1980 Georgia football was the latest edition for a program that had been consistent and competitive, 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.
A freshman running back named Herschel 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 wasn’t a great passer, 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 the Georgia program.
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 by broadcaster Larry Munson. 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 was the opponent. As the regular season was winding down, the Sugar Bowl thought this would be a winner-take-all battle for the national championship. But the Irish lost their early December finale at USC. That dimmed the luster of the matchup a little, but as far as the Bulldogs were concerned, the stakes were the same. President Jimmy Carter was on hand in the Superdome to watch his home state team.
Notre Dame got a 50-yard field goal to start the scoring, 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. They missed three field goals and 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, and 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.
Georgia continued to be a national power, reaching the Sugar Bowl with national title hopes each of the next two years. But the state of Pennsylvania got in the way—they lost to Dan Marino’s Pitt in 1981 and then to Penn State in 1982. The Bulldogs would not get this close to a national title until 2017 and a loyal fan base continues to wait for the first crown since that memorable 1980 run.