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August 2, 2011

Biggest Bulldog Season Opener Ever?

1982 Georgia-Clemson: Perhaps the only "bigger" season-opening football
game in Bulldog history than this year's? 
While recently listening to the radio of the increasing pregame chatter and hype of the Georgia-Boise State game, it suddenly dawned on me that perhaps the biggest season-opening game in UGA football history will kickoff less than five weeks from now.

If how big is determined by the amount of anticipation, buildup, how evenly matched the teams are perceived to be, and, simply put, a season-opening victory for Georgia is highly desired, there have been few first games in Bulldog history that can quite compare to the upcoming affair with the Broncos.

However, after some deep reminiscing and pouring over notes I've made in my past research, I've compiled my opinion of Georgia's "biggest" season openers in its rich football history, a portion of which are at least comparable to the upcoming opener.

The fact my entire top 10 is of games from more than 20 years ago is no coincidence as Georgia has often began its season with a patsy over the last two decades; 12 of the Bulldogs' 20 season openers from 1991 to 2010 were against non-BCS schools.  In a way, this recent trend of facing a "sure-win" makes the season-opening game of 2011 even that much bigger; so big that the Boise game would certainly crack the top half of my rankings, if not possess the top spot.

10) 1978 vs. Baylor: Georgia was coming off what would be its only losing season of the Coach Dooley era, and things looked even bleaker as the Bulldogs had lost their all-time leading rusher (Kevin McLee) and eight starting "Junkyard Dogs" on defense.  Baylor was forecasted to be one of the favorites in the SWC and, like only one other visiting team to Athens over the previous decade, was actually favored to defeat Georgia in Sanford Stadium.  In the Bulldogs' first televised season opener in 10 years, the seemingly dismal Dawgs needed a victory in the worst way in a critical (what would now be called) "statement game"...Georgia makes a statement, 16-14.
9) 1903 vs. Clemson: In 1902, Coach Billy Reynolds had guided the Red and Black to one of its best seasons in the program's short history and even better was expected in '03, especially considering the return of Georgia's great center and captain Harold "War Eagle" Ketron.  Soon-to-be legend John Heisman had coached Clemson to a 15-2-1 record in three seasons, including three wins over Georgia by a combined 104-to-10 score.  Nevertheless, the 1903 Red and Black appeared to be every bit as good as Clemson, especially since the foe had to travel to Athens...Just over a week prior to the game, Reynolds leaves for a business opportunity in Canada, leaving a halfback - Marvin Dickinson - as head coach, plus, much of the team is handicapped by smallpox vaccinations only a few days beforehand.  Clemson routs Georgia again, 29-0.

8) 1988 vs. Tennessee: In Coach Dooley's final and silver anniversary season, the 12th-ranked Bulldogs opened against No. 18 Tennessee on ESPN in a game some believed pitted the conference's two best teams.  Georgia's "Four Horsemen" backfield of fullback Alphonso Ellis, tailbacks Rodney Hampton and Tim Worley, and fullback Keith Henderson - the latter two missing the previous season due to academics - gave the Bulldogs what was considered arguably the best ground game in the nation.  However, Tennessee was regarded as just as lethal on offense and the "experts" recognized the Vols as only four-point underdogs in Athens...Vol QB Jeff Francis passes for 354 yards but the Horsemen rush for 414 in a 28-17 Georgia win.
7) 1955 vs. Ole Miss: In a time when Georgia hosting on "The Flats" was considered more of an attraction than the Bulldogs in their own stadium, the 1955 football season began in unique fashion as organized was a day-night doubleheader at Grant Field: Georgia Tech-Miami (Fla) in the first game - televised nationally in rare color - and Georgia-Ole Miss at night.  Coach Johnny Vaught's Rebels had won the SEC the season before and entered ranked 15th in the nation.  Georgia, forecasted as most likely exceeding its 6-3-1 record of 1954, was considered a darkhorse to win the conference and just a one-point underdog in the night-time affair.  The TV cameras would be turned off following Tech-Miami, but the following Bulldogs-Rebels contest was anticipated with just as much excitement...Ole Miss wins, 26-13.

6) 1927 vs. Virginia: In the 1910s-1920s, there may have been no bigger football rival of Georgia's than the University of Virginia, while few teams in the South were as good as the acclaimed Wahoos of Coach Earle Neale. Back when Homecoming was a big deal, it was the first (and last) time the annual event was held on a season opener. Georgia coach George Woodruff addressed a large crowd just prior to the game, indicating that 1927 would his fifth and final year at UGA as he would be leaving for business opportunities in Columbus. Little was expected of the Bulldogs against Virginia that day, while many students were likely looking more forward to that night when Kike Kyser's Orchestra was playing at the Homecoming dance; nevertheless, the game was billed as one of the most anticipated in all of college football...Georgia shockingly wins with ease, 32-0.

5) 1985 vs. Alabama: For the second time in four years, a Bulldog football game was moved back to Labor Day night to accommodate ABC-TV and its nationally-televised audience.  Both the Dawgs and Tide were looking to rebound from disappointing '84 campaigns and, by all indications, each would be vastly improved.  Georgia entered ranked 19th in the coaches poll and was playing at home in Sanford Stadium, yet the game was set at even odds.  Whether freshman Wayne Johnson or sophomore James Jackson, the Bulldogs would be starting their first black quarterback in history, while the greatest college football player of all time, Herschel Walker, was joining three others and having his jersey retired at halftime...The Bell tolls and the Bulldogs lose a tough one, 16-13.

