In the 2009 edition of Rocky Top Tennessee (2010 edition here), Georgia Bulldog fan Doug Gillett contributed a fantastic four-pager on the Tennessee-Georgia rivalry. Although that was a year ago, the article is mostly historical, so we're re-publishing it here this week in four parts. Up today: The Early Years: Ringers, Interruptions, and Squashed Safeties.
What makes for a great college football rivalry? If it requires the two teams to play each other every year, then Georgia-Tennessee hasn't been a "great rivalry" for any more than 17 years, because they didn't become annual opponents until the Southeastern Conference realigned in 1992. If it requires the two programs to have more or less equal success against one another, then it's been a true rivalry for an even shorter period of time, as Georgia had to suffer through a decade of misery before finally notching their first post-realignment victory over the Big Orange.
But if a classic rivalry's primary ingredient is hate, then Georgia-Tennessee is on its way to classic status even with a relatively paltry 38 meetings between them. UGA-UT may have been played far fewer times than Tennessee-Alabama (91), Georgia-Florida (86), or even Georgia-Clemson (62), but few modern rivalries run on the kind of professional-grade, 98-octane schadenfreude that Georgia-Tennessee does. Part of it has to do with the streakiness of the series: Since the two teams first squared off 110 years ago, only four times (not counting last year) has either team won or lost only "one in a row." More often, one or the other has gone on a winning streak long enough to engender garment-rending, wrist-slitting angst and humiliation in their opponent, followed by that opponent rising up and taking out their frustrations for several long, gleeful years.
But it also has to do with the fact that, at least for the moment, there doesn't appear to be any of the kind of grudging respect sometimes found in rivalries like these. Rather, both fan bases just seem to be incredibly annoyed with one another. Admit it, Vol Nation, y'all have to suppress your collective gag reflex at the mere sound of Larry Munson's voice after being on the butt end of so many of his most famous calls ("My God a freshman," "hobnail boot," and "Sean Jones all the way," just for starters). We Bulldogs, meanwhile, still can't believe we let Phillip Fulmer build the longest winning streak we've ever given up to a single opponent. Even among the Dawg and Vol partisans for whom SEC football in general is a consuming passion, there are few smiles as they enter the second week in October, just plenty of sneers.
How'd it come to this in such a short amount of time? Perhaps a bit of history will teach us.
The Early Years: Ringers, Interruptions, and Squashed Safeties
Georgia and Tennessee first faced off on the gridiron on November 11, 1899. Georgia's program had seven seasons under its belt by that point, Tennessee only five-in fact, the '99 season was their first with an actual head coach. But Tennessee won at home, 5-0, and Georgia wouldn't get their shot at revenge for another four years, when they returned to Knoxville and won by the same score.
That hiatus became typical for this series: From 1899 to 1991, the Dawgs and Vols played each other only 21 times. From 1940 to 1968, they didn't play at all, skipping Robert Neyland's third UT tenure and the entirety of Wally Butts's storied Georgia career. But even so, the series was not without its highlights or controversies. In 1907, for instance, it was discovered that Georgia coach W.S. "Bull" Whitney had started a handful of paid "ringers" over the course of the season. Yet even with the ringers, Whitney's Dawgs couldn't manage any better than a 15-0 pasting by the Vols in Athens. (You just know that somewhere, one of Lane Kiffin's great-grandfathers was making a snarky comment about Georgia cheating and still not being able to win.)
Some of the most memorable moments of the Vince Dooley era at Georgia, too, came with the Vols on the opposing sideline. Dooley only managed an 0-2-1 mark in his first three cracks at the Big Orange, but he began his own streak in 1973, when the Dawgs were the Homecoming guests of Bill Battle's 11th-ranked Volunteers. At 6-1, the Vols had lived by the close game for most of the season, but on that Saturday they died by it: Leading 31-28 with just over two minutes left in the game and facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 28, Battle called for a fake punt-a decision that remains, to put it mildly, highly controversial-only to watch fullback Steve Chancey get buried immediately after taking the direct snap. Facing a short field, Georgia scored in five plays to win 35-31.
Dooley may have needed a head-scratcher of a play call from the opposing coach to win that game, but he didn't need one when he next faced the Vols in the 1980 season opener-all he needed was the indomitable spirit of a freshman tailback named Herschel Walker. Walker wasn't put into the game until the second quarter, but he did give Bulldog Nation a play that remains part of Sanford Stadium's pregame Jumbotron highlight reel to this day. Stuck in a 15-2 hole at halftime but having driven down to the Tennessee 16, the Dawgs gave the ball to Walker, who lowered his head and literally ran right over All-American safety Bill Bates on his way to a ridiculously easy-looking touchdown, not to mention the classic "My God, a freshman!" call from Larry Munson. Late in the game, the Dawgs recovered a fumble on the Tennessee 36 and sent Walker into the end zone one more time-a score that would clinch the victory and spark Georgia's 1980 national-title run. It would also spark Walker's legend, which continued over the next three seasons to include 5,259 rushing yards and a Heisman Trophy.
Dooley embarrassed the Vols at home in 1981 by a score of 44-0, and beat them one last time, 28-17, in the first game of his final season in 1988. He would finish his Hall of Fame career with a 4-3 mark against Tennessee, but with SEC expansion and realignment on the horizon, his immediate successors would not be so lucky.
TOMORROW: Stop, It's Not Funny Anymore: The Not-So-Gay Nineties.
-Doug Gillett writes about college football at heyjennyslater.blogspot.com, EDSBS.com, and SB Nation Atlanta. A proud alumnus of the University of Georgia, where he served as editor-in-chief of the school's independent student newspaper, he is also a paradox: He graduated two years before Phillip Fulmer's streak over the Dawgs finally came to a close, hence his white-hot loathing for all things Vol-but apparently not quite hot enough to keep him from dating a Tennessee grad. His struggles with his conscience are ongoing.