Destiny or Dynasty?

“Great moments are born of great opportunities …
You were meant to be here. This is your time.
Their time is over … this is your time!”

Herb Brooks to 1980 US Hockey Team (as played by Kurt Russell)

Can the 2012 Georgia Bulldogs become the team of destiny their fans have dreamed of for three decades?

Can the Red and Black, last champions of the college football world in 1980, conjure up an inspired effort like the gold-medal winning Red, White, and Blue U.S. Hockey team from that same year?

Can this team, this underdog, take down its very own crimson menace, and the sport’s reigning bully?

To win … to become this team of destiny … Georgia has to dethrone a dynasty – the mighty Crimson Tide of Alabama.

When Georgia and Alabama meet in the Southeastern Conference championship game Saturday in Atlanta, the Bulldogs face not only a fearsome opponent, but also the pent up frustration of chronic unmet expectations. Bulldog players, coaches, fans, and followers consider the program elite, but since Georgia last won college football’s grand prize in 1980, five Southeastern Conference programs have captured a combined ten national championships. Imagine a grating drum roll for Georgia fans as you read the list.

1992 – Alabama
1996 – Florida
1998 – Tennessee
2003 – LSU
2006 – Florida
2007 – LSU
2008 – Florida
2009 – Alabama
2010 – Auburn
2011 – Alabama

Think that championship roster doesn’t gnaw at Dog fans? The perception of Georgia nationally is at odds with the Red and Black base. Fans in Tuscaloosa, Gainesville, and Baton Rouge … talk radio hosts in Birmingham, Nashville, and Atlanta … the pretty boys and girls talking on ESPN and Fox … all of them consider Georgia underachievers.

These five keys should decide whether Georgia can overcome the doubters and become a team of destiny Saturday afternoon.

1. Aaron Murray must outplay A.J. McCarron. If Murray comes back for his senior season, he will become the most prolific passer in SEC history. While the Dog QB has been maligned for coming up short in big games, those criticisms are perhaps off base. In losses to South Carolina this season, LSU (last year’s SEC title game), Boise State (last year’s season opener), and others, Murray faced defensive fronts that shut down Georgia’s running game and nullified any play action passing with a fierce pass rush. A.J. McCarron heard similar questions about whether he could handle the big stage until he proved himself in last year’s national championship game. That title game success muted criticism of McCarron’s less-than-stellar play in the Tide’s loss to Texas A&M. Murray should be the equal of McCarron (or better) and can prove it Saturday. But, he will need help … which takes us to a second key.

2. Georgia’s offensive line must play Alabama’s defensive front to a near-stalemate. The Dogs will not dominate Alabama up front. The Tide is too well-coached, seasoned, and disciplined on defense to get pushed around. But, they are not that big and they do not generate much of a pass rush from their front three. Nick Saban has a history of trying to completely take away at least one aspect of an opponent’s attack. I expect Saban and Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to do whatever it takes to stop Georgia’s rushing attack. As a counter, watch for Georgia to throw the ball a lot early … instead of running to set up the pass, Georgia should pass to open up some running lanes for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Gurley doesn’t need much space to keep the chains moving. If the Georgia offensive line can at least hold its own, that would be a net plus for the Bulldogs. While much attention has been paid to the pairing of Alabama’s great offensive front taking on Jarvis Jones and the Georgia defense, I think this is the more important matchup.

3. Alabama may be able to advantage of the aggressive Georgia secondary. Georgia has more talent on defense than anybody – including Alabama. Period. The Dogs are bigger and faster, and their edge in the secondary (even considering the Tide’s terrific Dee Milliner) is the most pronounced of the defensive position units on either side. The Bulldog defensive backs, especially safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo will support the run defense aggressively and deliver a strike. Still, they are at times too aggressive (a trait sure to be amplified in the heat of such a big game), prone to penalties and to biting on play fakes. Watch for Alabama to bait the Dog DBs with pump and go action, or simply with play action passes, and try to hit some deep balls. The Dogs secondary boasts great athletes, but they must play with controlled aggression.

4. Which team will deliver the big plays? Will Eddie Lacy rumble through tacklers for the Tide? Will T.J. Yeldon take a McCarron screen pass to the land of milk and honey like he did in the showdown with LSU? Will Milliner pick off Murray? Or, will the sublime Dog duo of insider linebacker Alec Ogletree (the best athlete on the field) and Jarvis Jones control the action, with Ogletree chasing down Tide runners sideline to sideline and Jones wreaking havoc in the Alabama backfield? Will Gurshall (the nickname for Gurley and Marshall in homage to the great Herschel Walker) provide the Dogs with a little thunder and lightning at the running back position. Will either team break a punt or kickoff return? Remember that the Honey Badger – Tyrann Mathieu of LSU – undid the Dogs in last year’s title game with punt and interception returns. Somebody is likely to make a big play … who?