4) 1919 vs. The Citadel: Imagine nearly three entire years without Georgia football and replaced by a World War. That's what the Red and Black faithful experienced leading up to the season opener of 1919 along with the unfortunate death of five 1916 players in wartime battle. Just prior to the Citadel game, no one could figure how good (or bad) Georgia would be after the long hiatus, only that football had finally returned to Athens and along with it, Georgia Tech's "Bum" Day. Bum wanted to attend UGA until the school decided not to field a team during war, forcing Day to go to Tech, where he earned All-American honors in 1918. As soon as football was back at Georgia, Bum transferred to where he wanted to go all along...With Day playing center and kicking on the opening kickoff, Georgia prevails 28-0 in its return to the gridiron.
Dan Davis catches a touchdown from Fran Tarkenton
 for Georgia's lone score vs. Alabama in '60

3) 1960 vs. Alabama: With nearly all of the 1959 SEC championship team returning,  there were high expectations for the 13th-ranked Bulldogs in 1960 (the only time Georgia was preseason ranked in the first 17 years of the preseason AP Poll - 1950 through 1966).  After a decade of mediocrity, Alabama was steadily improving under the direction of third-year coach Paul "Bear" Bryant and had been to its first bowl game in six years the season before.  Like most of the Tide's "important" games back then, the season opener with Georgia was played in Birmingham and for the first time in Bulldog history for a regular-season contest, the game was televised nationally.  It was advertised as college football's biggest game of the week, if not the entire year, and the odds were set at dead even...'Bama handles the Dogs 21-6 and remarkably moves from being unranked in the AP prior to the victory to No. 5 in the nation immediately afterwards.

2) 1968 vs. Tennessee: Georgia had been disappointing in '67, losing four games after being preseason ranked 6th, while the Vols won the SEC and finished No. 2 in the nation.  In the offseason, Tennessee had installed state-of-the-art Tartan Turf at Neyland Stadium without the SEC's permission and the Bulldogs were quite infuriated by the underhanded move.  Televised nationally by ABC, 9th-ranked Tennessee would have a homefield advantage like no other, and against a Bulldog team that was predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in the SEC.  The Vols were near-touchdown favorites, but in four seasons at Georgia, a young Coach Dooley had proven a knack for pulling an upset every so often...In what should've been a Bulldog victory, the game ends in a 17-17 tie but Georgia goes from previously unranked to 18th after the draw.

1) 1982 vs. Clemson: The buildup for the '82 season opener between No. 7 Georgia and 11th-ranked Clemson was likely greater than any Bulldog regular-season game before and maybe since.  It was a battle between the two previous season's national champions in a bitter rivalry that had been escalating in recent years.  Previously scheduled for 12 days later, the game was moved back to a 9:11 PM kickoff on Labor Day night so that ABC could broadcast the highly anticipated opener, and even though Georgia would be hosting a high-flying BYU team just four-and-a-half days later on Saturday.  Sanford Stadium had no lights at the time, so nearly $1 million was spent on permanent lighting after temporary lights were first considered.  Despite Heisman-favorite Herschel Walker suffering a broken thumb and declared out for the game, Vegas set the Dawgs as a half-point favorite...Herschel did play a little, but he was hardly needed in a 13-7 Georgia victory.

HONORABLE MENTION: 1892 (Mercer) - for obvious reasons, 1900 (Georgia Tech), 1950 (Maryland), 1965 (Alabama), 1975 (Pittsburgh), 1976 (California), 1980 (Tennessee), 1983 (UCLA), 1990 (LSU), and 2003 (Clemson).

SPECIAL MENTION - 1953 vs. Villanova: Coming off a 7-1-1 season, the Wildcats were deemed the "best of the east" and would host Georgia at Philadelphia's giant Municipal Stadium.  The game's attendance would be nearly 100,000 strong and the largest crowd Georgia would play in front over the next 44 years, in what was being called the "Supermarket Bowl," and for good reason


Anonymous said...

Patrick- good article like usual. I might put 80 Tenn in the top 10 and replace 03 Clem with 02 Clem in the honorable mention, but it's definitely a good list. Also, I'm an old dog fan, been going to games since the 60s and remember a lot of these...i have a question. You sure we weren't ranked going into 68 Tenn? I'm pretty sure that tie game was against two highly ranked teams. Thanks and will look forward to your response. Stanley.

IveyLeaguer said...

Good stuff, Patrick. But how could you possibly not rank Georgia-Alabama 1965? Alabama is defending national champion, ranked #1, national TV, flea-flicker finish with loudest noise ever made at Sanford ... one of the greatest Georgia games ever.

Also, the 1968 game belongs right up there where you put it. I'll never forget that game.

Patrick Garbin said...

Hi, Stanley. Thanks for your comments. Yes, Georgia wasn't ranked in the AP's preseason top 20 heading into 1968 and not even listed in the poll's 15 "other receiving votes" teams. Looks like the so-called experts were way off in forecasting what would eventually be an undefeated regular season for the Bulldogs...

Patrick Garbin said...

Hi, IveyLeaguer.

I kept the '65 Alabama game out of my top 10 because, although there certainly was a lot of buildup and anticipation for it, the Crimson Tide was a two-touchdown favorite, whereas the top games were perceived to all be relatively close games. And, my rankings were all about how "big" each game was heading into the contest, so the end result (e.g., the flea-flicker) wasn't considered.

Like always, thanks for reading and your comments.

Anonymous said...

You wrote that 12 of the Bulldogs' 20 season openers from 1991 to 2010were against non-BCS schools. I just wanted to point out that # 5BSU is a non-BCS school too. Kind of odd that the biggest season opener in UGA history is against a non-BCS powerhouse.

Anonymous said...

IveyLeaguer - Nebraska was AP's 1965 pre-season #1.
Alabama, like BSU, was ranked #5, so I guess that game ranks right up there with this one, but as far as the biggest game in UGA history, I'll have to lean on the BSU game considering the state of UGA's program