1983 was the year of The Great Rebuild for Georgia athletics. The basketball team saw star forward Dominque Wilkins leave early for the pros. Dawg hoops responded by going to the Final Four. The 1983 Georgia football team was no less impressive—they lost Herschel Walker, one of college football’s all-time greatest running backs, early to the pros. The football Dawgs responded with their own run to the national top four and a big impact on history.
Georgia had spent the last three seasons in the elite. They won the SEC title and went to the Sugar Bowl all three years. They won the national title in 1980 and played for it in 1982. But with Herschel gone, the Bulldogs opened the 1983 college football season ranked #15.
The cupboard wasn’t bare in Athens though. Defensive back Terry Hoage was an All-American and finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting. Freddie Gilbert was a game-changer at defensive end. And though Georgia didn’t throw the ball much, tight end Clarence Kay was a good blocker and would enjoy a solid nine-year career in the NFL with the Denver Broncos.
Head coach Vince Dooley replaced Walker with a running back-by-committee approach, splitting the load between Keith Montgomery, Barry Young and David McCluskey. Quarterback John Lastinger also did some running, although he never dazzled anyone. And as a passer, Lastinger didn’t bring much to the table. He threw for fewer than 800 yards, completed less than 50 percent of his passes and only averaged 5.8 yards-per-attempt.
Georgia opened the season at home against 20th-ranked UCLA. The led 12-8 in the fourth quarter when the Bruins began driving for the potential game-winning score. Defensive back Charles Dean stepped in front of a Rick Neuheisel throw, intercepted the pass and took it 81 yards to the house, sealing a 19-8 win.
A road trip to Clemson, a nine-win team and two years removed from winning the national championship, resulted in a 16-16 tie, but the Dawgs still nudged up in the polls, now ranked #14. Then they began piling up wins against the soft part of their schedule.
South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Temple all were either under .500 or no better than six win-teams. Georgia won them all, with a 20-13 scare at Vandy being the only game that was close. By the time it was done, the calendar was turning to November and Georgia was ranked sixth in the country.
The Dawgs were joined atop the SEC by Auburn. Florida was right behind, and Georgia would play each team on successive weeks in November.
Florida had the conference’s best passing quarterback in Wayne Peace and the Gators moved the ball, getting inside the Bulldog 25-yard line six times. But those trips netted only three field goals. The Bulldogs got a 51-yard field goal from future NFL kicker Kevin Butler, but still trailed 9-3 when they got the ball on their own one-yard line in the fourth quarter.
Twice in the previous three years, Georgia had beaten Florida by driving 90-plus yards in the fourth quarter. In 1980 it was a lightning strike, a 93-yard touchdown pass. In 1982, it was by repeatedly giving Walker the football. This time it was another long drive. The Dawgs went the distance, all 99 yards, and won 10-9.
Now they were up to #4 and hosted Auburn in a head-to-head showdown that could win Georgia a fourth straight conference title. They didn’t get this one, losing a tough 13-7 decision, but with a 27-24 non-conference win over Georgia Tech to end the season, Georgia was still ranked #7. Not bad for a team on a rebuilding year.
The Cotton Bowl noticed and invited Georgia to pair up with second-ranked Texas. The Longhorns were one of two undefeated teams in the country, along with #1 Nebraska. Texas had the best defense in the country and was hoping against hope that fifth-ranked Miami could upset the Cornhuskers in the Orange Bowl and open a path for Texas to get to a national championship.
But Texas was offensively challenged. Even though Georgia punted nine times and did next to nothing offensively, the Dawg defense only allowed three field goals. The deficit was just 9-3, as the clock ticked under the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter.
Georgia resorted to their top weapon of the day—punter Chip Andrews. He kicked another one. Texas fumbled. The Bulldogs recovered on the Longhorn 23-yard line and had new life.
Even so, 23 yards against this defense wasn’t exactly an easy road to travel. Two plays netted six yards. On third down, Lastinger ran the option. The pitch man was covered, forcing the unathletic QB to try and make the play on his own. The quarterback did—he not only got the first down, but he raced for the right corner of the end zone and found it. Improbably, it was 10-9 Georgia and that was it.
It was a stunning upset, even in the moment of late afternoon on New Year’s Day. By nightfall it became monumental. Miami shocked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The Hurricanes’ national championship ushered in a new dynasty and has become a watershed moment in the history of college football.
But it should be remembered, the magic of that night would not have happened without the magic of the afternoon, when Georgia capped its “rebuilding” year by winning the Cotton Bowl and ending up fourth in the nation.