5. Does Alabama realize the intensity they will face Saturday? Few of these Tide starters have played significant roles in an SEC championship game, many of the Dogs have. This is a hungry Bulldog team with unfinished business in the Georgia Dome. Last year they soundly outplayed LSU for a half, but crumbled under the pressure in the third and fourth quarters and got humiliated. Alabama took the backdoor into the national title game and missed the SEC championship. The Tide hasn’t been here since 2009 and it is an intense setting (the teams do not have five weeks to rest and prepare as they would in the national championship game). Beyond the players and staffs though … there is something deeper that I’m not sure many people have calculated. The Bulldog crowd, disappointed and mostly dormant for three decades, will absolutely dominate the Dome on Saturday afternoon – in numbers and intensity. If Georgia gets off to a quick start, it will ignite a passion – even fury – from Georgia fans that has not been seen since Munson was at the mike, since big #34 was stalking the end zone, since … since the Dogs were national champions. It would surprise me if Alabama realizes that potential factor.

Destiny … or dynasty.

This is Georgia’s game. This is Georgia’s season. This is their time.

Georgia 24 Alabama 20

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Flea Flickers and Fixes

Flea Flickers and Fixes: A Brief History of the Alabama-Georgia Rivalry

Much of the history of the Alabama-Georgia series is strange.

The schools sit just 275 miles apart, and often have represented the class of the Southeastern Conference, but Saturday’s SEC Championship Game will only be the 15th meeting between the Dogs and the Tide in the past 47 years, and their 66th overall meeting.

The schools played football against one another for the first time in 1895, with the immortal Pop Warner leading the Dogs to one of his 319 career victories – a 30-6 conquest played in the border town of Columbus, Georgia (one of six cities to host the game over the years). A six-year hiatus followed as the fledgling sport found its footing on both campuses, then varsity squads met every season from 1901 to 1965 excepting a couple of years during World War I and a five-year drought during the depression-era 1930s.

Alabama leads the overall series 36-25 with 4 ties. The game has been played on Alabama soil 39 times, with the Peach State welcoming the matchup 26 times. For a couple of decades in the 1920s and 1930s, Birmingham was the host city – much like Jacksonville is home to the annual Georgia-Florida game.

A sensational accusation of game-fixing influenced the decision to put the series on hold after 1965.

The Fix

“Well, what the heck could Wally Butts do for you?”
Robert F. “Bobby” Kennedy to Paul W. “Bear” Bryant, March 1963

Just months before his brother’s fateful trip to Dallas, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy met with Alabama’s Bear Bryant in Washington (at the behest of mutual friend Bud Wilkinson, the Oklahoma football coach already considering a move into politics … he encouraged Bryant to do the same and suggested he meet with RFK). During their discussion, Bryant mentioned a pending Saturday Evening Post article (March 23, 1963) that would accuse the Alabama icon, and Georgia Athletics Director Wally Butts, of conspiring to fix the 1962 Alabama-Georgia game. Kennedy’s sardonic reply to the charge reflected the ease with which the Tide had rolled to a 35-0 victory (in a game remembered mostly as the college debut of Joe Namath).

Butts sued the Post for $10 million and was awarded a judgment of $3,060,000 (the amount was eventually lowered and Butts received around $136,000 after taxes). Bryant also sued and ended up settling out of court for $300,000 – tax free.

While cleared in court, the ugly episode played a role in moving Georgia and Alabama to the back of the rotation when the SEC implemented a new scheduling format after the 1965 season. The teams would play only ten more times over the next thirty-five years … four times in the 1970s, twice in the 1980s, and four more times in the 1990s.

The 1965 game was a memorable way to conclude that historical era of the series.

The Flea Flicker

“The most exciting play I’ve ever seen …”
Bud Wilkinson on NBC telecast of Georgia-Alabama 1965

Vince Dooley opened his second season in Athens with the unenviable task of facing Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide. Bryant and Alabama were in the midst of a remarkable 45-4-1 regular season mark over the past five years, and were the defending wire service national champions. The Bear had welcomed the Dog’s young leader to big-time college football the year before with a 31-3 pasting in Dooley’s first game.

The 34-year old upstart upstaged the master in Sanford Stadium on September 18, 1965.

The Dogs jumped to a quick lead on a Bobby Etter field goal, and soon pushed it to 10-0 in the first quarter when left defensive tackle Jiggy Smaha deflected a Steve Sloan pass and right defensive tackle (and eventual two-time All-American) George Patton grabbed the interception and scored on a 55-yard return.

The Tide fought back all afternoon and finally overtook the Dogs by a 17-10 advantage late in the fourth quarter. Enter a trio and a play etched in Georgia lore.

