The tears have dried, the confetti has fallen, and the University of Georgia Bulldogs are champions of college football. It took 41 years, thousands of snaps, and plays that live on in the hearts and minds of fans, but those who sport the red and black are finally national champions once again.
There’s the Prayer at Jordan-Hare, 2012 Georgia-Alabama, 2nd and 26, and the 2018 SEC Championship game. These plays live on in infamy, and there is not a Georgia fan in the world who doesn’t remember where they were. To many, it seems they would go through it all again to hoist the College Football Playoff trophy.
Years of Heartbreak
Fans recall tearing their hair out as Josh Harvey-Clemmons tried to intercept the ball when it ricocheted into the waiting hands of Ricardo Louis and Auburn walked away with a 43-38 win. For many current UGA students, it was one of the formative memories of their college football viewing experience: a bitter loss against a hated rival marked what was one of the most agonizing eight years in football.
Then there’s 2nd and 26, possibly the most infamous play in Georgia history. The Bulldogs held a lead the entire game, but Alabama came storming back from down 20-3 and were on the verge of turning the tide of the game when they were forced to punt. Tyler Simmons got a clean break and dove towards the punter, where it was immediately blocked. Much to Georgia fans’ chagrin, he was incorrectly ruled offsides and the play was nullified.
Unfortunately, that’s not the play Georgia fans fail to forget. The game would go to overtime, and Georgia kicked a field goal to lead the game 23-20. Georgia defensive standouts Jonathan Ledbetter and Davin Bellamy sacked Tua Tagovailoa for a 16-yard loss, and the entire stadium at Mercedes-Benz was on its feet, anticipating the first national title in over 35 years, and one won only 90 miles from home.
That’s when disaster struck: Tua Tagovailoa hit Devonta Smith over the middle, and he waltzed past an all-time great safety in Dominick Sanders for a game-ending score. The unthinkable had happened, and the title had been wrestled from the waiting hands of a program that had been oh-so-close for as long as many could remember. Many in the stands, including myself, failed to grapple with the reality that Georgia had fallen short once again.
Grown men cried like children, and the younger ones at the game were inconsolable. Those who hurt the most, though, were the long-suffering alumni that had seen the years of mediocrity under Ray Goff and Jim Donnan and hadn’t tasted victory since the days of Herschel Walker. Those grizzled fans had been buried under decades of promise and failure and had seen the blossoming careers of NFL greats such as Thomas Davis, Garrison Hearst, Matthew Stafford, and AJ Green fly by as the school struggled to find relevance.
It seemed as though Georgia would never get there, remaining the Sisyphus of college football: eternally doomed to push a boulder to the top of a hill until Alabama or others found a way to send it crashing down; taking the enthusiasm of Georgia football fans with it.
This year, however, seemed different. On paper, it could have been easier to compare it to the 2017 Rose Bowl champion team, but 2021’s bunch made waves early in the season. This team had an incredible defense not only held together by one of the most talented front sevens to ever exist in the history of football but its chemistry and mutual respect. Everyone seemed to be playing for each other, not just themselves.
The Beginning of the Reign
Early on, the ‘Dawgs defense led by Heisman favorite Jordan Davis and all-world linebacker in Nakobe Dean dominated everyone they played, and it was not just due to the success of those two. Channing Tindall, South Carolina’s own, came into his own after years of waiting behind other incredible inside linebackers such as Monty Rice and Tae Crowder, two NFL standouts. Jalen Carter seemed to be everywhere on the field, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop them.
Even when Adam Anderson was forced away from the team for legal reasons, Robert Beal, 4th year senior and former blue-chip recruit that never got that break, stepped into the shoes of a projected first-rounder and played a crucial role in the team, leading them with five and a half sacks on the season in little over eight games.
They began to roll, and the suffocating defense led them to wins against Clemson, Florida, Auburn, and everyone else in their path. Everything was well and good until the SEC Championship game when Georgia was torched for 41 points and quarterback Stetson Bennett looked hapless, throwing several crucial interceptions. Again, the familiar question of Alabama arose: could the Bulldogs do enough to win a title?
