The long, hot dog days of another Georgia summer ran out almost without warning last weekend. It was as if an alarm clock jangled on Saturday morning and 80,000 Georgians were jolted out of bed all at once. The streets of Athens, which had been empty for months, became clogged with people attired from head to toe in red and black. Suddenly it was another kind of dog day—what the locals call a Dog Day Afternoon.
Football season had come around again so soon, and with it mixed emotions. Georgia's first national championship, fashioned from 12 victories—some of them nothing short of miraculous—and zero defeats, was now history. Did it really happen? Was there really an 18-year-old named Herschel Walker who rewrote the laws of football physics? Had it all been a mass hallucination? If it was a dream, nobody wanted it to end, and it could have on Saturday at the vengeful hands of Tennessee in a rematch of the game that started it all last year.
A lot of great football minds figure that Georgia's championship season was a fluke. Most preseason polls placed the Bulldogs, minus 15 of 1980's starters, no higher than ninth or 10th...and that was only because Walker had decided not to jump to the Canadian Football League.
But by the end of last Saturday, the Dogs and their fans and the nation had waked up but good. Georgia 44, Tennessee 0. Bigger than any win in 1980. Worst Tennessee loss since 1923. Opening-game jitters? Georgia had the ball six times in the second half and six times it put points on the scoreboard. Sophomore jinx? Walker looked just like a freshman out there, churning out 161 yards in 30 carries, with one touchdown and another called back. One-man gang? Quarterback Buck Belue completed 10 of 15 passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns, both of them to Lindsay Scott, who could become the next John Jefferson. Inexperience? Baby-faced Kevin Butler, this year's freshman phenom, set a school record for scoring by a kicker, with field goals of 36, 44 and 45 yards and five PATs. And the defense? It held the Vols to 30 yards rushing in 30 carries.
September 13, 1981
It was all enough to make Tennessee Coach Johnny Majors—who last week began the fifth year of his four-year plan to revive the Vols—a little bit ill. "They went out and played as if they were trying to prove to people that last year wasn't an accident," said Majors.
What Majors is trying to prove—harder than ever after Saturday—to the folks in Knoxville is that their 1976 dumping of Bill Battle, who had merely given Tennessee five straight bowl teams, to hire former Vol All-America Majors, fresh from coaching Pitt to a national championship, was no mistake. Thus far, Majors has had but one winning season, a fact that has a few Tennesseans wondering, though the university recently signed him to a contract that runs through 1985. "The only pressure I feel comes from my own heart," Majors said before the Georgia game. But afterward, asked if this was his lowest point, he said, "It sure is."
None of the Georgia people had griped about the Bulldogs' relatively low preseason ranking. Coach Vince Dooley wasn't talking coach talk when he articulated his concern about what the future held. He was downright scared when he said, "Everybody's worried about the parking. Nobody seems to be worried about the offensive line or the secondary. Cockiness? False hopes? I honestly don't know. My assistants have told me our practices have been real bad; there hasn't been any enthusiasm. My first reaction is to say, 'Well, our players are young, just trying to learn their jobs.' I hope that's what it is."
The first students had begun to trickle into Athens on Tuesday, almost three weeks before classes would begin, and some pitched tents in the rain in parking lots, hoping to scare up tickets that didn't exist. One fan offered free accommodations in Algiers or Paris to anyone who could get him three.
Meanwhile, the parade of pilgrims with pencils and pads, mikes and minicams flocked to the feet of Walker, who, like the Pope, now has his weekly audiences. Walker puffed up his enormous chest on Tuesday, and in a low voice that gradually rose in pitch as it increased in confidence, said, "This year I'm bigger, stronger, quicker, faster and more powerful...I can do almost anything. They [the Vols] haven't seen the Herschel Walker of September 5, 1981; they've only seen the one from last year."
Jaws hung. The tone hadn't been boastful, the words were simply stated. Minds flashed back to last September's opening game when Walker, a third-string freshman, busted up the middle for the 16-yard touchdown run that launched the unbeaten season and began the Walker legend.
Bigger and better though this year's Walker may be, he would be running behind a line that had been ravaged by graduation. The young replacements up front were Dooley's principal cause for concern. As it turned out, those quiet practices, the apparent lack of enthusiasm, weren't symptoms of cockiness. It was only the new Dogs assuming the quiet, confident Walker nature by osmosis. "I'll tell you this," says Defensive Guard Eddie (Meat Cleaver) Weaver. "The offensive line might be young but it's big [averaging 6'4", 247 pounds]. You get a thrill out of blocking for a killer. You don't hurt as much when you're doing it for The Stalker. I'd be proud if I were blocking for The Stalker."
