The Georgia Bulldogs were the showcase of college football during the three years of the Herschel Walker Era. They displaced Bear Bryant’s Alabama atop the SEC. The Dawgs won the national championship in 1980. They reached the Sugar Bowl in 1981. The 1982 Georgia football team went back to New Orleans for another Sugar Bowl and in position to win another title before coming up short.
Herschel was one of the great backs in college football history and he ran for over 1,700 yards this season. He blew away the rest of the SEC in rush yardage, scored 16 touchdowns and grabbed the Heisman over a field that included SMU running back Eric Dickerson and Stanford quarterback John Elway.
Other All-American talent included defensive tackle Jimmy Payne and defensive back Terry Hoage. And even though Jeff Sanchez didn’t make All-American, the defensive back was one of the best ballhawks in the country, picking off nine passes.
John Lastinger didn’t have a lot put on him at quarterback, which was a good thing. Lastinger only completed 42 percent of his passes, only threw for 6.1 yards-per-attempt and still threw nine interceptions in spite of only throwing for 907 yards and eight touchdown passes. The Bulldog offense was all about Herschel.
The season opened on Labor Day Night against defending national champion Clemson. It was a defensive war, but Georgia was able to get a 13-7 lead and then come up with two key fourth-quarter stops to preserve the win. They continued to play a good non-SEC schedule with a home date against an eight-win BYU team five days later and survived it, 17-14.
Georgia went to South Carolina—then an independent and not very good—and won 34-18. A so-so win over a so-so team followed, 29-22 at Mississippi State, but the Dawgs finally moved into the national top five in early October.
A 33-10 blowout of a subpar Ole Miss team moved Georgia to #4 and then a 27-13 over a surprisingly good Vanderbilt squad got the Bulldogs to #3. Two games against terrible teams followed—Kentucky and Memphis only won a single game between them in 1982. The Bulldogs weren’t inspiring in a 27-14 win over the Wildcats, before beating the Tigers 34-3.
It was time for the rivalry game with Florida at a neutral site in Jacksonville, just as this game is today. The Gators were ranked #20, would ultimately win eight games and had the conference’s best quarterback in Wayne Peace. What followed was a complete demolition.
Georgia won 44-0 in their best performance of the year—indeed, probably their best game of the entire Walker era. On the same day, top-ranked Pitt was upset by Notre Dame, and Georgia moved to the top of the polls.
The Bulldogs were holding on to a half-game lead in the SEC over LSU, who had one tie. Auburn was in the mix with just one loss and Georgia had to play at Auburn on November 13. It was their final SEC game of the season, so a victory would wrap up the conference title and Sugar Bowl bid.
Auburn took a 7-3 lead in the second quarter, but Walker galloped 47 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. It was 13-7 in the third quarter, before Tiger back Lionel James answered with an 87-yard TD run to give Auburn the lead.
With the season on the line, head coach Vince Dooley put the ball in Walker’s hands. An 80-yard drive was highlighted by Herschel getting the football eight times. On the day, Walker ran for 177 yards and this drive ended with a go-ahead touchdown.
There were still anxious moments—the Dawgs missed the two-point conversion and the score stayed 19-14. Auburn drove it down to the Georgia 11-yard line with 2:39 left. The Tigers had a freshman running back who would eventually supplant Walker as the feared physical specimen in the entire country—Bo Jackson.
But Georgia stopped Bo on first down and then Dale Carver came up with a huge sack to put the Tigers in 3rd-and-26. The Dawgs closed out the win. They closed out the undefeated season two weeks later with a 38-18 victory over a six-win Georgia Tech squad.
The Bulldogs were undefeated and headed to the Sugar Bowl for a showdown with #2 Penn State. The Nittany Lions were looking to win Joe Paterno his first national championship and Joe Pa’s pursuit against Herschel’s greatness was the storyline throughout December in the media run-up to the game.
On New Year’s Night, Georgia did not play well. They dug themselves a quick 20-3 hole in the first half, unprepared for a Penn State offensive assault that came at them through the air. But the Bulldogs didn’t roll over and die.
They got a touchdown just prior to intermission to change the momentum and make the deficit manageable at 20-10. Lastinger did what most people thought he couldn’t do, and hadn’t done all season and it was rally the Dawgs. They cut the lead to 20-17 and were in position to tie or take the lead before Lastinger threw an interception in the end zone.
There were still chances, but the Lions hit another long pass for a touchdown and the final score ended up 27-23. Georgia’s bid for a second perfect national championship season in three years was over.
So was the Herschel Era. Early entries to the pros were rare—if not unheard of—in the early 1980s, but there was a new United States Football League (USFL) that was aggressively bidding for talent and for a couple years the USFL was making the NFL sweat. The new league had a flamboyant owner of the New Jersey franchise that you may have heard of—Donald J. Trump. He got Walker to come to the USFL after his junior season.
Georgia still had a good year in 1983, getting a Cotton Bowl bid and upsetting unbeaten Texas when they got there. But the Dawgs would not get be a steady national championship contender until our own era with Kirby Smart as head coach arrived.