The Sugar Bowl had hosted the #1 team in each of the previous two years and the annul game following the 1980 college football season no different. The Georgia Bulldogs were undefeated and atop the polls. Notre Dame was playing the final game in the tenure of head coach Dan Devine. On New Year’s Day, the 1981 Sugar Bowl might have marked the end for Devine, but it was just the beginning for the great Georgia freshman, Herschel Walker.
Georgia had been a consistent, competitive program, not unlike today. But they hadn’t won a major bowl game since 1966, nor appeared in one since their SEC title in 1976. The Bulldogs were coming off a 6-5 year in 1979, one that ended without a bowl appearance in the more stringent postseason world of the late 1970s.
Walker came blazing onto the scene and transformed the team immediately. He ran for over 1,600 yards in 274 attempts, at 5.9 yards-per-carry and scored 15 touchdowns—all of which were the best in the SEC.
Buck Belue at quarterback was far from a great passer, as the Sugar Bowl itself would demonstrate, but his 49% completion rate was still fourth in the conference, and with over 1,300 passing yards he was second in the SEC. And before the year was over he would complete the biggest pass in the history of Georgia Bulldogs football history.
Head coach Vince Dooley had a great secondary, with two All-Americans in Jeff Hipps and Scott Woerner. Kicker Rex Robinson also made All-American. Georgia had modest respect when the season opened and were ranked #16 in the first polls.
The Dawgs opened with a narrow win at Tennessee. Even though the Vols were on their way to 5-6, the 16-15 win moved Georgia up four spots in the polls. Then they crushed shaky Texas A&M 42-0 and got into the Top 10.
Georgia edged Clemson 20-16, a win that looks more important in retrospect than it was at the time. The Tigers were unranked and finished 6-5, but it was the core of a team that won the national championship the following season. Georgia then smoked hapless TCU 34-3 and were ranked sixth in the nation by the time October began.
Wins over three bad teams, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky followed. The former was close, 28-21, the latter two were blowouts, with a combined final of 68-zip. Now it was time for two big November tests, against South Carolina and Florida, with the Dawgs up to #4 in the nation.
Walker and South Carolina’s George Rogers were far and away the two best running backs in the nation. Rogers was a local boy who’d gone to Columbia and then beaten the Bulldogs in 1978 and 1979. Now he came to Athens with a worthy foe in Walker waiting.
Both running backs put on a show, with Walker going for 219 yards and Rogers rushing for 168 yards. Georgia ground out a 13-10 win. More good news came elsewhere in the SEC—Alabama, undefeated, ranked #1 and the two-time defending national champion had been upset by Mississippi State. The Bulldogs and Tide would not play each other and now Georgia had the inside track to the conference’s Sugar Bowl bid.
The annual trip to Jacksonville to play #20 Florida was up next. Walker picked up where he left off, bolting on a 72-yard touchdown run on the game’s third play. He rushed for 238 yards for the game and Georgia got out to a 14-3 lead.
But Florida had a good passing game with Wayne Peace at quarterback and a wide receiver named Cris Collingsworth, who was the best in the SEC. Even though Georgia still led 20-10 after three quarters, Florida rallied with a touchdown, two-point conversion, field goal and then got the ball with 5:53 left and a 21-20 lead.
The Bulldogs held and got their offense the ball back, but Georgia was on its own eight-yard line with 1:35 left. On 3rd-and-11 Belue dropped back and found Lindsay Scott over the middle. He got behind the secondary and the race was on. “Run Lindsay Run!” was the legendary call over the Bulldogs radio station. And run he did. Scott found the end zone and Georgia survived, 26-21.
Georgia closed the season with a 31-21 win at mediocre Auburn and then rolled woeful Georgia Tech 38-20 to complete the undefeated season. The Dawgs were 11-0. Walker didn’t get the Heisman Trophy—the bias against freshman was too strong and would not be broken until Johnny Manziel won it for Texas A&M in 2012—but the team was #1 in the country.
Notre Dame had won the national championship in 1977 and then won the Cotton Bowl following the 1978 season, but the first year after Joe Montana was a difficult one in ’79. The Irish had a comeback year, motivated by the desire to win for Devine after he announced his retirement.
The defense was anchored by All-Americans in the front seven, with defensive end Scott Zellek and linebacker Bob Crable. On the offensive side, John Scully at center also got All-American honors. A freshman quarterback, Blair Kiel, got the nod as the starter and Notre Dame was ranked #11 to start the year.
Notre Dame quickly sent a message they were on the way back with a 31-10 pounding of Purdue—a good team with the best quarterback in the country in Mark Herrman. It set up the rivalry game between the Irish and Wolverines and what would be one of the now-defunct rivalry’s great moments.
The Irish jumped out to a 14-0 lead, but by the time the final minutes arrived, they were trailing 27-26 and trying a last-ditch drive into a stiff wind. They reached the 34-yard line and sent kicker Harry Oliver out to try what seemed like a hopeless kick given the conditions. Unbelievably, Oliver made it, sending the South Bend crowd into a frenzy and sparking hope that this really could be Devine’s destiny year.
Between the 29-27 win over Michigan, and the end of October, Notre Dame relied on attrition to move up the polls. They beat Michigan State, Miami, Arizona and Army. On November 1, the same day Georgia was beating South Carolina and Alabama lost to Mississippi State, the Irish rolled Navy 33-10. Second-ranked UCLA also lost.
Notre Dame concluded the day at the top of the polls, with Georgia at #2. The Irish couldn’t handle prosperity though. Georgia Tech was awful and would finish the season 1-9-1, but their game with Notre Dame was the one tie, a 3-3 final. Notre Dame slipped to sixth.
There was still a trip to Alabama on tap, and even though each team had recent blemishes, there were still national title implications. In a defensive war, Notre Dame got the game’s only touchdown when they recovered a fumble inside the 5-yard line and Phil Carter went over the top for the score in a 7-0 win.
The Irish beat Air Force and moved back up to #2, back in control of their national championship destiny and the Sugar Bowl date with Georgia locked in. Notre Dame still had to beat USC if it was to be a 1 vs. 2 battle. But the Irish, facing a talented Trojan team with Ronnie Lott and Marcus Allen, lost 20-3 and slipped to #7. There was no national title in the cards, but Notre Dame could still send Devine out with a bowl victory over a #1-ranked opponent.
President Jimmy Carter was on hand in the Superdome to watch his home state Bulldogs, the last time an American president would attend a championship sporting event until Bill Clinton went to the 1994 Final Four to cheer on his alma mater, Arkansas.
Notre Dame got a 50-yard field goal from Oliver, and then Walker had to briefly leave the game with a separated shoulder. The freshman told the trainer to do what was necessary to get it back in place—“I didn’t come all this way to not play.”
The Irish started missing opportunities. Oliver missed three field goals, and they fumbled a kickoff on the 1-yard line, setting up an easy Georgia score. Walker was running well for the Dawgs, injured shoulder and all, but even without Belue completing a pass, Georgia still led 17-10 late in the game.
Notre Dame made one more drive, but Kiel threw an interception. All that was left was for the Bulldogs to run out the clock—and for Belue to complete that elusive pass. Georgia was national champions.
The Bulldogs haven’t won a national title since, but with Walker, they would continue to be the power of the SEC for the next couple years. The Irish would take a brief step back from national prominence until Lou Holtz arrived in 1986.