By Saturday the walkways to freshly expanded Sanford Stadium—which would be filled with 79,600 fans, the largest crowd ever to witness a sporting event in Georgia—were festooned with renderings of the Georgia Bulldog, variously smiling, snarling, pouncing or reclining. Everything from commemorative Coca-Cola bottles ($5 for 10 ounces) to long Johns was emblazoned with portraits of the Dog. And of course there was Walker's mug on T shirts, socks, drinking glasses, even jockstraps. "I've seen more pictures of Herschel than his mama," said Georgia's Promotions Director, Avery McLean.
Georgians' fear of an opening-game upset wasn't unfounded. In the 44 years that a mythical national champion has been crowned by the Associated Press, the defending champ has lost its first game of the following season seven times. The Bulldogs did it to Alabama in 1965. Majors' 1976 12-0 Pittsburgh team lost to Notre Dame in its 1977 opener, after Majors had gone home to Tennessee.
Georgia passed its first test when Butler sent the opening kickoff through the end zone, thus keeping Willie Gault, one of Tennessee's four world-class sprinter-receivers, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last year, from possibly giving the Vols an early lead. But Tennessee moved easily to the Georgia 33 as Quarterback Jeff Olszewski completed his first six passes—all short ones in the flat—against Georgia's inexperienced secondary, before a sack by End Freddie Gilbert forced a 51-yard punt that rolled dead on the Georgia eight.
Thus, Walker, the tailback in the I, found himself set up in the end zone the first time his number was called in 1981. He took a handoff from Belue on his own goal line, slashed over right end and dragged four tacklers 11 yards. Seven plays later he dashed 47 yards for an apparent touchdown only to have it called back because of clipping. No matter. Three plays later, on a third-and-five, Belue delivered a 29-yard strike over the middle to Scott, who made a spectacular catch—his first of six—sandwiched between two defenders on the Tennessee six. A moment later Walker hurdled over from the one for his touchdown.
Then, after the Bulldogs twice stalled inside the Tennessee 10—a fumble and a missed field goal—they put another touchdown on the board before halftime. This one was a 15-yard pass from Belue to Scott on a "sail" pattern, with Scott doing his sailing on his knees to catch the ball in the right corner of the end zone.
Scott ran the same pattern to the left corner for a TD in the third quarter, this time making an over-the-head catch of a Belue pass just before tumbling across the sideline.
"If you look at Lindsay Scott today and think about him one year ago...what a difference," says Dooley. A year ago Scott had lost his scholarship after a shoving match with the team's academic counselor and hadn't fully recovered from rolling his 1980 Datsun 200SX into a ditch after falling asleep at the wheel. "Today I did the things I thought I could do when I came here," said Scott, a senior. "You're seeing a completely new Lindsay Scott."
The 1981 model Herschel Walker wasn't entirely pleased with his performance, even though he would have easily surpassed 200 yards had Dooley let him play the entire fourth quarter. Belue praised the young offensive line for its pass blocking, but it was hard to tell if Walker needed any run blocking. Each time he got the ball he ran a couple of little steps, then slammed his 222-pound body whichever way he pleased, cutting and caroming off bodies, dragging defenders, averaging 5.3 yards a carry.
"I don't think I performed that well today," said Walker. "I was doing a lot of bouncing around, and that's not me. I got a lot of work to do if I want to improve." Improve on 161 yards in a little more than three quarters?
Tennessee, meanwhile, could do nothing right. Even a blocked punt in the third quarter that would have made the score 24-7 was disallowed because the Vols had 12 men on the field. With its running game shut down by Gilbert, Weaver, Jimmy Payne, Tommy Thurson and company, Tennessee resorted to short passes. Olszewski and freshman Alan Cockrell, who replaced him late in the third quarter, threw long just three times in the game and never completed a pass that traveled more than 15 yards in the air. Either Dooley had done genius work with his inexperienced pass defenders or Majors had blundered by not testing the Bulldog secondary. "Their coverage took us out of it," said Majors for his part.
After last Saturday's laugher, Dooley's main task is to keep his players' heads out of the air-traffic lanes. "Teams tend to listen to you a little more when they're lucky to win," he said. "Last year I had their attention every week. This is a great start. I'd like for it to be the ending."
As the fans streamed out of the stadium to begin tearing down Athens, they surely seemed satisfied that last year was no dream. But that didn't mean there still weren't questions. Like, could it all possibly happen again?