Backup quarterback Kirby Moore (playing in place of injured Preston Ridlehuber) threw a short pass to end Pat Hodgson in the right flat. An instant later Hodgson tossed a lateral to sweeping Bob Taylor and the halfback raced down the right sideline for a 73-yard touchdown. Dooley then refused to settle for a tie (no overtime back when football was played like it should be!) and went for the two-point conversion, which Moore successfully completed with another pass to Hodgson.

Alabama would recover to win the 1965 national title (jumping from 5th to 1st after the bowls), but it was the Dogs who sent the soon-to-be-dormant series out in style with that classic 18-17 victory.

What Might Have Been

Over the next 35 years college football fans missed out on what could have been memorable match-ups between the two premier programs in the SEC.

In the dozen seasons between 1971 and 1982, Alabama and Georgia won every SEC title. From 1978 to 1980, the two schools won or shared all three national championships. Alabama won the SEC in 1977, 1978, and 1979. Georgia won the SEC in 1980, 1981, and 1982. They rarely met on the field during those halcyon days of dominance (playing twice in the mid-1970s).

Nick Saban gets to face Gur-Shall on Saturday (the moniker given to Georgia’s freshmen tailback tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall), but the Bear never had to defend against Herschel.

From Pop Warner to Flea Flickers, Fixes, and what might have been … the strange story of the Alabama-Georgia series.

Visit The Campus Game again this week for the SEC Championship Game preview and Professor’s Prediction.

Old America – New America

Will Oregon win a BCS championship and signal the ascendance of “New America” even on the football field?

Or will Kansas State, Notre Dame, or one from a horde of SEC challengers slow the fade of “Old America” by shooting down the Ducks?

We will not know for another several weeks, but the battle lines drawn during this year’s political contests seem to be spilling over to the gridiron.

Consider:

“New America” supposedly represents an ever-changing, fast-paced society … is anything faster-paced than Oregon’s offense (which leads the nation in scoring)? Forget about going to the fridge when the Ducks have the ball, odds are you’ll miss four plays and a touchdown before you pour the Coca-Cola.

“New America” supposedly represents a sprawling, teeming mishmash of a multi-cultural populace … Oregon features a star quarterback from Hawaii in Marcus Mariota (and seven other islanders), a slithering, slippery Black Mamba from South Central Los Angeles (De’Anthony Thomas), a Dane from the North Pole (WR Dane Ebanez from North Pole, Alaska), an exotic-sounding Canadian (LB Boseko Lokombo from British Columbia), and other players hailing from Florida to the great Northwest.

“New America” supposedly represents the need for Uncle Sam to act as a sugar daddy, giving out treats galore to citizens eager for the freebies … the Ducks feature Phil Knight, founder of Nike and the biggest athletic booster of them all, his largesse resulting in palatial football facilities, and more uniform combinations than a mathematics professor could calculate.

So, is “Old America” resigned to the slag heap of history, destined to go the way of the wing-T, leather helmets, and quick kicks? Maybe not.

Consider:

“Old America” treasures conservative values like a strong defense. The five closest pursuers to Oregon – Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida – all rank in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, with the Tide, Irish, and Florida making up the top three (Bama and ND are tied at #1 this week). The Ducks rank 30th – tied with Minnesota.

“Old America” honors tradition and experience. Does any team have the tradition of Notre Dame? The pedigree of Alabama? The stolid leadership and experience of Bill Snyder at K-State? The Tide and Irish have combined for more football national titles than any other two schools. Bill Snyder could have been the model for the farmer in American Gothic.

“Old America” supposedly believes in doing things the old-fashioned way. Bill Snyder played defensive back in college, earned his stripes as an assistant coach with John McKay and Hayden Fry, and built K-State from arguably the worst program in America to a team that would be in the championship game if the season ended today. Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly played linebacker in college, and worked his way up through head coaching stops at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and Cincinnati before landing the Irish gig in 2010. Nick Saban played defensive back in college, worked under Bill Belichick, has led programs at Toledo, Michigan State, LSU, and the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. Oh, he has also won three BCS championships. Mark Richt of Georgia played QB under Howard Schnellenberger at Miami, and spent two decades with Bobby Bowden at Florida State. Will Muschamp of Florida played defensive back at Georgia and coached under Saban, Tommy Tuberville, and Mack Brown. By contrast, Chip Kelly never played college football and worked his way up through non-traditional programs at Columbia, Johns Hopkins, and New Hampshire.

New America won a presidential election last week, and (as represented by Oregon) looks favored to win another championship in early January.

Old America took a kick to the stomach in the 2012 election, but Kansas State, Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida are anxious for an opportunity to show the old ways still work pretty well.

New America.

Old America.

College football 2012.