The 1981 Georgia football team was the defending national champions and had one of the country’s great running backs in sophomore Herschel Walker. The SEC Player of the Year, Walker rolled up nearly 1900 yards (the second-best back in the SEC finished with 622 yards), carried the ball 385 times (the second-best in the SEC was 166) and still finished fourth in the conference in yards-per-attempt at 4.9.
Walker finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to USC’s record-setting back Marcus Allen, as the two runners were clearly head-and-shoulders above the field in the Heisman race.
Buck Belue did a decent job providing some air support for Walker. He attempted 188 passes, a moderate number in this era and completed a solid 61%. Even more important was that the completions counted for something, as Belue’s 8.5 yards-per-pass was the SEC’s best. His best weapon in that regard was Lindsay Scott, who finished third in the league in receiving yardage.
What the Bulldogs did not have was national respect. In spite of winning a championship and bringing Walker back, they were still perceived as the inferior to Bear Bryant’s Alabama. Georgia opened the season ranked #10 while ‘Bama was ranked fourth.
Georgia gave the pollsters something to think about in their opener at home against a pretty good Tennessee team. Walker rolled up 161 yards on the ground. Belue was 10/15 for 140 yards and twice hooked up with Scott for touchdown passes. The Bulldog offense churned out thirty first downs, 563 total yards and mauled the Vols 44-0 for their worst defeat in 58 years. After a win over lowly Cal the following week, the Dawgs were up to #4.
Then a road trip to Clemson brought Georgia back down to earth and proved to be one of the decisive moments in the national championship race. The Dawgs lost 13-3. Clemson would finish the season undefeated and ranked #1.
Georgia rolled through mediocre teams in South Carolina and Ole Miss by a combined 61-7, then blasted bad teams in Vanderbilt and Kentucky by a combined 74-21. After closing by October with a 49-3 demolition of Temple, the Bulldogs were back up to #4 and were making their annual trip to Jacksonville for the neutral-site rivalry game against Florida.
The Gators were a good team that would win seven games and had the conference’s best pure dropback passer in Wayne Peace. A year ago, they came the closest to defeating Georgia, with only an epic 93-yard Belue-to-Scott touchdown pass saving the Dawgs in a 26-21 win.
This one wasn’t quite as dramatic, but it came close. Walker put on show and had caught two touchdowns and ran for another, but Georgia still trailed 21-20, just as they had in 1980. This time they drove 95 yards to win it, with Herschel tacking on one more rushing touchdown to close his day. He finished with 192 yards and once again, Georgia had escaped their rival in a 26-21 final.
The Bulldogs beat mediocre Auburn 24-13. The victory moved Georgia to #2 in the polls and also assured them of a share of the SEC title—they and Alabama were both unbeaten in league play, though the Tide had a loss and a tie in non-conference games.
Georgia would get the SEC’s Sugar Bowl nod and finished the year by trouncing an awful Georgia Tech team 44-7. Although we should note that the Yellow Jackets lone victory in 1981 did come at the expense of Alabama.
The opponent was Dan Marino’s Pitt Panthers, 10-1 and ranked tenth in the nation. For Georgia, their national title scenario was simple—beat Pitt and hope for Clemson lose to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. Both games would be in prime-time on New Year’s Night.
Walker didn’t run well against a good Pitt defense and was kept under 100 yards. Both teams were sloppy, with a combined nine turnovers. What Georgia had been able to do was recover a fumbled punt and turn it into a touchdown. As a result, they held a 20-17 lead and had the ball with 5:29 left.
It was the perfect time for Walker to slam the door shut, but he couldn’t close it out. The Dawg defense had to come back on the field with 3:46 left. Marino moved the Panthers methodically to the Georgia 33-yard line. There was 0:34 left. A tie was as good as a loss for Georgia.
To Pitt’s credit—they had nothing to gain from a tie—they went for the win. To the regret of Georgia, it paid off. Marino hit his tight end, John Brown, with a perfect strike to the deep post for a touchdown. The Dawgs fell 24-20.
If nothing else, Clemson won in the Orange Bowl, so the loss didn’t cost Georgia a national championship. And they would be back in 1982, for another big year with Walker in the backfield.