It long has been a college football dictum that teams which challenge for a major conference championship shall be long on experience, big in size, loaded in talent, deep in reserves, and as obviously so as a blocked punt. So let us examine the Georgia Bulldogs, who lead the Southeastern Conference with a 4-0 record. Certainly Alabama, the Bulldogs' closest rival with a 3-0 conference record, fits all the qualifications, but the green, lean, none-too-star-studded Bulldogs are one of the most intriguing surprises of the 1978 season.
As of last Saturday night in Lexington, when Georgia overcame a 16-point deficit to beat Kentucky 17-16 on a field goal that was its last offensive play of the game, the 16th-ranked Bulldogs had a 6-1 record and had knocked off four straight SEC opponents by a combined score of 114-46. With that, alumni began inquiring about hotel rooms for the Sugar Bowl, and T shirts emblazoned with HOW ABOUT THEM DAWGS? were the hot item on the Athens campus.
All this from a team whose roster includes but 11 seniors, a club whose coach, Vince Dooley, admits, "It's not a great team, we don't have enough really good players," and one whose quarterback says, "If we don't play well, we can get beat by anyone on our schedule. We just don't have the natural ability and we're not going to outclass a lot of people on sheer talent."
What Georgia does have is character, a running back named Willie McClendon and a knack for playing near errorless football. The Bulldogs also are blessed with the kind of unity other teams only read about and a winning attitude that owes a large measure of thanks to the media.
For along with their vanquished opposition, the Bulldogs have embarrassed a host of football writers, nearly all of whom predicted the kind of season Georgians experienced when General Sherman was messing up their magnolias. In 1977 Georgia's record was 5-6 as the team committed a school-record 57 fumbles. Moreover, Georgia had lost 20 lettermen and had 36 sophomores and freshmen on its roster. Only three starters were returning to the "Junkyard Dogs" defense that had taken Georgia to the Sugar Bowl at the end of the 1976 season.
"If Dooley can produce a winner this year," one preview ran, "he's truly a magician. Four victories look like the maximum, and the Vandy game could very well decide who dwells in the SEC cellar this year." Dooley, who is in his 15th year as Georgia coach, didn't expect much more himself. "I thought we would do well if we had a winning season," he says.
When the Bulldogs read of their impending wretchedness, however, they did a slow burn that may fire them all the way back to the Sugar Bowl. "Those stories just got everybody a little hacked off," says Quarterback Jeff Pyburn, whose father Jim coaches the defensive ends and linebackers. "I don't think anyone took into account that we had a lot of guys on this team who wanted to fight. That's brought us a long way."
Indeed, of the factors accounting for the Bulldogs' success, internal competition probably is the primary one. Spring practice was one of the most competitive in Dooley's memory, and the fight for starting positions intensified when freshmen, like Split End Lindsay Scott and Defensive Guard Jimmy Payne, joined the team in the fall.
The freshmen have done more than spur the veteran Bulldogs to greater effort. Scott, a 17-year-old public relations major, is the team's leading pass receiver and a special teams player whose 99-yard kickoff return against LSU sparked Georgia to a 24-17 win at Baton Rouge. Payne leads the Bulldogs in sacks.
The Bulldog offense also has performed with more effectiveness this season as the result of a change from the veer to the I. Including the Kentucky game—in which the Bulldogs didn't suffer a single turnover and weren't penalized a single yard—Georgia has fumbled only 18 times. Pyburn, who seems to hoard his good passes until third down, has thrown but one interception. Mike Garrett's 40.1-yard punting average also has eased the defensive burden, while Rex Robinson, the sophomore who booted the game-winning field goal against Kentucky with only three seconds left on the Commonwealth Stadium clock, has been nearly perfect from placement, having connected on nine of 11 field-goal attempts and 17 of 17 PATs.
Because the I stations the tailback one yard deeper in the backfield, it has given McClendon another split second to reach top speed and thus hit the line at maximum power. More than any other Bulldog, he epitomizes Georgia; like his team, he seems to have come out of nowhere to stunning success.
A 6'2", 205-pound senior, McClendon carried the ball only 116 times for 705 yards last season. This year McClendon is the SEC's leading rusher, with 966 yards in seven games, even though his offensive linemen average only 1.7 seasons of varsity experience.
"I think it's a great confidence booster to our offense to know that any time Willie touches the ball, he can go all the way with it," says Jeff Pyburn. "It's made our offensive line play harder. They take pride in his yardage."
McClendon is a slashing runner whose speed makes him a breakaway threat and whose power inflicts punishment on tacklers. He has gained more than 100 yards in every game this season, including Saturday night, when he ran for 146 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries.
McClendon's most damaging play against Kentucky, however, was an option pass to sophomore Flanker Anthony Arnold, whom Wildcat fans swore was out of bounds on the right sideline when he hauled in the ball for a 33-yard gain. The play was Georgia's first from scrimmage after Freddie Williams had smashed over from a yard out for Kentucky's second touchdown and a 16—0 lead in the third quarter. The pass also ignited a Bulldog comeback when Dooley's team might reasonably have collapsed. Five plays later, McClendon scored from the four to make the score 16-7 and set up the thrilling finish.
Early in the fourth quarter, when Kentucky's defense was tiring, the Bulldogs launched a 74-yard march that ended in a six-yard touchdown pass from Pyburn to Tight End Ulysses Norris.
But Kentucky came back with a drive of its own to the Georgia 25-yard line. Then, with 4:09 left, a 42-yard field-goal attempt fell short, thus giving the Bulldogs the chance to finish the game with their most inspired work of the night. McClendon carried six times for 36 yard, and Pyburn connected on a pair of passes for 23 more in a 63-yard march that reached the Kentucky 12 and set up Robinson's field goal.
"They really stuck it to us in the first half," Dooley said afterward, "but I was encouraged that we kept fighting. When Robinson went in to kick the field goal at the end, I was confident. He'd missed his first two of the season earlier, and I knew there was no way he was going to miss three in the same game."
Despite the 6-1 record, few Georgia players are likely to become All-America or NFL draft choices. The exceptions are McClendon, Norris and Linebacker Ricky McBride, whom Dooley calls "the glue to our defense."
The Bulldogs have been lucky, no question there. They have yet to suffer a major injury, for instance, after going through six quarterbacks a year ago. With its preponderance of underclassmen, the team should be making rookie mistakes. Perhaps its competitive smarts originate in a roster that includes 16 former quarterbacks, four of whom Dooley has made defensive backs. Dooley also moved Ray Donaldson from linebacker to center, and Donaldson had never played over the ball before. His coaching instructions consisted of: "Take the ball in hand. Give to quarterback." Donaldson has yet to bollix a snap.
But if the Bulldogs carry the potential for their own disaster, they are well aware of it, and that may be their salvation. One worry Georgia doesn't have, in mind or on the schedule, is Alabama.
"I hope the balloon doesn't burst," Dooley said two days before the Kentucky game. "We may be brought to earth, but who knows? That's what so great about this game."
For Georgia fans, the game has never been greater.