Many said no, even after the Orange Bowl where Stetson Bennett and company throttled two-seed Michigan 34-11 behind Bennett’s two touchdown passes and several other scores. It seemed the kid from Blackshear, Georgia who had dreamed of playing for Georgia as long he could remember was going to get a shot at silencing the doubt and bringing home a trophy.
He did exactly that. Overcoming a shaky start where he almost fumbled and took a sack and going three-and-out several times, the offense rode the momentum, taking a 13-9 lead behind Zamir White’s touchdown. Things seemed to turn in their favor, but Georgia fans (the author included) were nothing but skeptical. After all, it seemed to be the same movie as before.
When Georgia turned the ball over and Alabama scored, the Bulldog faithful began to steel themselves for the inevitable. Georgia stopped a two-point conversion, thanks to an incredible play from Nolan Smith, but it seemed all was headed in the wrong direction.
It looked as if Alabama was picking up momentum, and it was going to be the same old story. Die-hard fans knew how it went and looked at each other with the same resigned expression they always did: they’d get it next year.
Stetson Bennett had other ideas, dropping a fantastic 40-yard touchdown pass to freshman Adonai Mitchell, and then following it up with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brock Bowers on their next offensive drive.
Georgia now lead 26-18, and Heisman Winner Bryce Young and company took over at their own 25 with 3:27 to go. Almost everyone, including the author’s father, was certain that it would head to overtime, and the fanbase was dead set on not going through the same heartbreak again.
After a methodical two-minute drive, Bryce Young unleashed a pass downfield, and cornerback Kelee Ringo leapt into the air and intercepted it, racing towards the end zone in what can only be described as the most cathartic moment in sporting history. One can only picture the scene in Athens: throngs of fans screamed for Ringo to score, and when he did, it was set.
The confetti began to fall after Bryce Young was sacked on the final play of the game, and the long wait was over. Georgia was finally national champions. It almost seemed made-for-TV: the walk-on quarterback led a team constantly counted out to the promised land. Speaking of, fans waited longer for a national title than the Israelites wandered in the desert. Eventually, they would both find the promised land.
Everyone watching was shocked, and the author and his family jumped in the air, unable to believe what they were seeing. “They’ve done it! They’re national champions!” seemed to be a common refrain, and it took over a day for it to sink in for many. Finally, a title would come back to Athens, and with it, invaluable memories of a season and a game where they had done the unthinkable.
Advice for Fellow Bulldog Fans
There’s no reason to wait around for another 41 years, but it puts things into perspective: enjoy things as they come, because it may be four decades later that we see them again. Savor the confetti, the parties, and the titles, along with the people that come with them.
It’s not hard to say that the Georgia faithful “deserved” it, but this diminishes the accomplishments of the players. They played to a standard not many can replicate, and deserve all the credit in the world. Recognize the work they put in, and just enjoy the title. There’s nothing more you can do other than enjoy it.
Lastly, use this as a means of finding some positivity: many grew up on the cynicism and wit of Larry Munson, which is well and good, but it’s time for a change from the defeatist mentality of old. Georgia football has proven far and away that they are no longer at the whims of a greater cosmic force, something akin to eternal purgatory.
They have surmounted the insurmountable and have brought home a national title and done so in the face of injury after injury and unfortunate circumstance. To say that Larry Munson is somewhere smiling down on the ‘Dawgs is an apt way to put it: he would have loved to see it, and would have ended up smiling just like the rest of us.
Please, just enjoy it. Hug your friends and your family, and take stock of the way the world was 41 years ago in the time of Herschel Walker and Buck Belue. Most of us won’t be around if we wait that long for another title, so you need to find as much pleasure in this as you can. After all, it’s not every day that a “curse” is broken. Go ‘Dawgs.
Featured Image Credits to Embed from Getty Images