How Georgia and Notre Dame Met in the 1981 Sugar BowlAuburn, in a very real sense, had been the key to the Sugar Bowl’s national championship role. In consecutive years, the War Eagles has prevented Georgia, an SEC-challenging team with only average credentials, from playing in New Orleans. The complexion of the 47th Sugar Bowl would also be influenced by the Auburn-Georgia feud, but this time New Orleans had a strong hankering for the Bulldogs.
Vince Dooley had fashioned a textbook team in Athens, one that used limited resources to maximum efficiency. Georgia had a capable, big play defense (ranked only fourth in the SEC), excellent special teams and kicking units, and a battering ram offense based on the extraordinary talents of an 18-year-old freshman. Herschel Walker, a 220-pound tailback with sprinter’s speed, became the ingredient that made Dooley’s team the nation’s best. Walker accounted for 40 percent of Georgia’s 1980 offense.
Out first-downed, with less total plays and less possession time, Georgia outscored its opponents with a combination of Walker’s running (which totaled 1,616 yards – 30 yards better than Tony Dorsett’s freshman record); Rex Robinson’s place-kicking; and an opportunistic defense. It forced the opposition into nation-leading difference in average turnovers (2.09 per game) and made the Bulldogs a fearful foe. Georgia also had a best-in-the-nation 16.6-yard average in punt returns while allowing only a half-yard. Georgia’s 9-0 record and No. 2 ranking before the Auburn game made the Bulldogs the South’s favorite.
The prospect that had the Sugar Bowl excited was a match between No. 1-ranked Notre Dame and the Bulldogs, though each had tough games at the end of the season.
After Georgia defeated Florida on a 93-yard pass play in the final minutes, a myriad of possibilities still existed for the Sugar Bowl’s host berth. Alabama, LSU, and Mississippi State, right behind the ‘Dogs in the conference standings, were waiting for Georgia to stumble. The complex SEC tie breaker had them all in the running should Georgia lose just once. If the Bulldogs could put Auburn away though, something they hadn’t done since 1976, the shouting would be over.
Georgia vs. Notre Dame or Georgia vs. Alabama (SEC rivals that didn’t play during the regular season) were matches that intrigued the Sugar Bowl. The feeling in New Orleans was that either the Irish or ‘Bama, who had lost to Mississippi State, would be far more attractive against Georgia than either Florida State or the winner of the Penn State-Pittsburgh game. Since Notre Dame and Alabama played late in the season, the Sugar wanted to tie up the victor. There were questions, however.
Rather than play Georgia, Notre Dame might well opt for the Cotton Bowl and its additional riches. An influential Irish alum told columnist Peter Finney, “Notre Dame would go anywhere if it meant $800,000.” Finney disagreed, pointing to Baylor (with one loss) and Texas (with two) as the main contenders in the Cotton Bowl sweepstakes. “Could Notre Dame afford to pass up the challenge of playing No. 2 Georgia?” asked Finney. “I don’t think so.”
Another thought was whether Bear Bryant would enjoy the idea of an all-SEC bowl. For that to happen, Alabama would have to beat Notre Dame. Then Georgia, with a win over Auburn, could move to No. 1. Given those circumstances, Bryant’s only chance at a third consecutive national championship would be to play Georgia. Bryant wouldn’t commit himself for the record, but Crimson Tide running back Major Ogilvie summed up matters when he said, “If we beat Notre Dame and Georgia is the No. 1 team, I don’t think there’s any question we’d like to play Georgia. Our main objective all season has been the national championship. We’ll do whatever it takes.”
Would Vince Dooley like the idea of playing a fraternity brother? Probably not, but he didn’t have to make the decision.
As it turned out, lowly Georgia Tech knocked the Irish out of No. 1 the week before the Alabama game with a 3-3 tie. That lifted Georgia to the top rung for the first time in 38 years and meant that the Irish would probably have to play the ‘Dogs to have any opportunity to reclaim No. 1. Auburn couldn’t wait for a chance to knock its conference next-door neighbor down a couple of pegs on the national ladder. The battle cry in the sleepy little Alabama hamlet that is the home to the War Eagles was “The road to the Sugar Bowl goes through I-85 [the highway that passes Jordan-Hare Stadium].”
Defensive back Greg Bell followed Georgia’s season-long script by blocking a second-quarter punt that was picked up and returned for a touchdown. That put the Bulldogs ahead for the first time at 10-7 and was the catalyst in a 31-21 defeat of the gritty War Eagles. “We’re shooting for No. 1,” Buck Belue added as Vince Dooley accepted the Sugar Bowl invitation.
Two hours later, Notre Dame (which dropped to sixth after the Tech tie) awaited Coach Dan Devine in Legion Field’s dressing room chanting, “Sugar Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Sugar Bowl!” Irish arms were held aloft as the bodies continually swayed, elated about a 7-0 victory over Alabama.
A 20-3 defeat by Southern California in the season finale put a practical end to Notre Dame’s national championship aspirations, and the Irish opened a one-point favorite over the team no one could quite believe. Georgia was finally going to get its chance to play Notre Dame 34 years after Wally Butts had tried. The Bulldogs were an undefeated, No. 1-ranked underdog.
Scott Zettek felt it should have been more, “I hear we’re favored,” the Irish defensive end said. “My own personal (line), I give them 10 points. It’s a chance to maybe be No. 1, and a chance to regain some of the respect we lost. We can prove ourselves again with a win. This game will get a lot of attention, not only because Georgia’s No. 1 but because people want to see what Notre Dame does against them.” Devine, who would be coaching his last game for the Irish, also figured in Zettek’s handicapping. “We’ve been an emotional team all year, as all Notre Dame teams are, but the fact that its Coach Devine’s last game will be an additional factor.”
The mammoth Notre Dame defense, outweighing Georgia’s offense 15 pounds a man, had limited opponents to 109 yards a game rushing, a per-play average of 2.8 (in contrast to Georgia’s offensive average of 4.5). The mobile Irish offensive line averaged 6-foot-6, 255 pounds against Georgia’s front, which checked in at 6-foot-2, 236 pounds.
Notre Dame diehards spoke in smirks of Georgia’s relatively easy schedule, and how South Bend troops were battle-hardened, conveniently forgetting some of the past paper-thin schedules the Irish had ridden to glory. Never, however, would Notre Dame have as much fraternity support as it would have against Georgia. There had not been a season quite like this, where so many schools remained alive for the national championship as New Year’s Day approached. A Notre Dame victory and the right set of circumstances could vault Pittsburgh, Oklahoma, Florida State, Michigan, or even Baylor to No. 1. But any change hinged completely on one factor: Notre Dame had to defeat Georgia.
Former Bulldog idol Charley Trippi said it best, though, when he assessed, “Georgia can beat anyone because it’s a very opportunistic team. And football often comes down to opportunism.”
It was left to Rex Robinson, the second most prolific field goal kicker (59) in NCAA history at the time, to capture just what this Georgia team was and what could be expected in its 12th game. “I know we’ve been a fortunate team in many aspects,” Robinson said on New Year’s Eve. “What we’ve been, more than anything else, is a team of survivors. Somewhere, someone has been there to pick us up. The reason we’re here is that we’ve survived.”
Story excerpted from the book “Sugar Bowl Classic: A History” by Marty Mulé, who covered the game and the organization for decades for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.