The 1980 season has been on everyone’s minds lately in Athens, Ga., with an ongoing effort to draw parallels between this year’s team and the most memorable championship squad in Georgia football history.
Granted, every Georgia team is measured against the 1980 version, but few ever compare as favorably.
No doubt you’ve heard that the only two times the Bulldogs have ever played (and beaten) Notre Dame were in the Sugar Bowl following the 1980 season and Sept. 9 in South Bend, Ind.
The last two times Georgia got through the Florida game unbeaten and untied were 1980 and ’82 (when Georgia lost its perfect season and national title hopes to Penn State in the Sugar Bowl).
If you’re looking for more omens, here’s another one for you.
The only time since World War II that Georgia played South Carolina as late as November was 1980, in arguably the most memorable meeting in what has proved to be an entertaining border rivalry.
That was the day that Herschel Walker outplayed George Rogers between the hedges, rushing 43 times for 219 yards to a 35-carry, 168-yard effort by the eventual Heisman Trophy winner. Walker’s biggest impact play was a 76-yard touchdown run on the third play of the third quarter that left three Gamecocks defenders who seemed to have the angle on him grasping at his wake.
“Man did he turn it on when he had to,” Larry Munson growled on the radio. “Suddenly 9-0 and the Dogs lead and the stadium trembles and cracks a little bit.”
Rogers’ most significant play? Trailing 13-10 late, South Carolina was driving until Rogers had the ball pop high out of his hands at the 15 on his final carry of the day and the Junkyard Dawgs recovered to preserve the win.
A week later came the Lindsay Scott drama against Florida and the rest is glorious history that Georgia has been trying to live up to ever since.
Now here is Georgia – 8-0 and ranked No. 1 – facing a six-win South Carolina team in Athens for the first time since that 1980 season. The marquee value might not be as high as having two eventual Heisman winners square off, but the stakes are just as big.
The Gamecocks are a bigger danger than anyone imagined they would be when the schedule was released. Will Muschamp has fashioned back-to-back bowl eligible teams from the ashes left behind when Steve Spurrier quit in the middle of 2015.
“I think Will is doing a great job over there with the team, the morale, the energy they play with,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart of his former UGA teammate who helped get him his first coaching job at Valdosta State.
Nobody expects South Carolina to beat a significantly better Georgia team on Saturday afternoon, but that hasn’t stopped the Gamecocks before. And while Georgia fans are already looking ahead to a potential Southeastern Conference championship showdown with Alabama, the Gamecocks haven’t ruled out winning the SEC East themselves.
Upset the Bulldogs and hope Auburn does the same a week later and the Gamecocks could potentially represent the East in Atlanta.
“Our guys understand this is a big game,” said Muschamp. “I don’t need to tell them.”
“I think it’s definitely an opportunity to show the country how hard we’ve worked and what we’ve been able to overcome from two seasons ago,” said Gamecocks sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley. “Our goal is to win the East and we’ve always had that mindset of getting to Atlanta. This is a one-game season for us and we’re going to put all our energy and effort into this game and have fun on Saturday.”
It’s a tall order for South Carolina, but the pressure is still on Georgia. Perhaps even more so now that their playoff destiny has been laid out in front of them. Smart echoed his Alabama mentor Nick Saban in talking about the “rat poison” of positive press that the Crimson Tide has to deal with year after year.
“It’s just a distraction, so it is just a matter of who can manage it best and which team is mature enough to handle it because it has zero outcome on performance on Saturday,” Smart said of the weekly rankings the Bulldogs have been steadily climbing since starting the season at No. 15. “It’s only a distractive measure that we have to contend with.”
This is the 70th meeting between Georgia and South Carolina – the only rival the Gamecocks have played more often is Clemson (114). For what it’s worth, Georgia is 3-0 in November games against South Carolina, also winning the inaugural meeting 40-0 on Nov. 3, 1894 and 33-7 on Nov. 18, 1939.
Next season, the border rivalry will return to its usual early September date when it’s often served as a bellwether of things to come.
Georgia fans hope this late date on Nov. 4 foreshadows another great moment in Georgia history rather than cast a dark shadow like costly losses in 2002 and 2007.