ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia last won the national championship in 1980, beating Notre Dame 17-10 in a Sugar Bowl attended by President Jimmy Carter and dominated by a freshman running back named Herschel Walker. But in the 31 seasons since, the Bulldogs have only come close a couple times. In 1982, Georgia was undefeated and ranked No. 1 heading into the Sugar Bowl but lost to Penn State. The following year, a home loss to Auburn in mid-November prevented the Bulldogs from playing for the title.
Since then, there have been a bunch of nice-looking nine and 10-win seasons at Georgia, but not many true contenders. And in a league where five Southeastern Conference rivals have won the national championships in the past 14 years alone, failing to become part of that group has become something of a burden on the back of a program whose moment to take that final step seems long overdue.
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"There's no reason why we shouldn't," sophomore cornerback Damian Swann said. "We have the players. We recruit the same guys everybody else is recruiting."
For one reason or another, it just hasn't happened at Georgia, a place with as many natural resources from money to facilities? to talent-rich recruiting territory as any program in the SEC. And that constant uphill fight, played out over head coach Mark Richt's 12 seasons in Athens, has often fed the frustration of a school and fan base that constantly wonders whether good is good enough.
"You become a victim of your own success, which he has," said Vince Dooley, who went 201-77-10 as Georgia' s coach between 1964 and 1998 and as athletics director made the call to hire Richt in 2001. "He's the fourth-winningest active coach in the country, but that's the nature of the business, particularly in this day and time."
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But that final piece, that ever-elusive crystal football, is now legitimately within Georgia's grasp for the first time in three decades. Richt already has won two SEC titles, but if he can beat No. 2-ranked Alabama for his third on Saturday, the Bulldogs will advance to the BCS national championship game Jan. 7 in Miami to face undefeated Notre Dame.
"I think it's just been too long," receiver Rhett McGowan said. "It's just a tough conference. The SEC is in it every year, and everybody beats up on each other and it's a little frustrating (not to have won the national title), but we're right there this year and it's a dream come true."
And it's a dream almost out of nowhere, coming at the end of a season in which the Bulldogs played just two ranked teams - and lost to one of them by four touchdowns. At the end of that putrid performance, a 35-7 loss at South Carolina on Oct. 6, it was easy to write off this Georgia team as a facsimile of so many others in the last decade: As talented as anyone, but a bit soft; a team that could take care of all the lightweights on the schedule but couldn't push itself to the level of an elite SEC opponent at its best.
It looked and felt like the culmination of every unmet expectation under Richt, of every Georgia team whose results belied the personnel on the field.
Even worse, it harkened back to a loss on Sept. 27, 2008 when Georgia - ranked No. 1 in the preseason - got crushed at home by Alabama in a game the Bulldogs trailed 31-0 at halftime. In many ways, that night signaled the emergence of Alabama under Nick Saban and foreshadowed troubles for Georgia that could have cost Richt his job.
From 10-3 that season, the Bulldogs backslid to 8-5 in 2009 and then 6-7 in 2010, culminating with a miserable 10-6 loss to Central Florida in the Liberty Bowl. Had Richt not built some equity with SEC titles in 2002 and 2005, he might not have survived. At that moment, with off-field issues coming to light and coaching questions swirling, his program looked like a flop.
"When people don't want to go to bowls or do the bowl practices, it's bad," senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. "You just feel like you didn't live up to what everybody wanted you (to be). We had players (currently) in the NFL, but we didn't do anything with them."
It would get worse, though, before it got better. Last season, Georgia opened with Boise State in Atlanta and got outclassed in every way, losing 35-21. One week later, the Bulldogs lost at home to South Carolina, 45-42, and dropped to 0-2. Richt's seat instantly went from warm to scalding hot.
"We were just kind of fighting for our lives," Richt said this week. "Then we won 10 in a row."
From the brink of getting run out of town, Richt survived and led the Bulldogs to the SEC East division title. But those same questions about Georgia popped right back up this summer. Running back Isaiah Crowell, the reigning SEC freshman of the year, was tossed out of school after getting arrested on weapons charges and three defensive starters - cornerback Sanders Commings, linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Bacarri Rambo - were suspended to start the season for rules violations.
The perception that Richt had lost control of the program had become so prevalent that it turned into a comedic narrative on Twitter accounts and message boards throughout the SEC. Then came that ugly South Carolina loss in which Georgia looked utterly unprepared to play, and the defining question grew louder. If Richt couldn't get it done this year with an experienced quarterback, all kinds of defensive talent and a friendly schedule (no Alabama or LSU, specifically), when would it happen?
Well, turns out this might be the year. Georgia overcame the suspensions, held together through the criticism and turned around the season. After a shaky win at Kentucky, the defense has been tremendous and the offense has averaged 40.5 points in November. And sure, though Georgia is still a significant underdog to Alabama, much of that is based on recent history and perception. Reality is the Bulldogs are just one win away from ending all the questions about toughness, about underachieving, about being good enough to play for a national title.
There aren't many opportunities to put 30 years of frustration aside as a program, but Georgia is on the doorstep of one of them.
"You're going to go through a series of crises as a coach and you have to be able to survive them," said Dooley. "He's been through one. He's led a charmed life up until a couple years ago, but he met the crisis head-on, he's addressed it and now he's brought the team to this position. On the other hand, somewhere down the road he'll go through another crisis. You don't ever solve it permanently, but I'm proud of him."
Dan Wolken, USA TODAY Sports