just five yards away from glory (the Bulldogs would have drubbed Notre Dame in 2012) — would be symbolic, the cap of a glorious year (wins over Notre Dame, Oklahoma and Alabama) and, in the mind of every Bulldog fan, the passing of the torch. They firmly believe it would give the Georgia program what it has never had — a dynasty not named Herschel.
Perhaps it’s not their time. Perhaps they are where Alabama was in 2008, a rising tide but not yet at the high-water mark. Perhaps it’s going to take more recruiting. Perhaps it will ultimately take Nick Saban slowing down, or looking for new worlds to conquer.
The mood in Georgia is that the Bulldogs’ time has finally come, that there’s been just enough crumbling of the Alabama foundation (and enough Alabama injuries) to make it possible, to prompt Kirby Smart to say on Saturday that this Crimson Tide is “more beatable” than it has been in a few years.
If so, perhaps this is Georgia’s time. Clemson thought this was its year to be the new “dynasty,” too. This may be Georgia’s “most important game ever.” But for Alabama, it’s one more chance to overcome circumstances — and remain the most important program in the sport.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.