Disbelief, relief and euphoria. Those were the primary emotions felt by me and evident in the Georgia fans around me in the stands at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis as the clock hit zero on Monday night. The UGA football team had just defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide 33-18 to capture the Bulldogs’ first national championship since 1980.
The scene was one to behold and was unlike anything I have ever experienced. Grown men (and women) shed tears of joy, total strangers hugged each other and people remained sitting in their seats for multiple minutes in shock, soaking it all in to assuredly remember and tell years later. It was surreal.
With the win, UGA head coach Kirby Smart and his team had not only taken home the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy for the first time in school history but had also finally taken down their archnemeses of Nick Saban and Alabama. No one could create a better ending to the season than that.
And what a special season 2021 was. After a close 10-3 win over Clemson in Week 1, the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division champion Georgia Bulldogs dominated its competition the rest of the regular season, outscoring opponents 478-80 and finishing 12-0 heading into the SEC Championship against SEC West Champion Alabama.
Unfortunately for UGA, the SEC Championship did not go the Bulldogs’ way. The Tide’s future Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young lit up what was considered a historically great UGA defense for 421 yards through the air, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in Alabama’s 41-24 victory in Atlanta. The big loss had college football fans, many media members and even some UGA fans questioning how good the Bulldogs really were, particularly on defense.
UGA quarterback Stetson Bennett was arguably under the most scrutiny of any single player after the SEC Championship loss. The former walk-on from Blackshear was benched at the end of the 2020 season in favor of J.T. Daniels and was listed as the third-string quarterback on the depth chart heading into the 2021 campaign.
Due to a nagging injury of Daniels, Bennett was surprisingly reinserted into the lineup and started against the University of Alabama-Birmingham in Week 2 and threw for five touchdown passes in the first half alone on the way to a 56-7 route by UGA.
However, Daniels started against South Carolina and Vanderbilt in the ensuing weeks and played very well. Further nagging injuries of Daniels led Smart to start Bennett against then-No. 8 Arkansas in a huge game in which ESPN’s College Gameday was present. Bennett proved he was ready. Bennett, along with a balanced run-game and a historically great defense won that game 37-0 and never looked back. Bennett kept the job the rest of the season, and the Bulldogs dominated the rest of the way.
Despite this fact, many media members and fans were questioning if Bennett was truly good enough to lead the Bulldogs to a national title after the loss to ‘Bama in Atlanta. Regardless of the result, UGA was included in the College Football (CFB) Playoff at 12-1 and was set to face No. 2 Michigan in the Orange Bowl.
The questions surrounding the team leading up to the CFB Playoff Semifinal matchup were many. Besides the questions about Bennett’s ability to take the Dawgs all the way, many wondered how would UGA respond after the tough loss to Alabama. Was the SEC Championship game just a bad game for the defense and UGA as a whole, or was this indicative of what some considered an easy schedule?
The Bulldogs went a long way to answering all these questions, as they dominated the Big Ten Champion Wolverines from the get-go to win 34-11. Bennett had arguably the best game of his career, throwing for 313 yards on 20-of-30 passing for three touchdowns and zero interceptions and rushing for 32 yards.
However, the questions would never be fully answered unless the Dawgs got over the hump against Alabama in the national championship, which both teams reached with Georgia’s win over Michigan and Alabama’s thumping of Cincinnati in the other CFB Playoff Semifinal game.
In the national championship, UGA silenced all doubters and answered all those questions in full. The dominant UGA defense held Alabama’s offense to 18 points, Bennett (a.k.a. Rudy times 10) delivered when he had to, including making some big-time throws in the second half, Smart got his first national title and the 1980 jokes from opposing fans could finally be put to rest.
There is not enough space in this entire sports section to cover every single storyline from the game and the season. It was absolutely magical, particularly the ending.
When time expired in Indianapolis, several thoughts came to mind. I thought about my late grandfather, who was the biggest Bulldog fan I knew, and how much he would have enjoyed the win. I thought about what the win meant to so many people in the state of Georgia and UGA fans across the country. I thought about all we have been through from COVID-19, civil unrest and political division and turmoil. I thought about how wonderful it was that all of that was forgotten at that moment by many people, particularly in the stands and in the state of Georgia.
I genuinely do not think many non-UGA fans can truly understand how much Monday night meant to Dawg Nation. The win brought so many people together, and I personally talked to people after the game that I had not spoken to in years.
There is a famous phrase that was coined by the late, great UGA announcer Larry Munson in 1980 — Dawgs On Top. UGA fans have used it for years, and the saying has appeared on numerous shirts and other apparel throughout the decades.
This year it is finally true to its full extent. While it does not appear that Smart and UGA are going anywhere, no one knows exactly when their next title will be. One thing is for certain — no one can take 2021 away from UGA fans.
DAWGS ON TOP!