At the end of his 2011 documentary, as the credits scroll by, Herschel Walker leads a team workout around the Georgia Bulldogs’ on-campus track and practice facility. With the statue of Walker’s 1980 national championship team carrying coach Vince Dooley off the field just yards away, the former Heisman Trophy winner sweats in a backward hat and a darkening gray team-affiliated shirt.
Just like three decades before, he looks ready to go.
“I may have to come back and play,” said Walker, who rushed for 5,259 yards in his three-year reign over college football. “Shoot, I’m just thinking about it.”
If he felt that way at the time, his alma mater’s present position in the national title hunt certainly must have the all-time great feeling a bit of déjà vu. When No. 3 Georgia squares off with No. 2 Alabama in Atlanta on Saturday with the SEC crown and a BCS title appearance on the line, it will, perhaps, be the Bulldogs program’s most substantial game since Walker took his talents to the United States Football League.
The parallels between the 2012 Bulldogs and the 1980 champs are hard to ignore — Notre Dame again awaits the SEC champ and Alabama, for the record, did finish as the conference’s No. 2 team back then. But those parallels mainly start in the backfield with Todd Gurley. When Walker, as a freshman, led Georgia to its last national championship, he did so against Notre Dame (with a dislocated shoulder, no less) after rushing for 1,616 yards and 15 touchdowns that.
He was the Bulldogs’ last true freshman runner to eclipse 1,000 yards.
Until this season.
A devastating blend of size and speed, Gurley, the SEC’s second-leading rusher, is the most effective true freshman running back to wear the silver britches since Walker. Gurley has rushed for 1,138 yards and 14 scores in his inaugural campaign. His collective nickname, combined with fellow back Keith Marshall, was even cleverly dubbed “Gurshall” earlier in the season.
The narrative has been playing out ever since.
Add in the similar blowouts of Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech and close calls to Tennessee and Florida, and you can almost picture No. 34 barreling through defenses in Nick Saban’s film sessions this week. But he’s not. Gurley is. And the parallels that exist between 1980 and 2012 essentially diminish when removed from the big-picture view, serving only as circumstantial blather to pass the time until Saturday’s showdown.
The Bulldogs aren’t paying attention to it, anyway.
“That’s the first time anybody’s brought that up to me. So I can’t worry about all that stuff,” coach Mark Richt said when asked about the 1980 parallels. We’re just working like mad trying to get a game plan ready to go, that’s all.”
And, by all accounts, that’s the best course of action for Richt and his team, because history and tradition will only get them so far, and the teams aren’t as similar as they appear.
The general approach is that Georgia, unlike 32 years prior, backed into the championship picture by virtue of a far-too-easy SEC schedule. A New York Times writer even peppered Richt about it in this week’s media teleconference. The shorthand version of the argument: Georgia avoided Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M on the conference schedule and only faced Florida Atlantic, Buffalo, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech — contrast that, if you will, to 1980’s non-conference slate of Texas A&M, TCU, Clemson and Georgia Tech — outside of league play. The Bulldogs played just two ranked opponents.
They still aren’t undefeated, either. In fact, if Georgia (11-1) were to emerge victorious from its next two games, it will become the only BCS champion to have lost by 20 or more points in that season (South Carolina 35-7).
But Notre Dame and vindication await just on the proverbial other side of the Georgia Dome door — “We understand the weight that this game holds,” All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones said this week. — along with the flashbacks and memories of the program’s past glory.
Of course, having Saban, winner of three national championships at two different schools, stand in the way of that door is nothing to scoff at. History will not crack the code of the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, nor will it match the physicality of Alabama’s running game. It’s all incidental trivia at this point. This 2012 Georgia team will need to do it for themselves.