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Georgia Bulldogs survey domain from football pinnacle

By Ross AtkinSports writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 1981



Georgia, a team that gave no inkling of being national champion timber before the season, now surveys the realm from college football's most coveted pinnacle -- the No. 1 position in both wire-service polls.

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The Beatles surely would have labeled the Bulldogs' ascent a magical, mystery tour, a perfect season forged on the heels of a disappointing 6-5 record the previous year. No other team, not even ones originally sporting the "invincible look" such as Pittsburgh, Ohio State, or Nebraska, could match Georgia's 12 -straight victories.

The "Dawgs," of course, were not always a steamroller either. Few teams have ever won a landslide national title with less convincing results. "The best thing you can say about these guys is they haven't got beat," volunteered assistant coach Rusty Russell before Georgia beat Notre Dame 17- 10 in the Sugar Bowl to lock up its first football crown.

The victory kept any other bowl result from having a bearing on who finished No. 1. Yet who lined up where the remainder of the Top 20 was decided largely in the Orange, Rose, and Cotton Bowls, plus other post-season contests.

Pittsburgh, for example, turned in a strong showing in the Gator Bowl, beating South Carolina 37-9, to move up to the No. 2 ranking in the final UPI coaches' poll with an 11-1 record.

Seven squads with 10-2 marks came next, all but No. 5 Florida State winning its final game. Oklahoma, an 18-17 victor over Florida State in an exciting Orange Bowl rematch, finished No. 3. Michigan broke its drought in the Rose Bowl, knocking off Washington impressively, 23-6, to secure the No. 4 spot.

No. 6 Alabama, the undisputed national champion last year and a joint tenant of the honor in 1978, "salvaged" its season by annihilating Baylor, 30-2 in the Cotton Bowl. No. 7 Nebraska took care of Mississippi State 31-17 in the Sun Bowl and No. 8 Penn State defeated Ohio State 31-19 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Things fell uncannily into place all season long for Georgia, beginning with a 16-15 escape against Tennessee in the opener. Later came a potentially game-saving fumble recovery against South Carolina on a ball coughed up by Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers and a 93-year touchdown pass in the waning moments to beat Florida.

Even Georgia's schedule, made up years in advance, was a thing of wonder. It called for the Bulldogs to play all but three Southeastern Conference members, including Alabama and Mississippi State, their strongest league rivals.

The well of good fortune could easily have run dry at this point, but it didn't. For in the Sugar Bowl, a fluky play virtually gave Georgia one touchdown, a 22-yard "drive" following a fumble recovery set up the other, and a 46-yard field goal, also after a turnover, completed the winner's scoring.

Ultimately, Notre Dame appeared to outplay the nation's top-ranked team, limiting it to one pass completion and 127 total yards the entire game, while holding it scoreless in the second half.

What Georgia did, though, was put more points on the board -- a tried and true way of winning.

"The stats don't matter," said Bulldog quarterback Buck Belue. "We won the game. We're the type of team that figures out how to win a game. We're an opportunistic team."

Opportunity never knucked louder than it did late in the first quarter, when Notre Dame's tandem deep men let a kickoff bounce free at the two-yard line. It was a bizarre error caused by the pair's inability to communicate amid the din that engulfed New Orlean's Superdome.A Georgia player pounced on the loose ball, setting up Herschel Walker's leap into the end zone. For the record, Walker (A misnomer if ever there was one) rumbled for 153 yards, a figure partially offset by 65 yards in quarterback sacks.

Here, again, Georgia can consider itself fortunate, for how many times does a freshman emerge to carry an entire offense? Not often, and maybe not at all beginning next year, when the NCAA possibly will declare freshmen ineligible for varsity competition.

It is to Notre Dame's credit that it played such a gritty game, particularly in the face of continued frustrations. One wouldn't expect the Fighting Irish to go down any other way, however, especially not with a chance to send retiring coach Dan Devine out a winner. Next year, the reins will be taken by Gerry Faust, coach of Cincinnati's Moeller High School, a producer of many Notre Dame players.

Overall, the conference that fared the worst in post-season play was the Southwest. Baylor, the conference champion by a sizable three-game margin, was embarrassed in the Cotton Bowl; No. 9 North Carolina knocked off Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl; and Southern Methodist was edged by No. 11 Brigham Young in the Holiday Bowl. Houston and Arkansas nailed down victories in lesser bowls, but the conference was shut out of the Top 10, with Baylor at No. 13 its highest ranked team.

The Pacific 10 didn't exactly enjoy a banner year either. Washington won the conference crown outright to legitimately earn the Rose Bowl berth, which five league members were ineligible for. Yet its loss to Michigan dropped the Huskies to No. 17, as Southern Cal and UCLA -- among the Outcast Five -- secured the 12th and 14th spots.