1976 Georgia Football: An Outright SEC Championship

In the eleven years since Vince Dooley came to Georgia, the proud Bulldog program had been successful, but were generally submerged behind Bear Bryant’s Alabama in the SEC. 1968 was Georgia’s last conference championship. The 1976 Georgia football team broke through and captured an outright league title.

Georgia had, even by the standards of 1976, a run-heavy offense, led by quarterback Ray Goff. The man who one day would be the Bulldog head coach, was the SEC Player of the Year thanks to his running ability. He ran for 724 yards, and Kevin McLee was the top back, with over 1,000 yards. Mike Wilson and Joel Parrish, a pair of All-American offensive lineman, paved the way for the powerful ground attack. The defense was led by end Dickey Clark and safety Bill Krug, each of whom made all-conference.

The Dawgs opened the season ranked #16 and their first game was at home with Cal, who was ranked #15. The Golden Bears proved to be overrated and Georgia quickly exposed that with an easy 36-24 win. There were a series of upsets around the country and the Bulldogs immediately moved up to #9 in the polls.

Traditional rivals, Clemson, and South Carolina were both pedestrian in 1976. Georgia racked up wins of 41-0 and 20-12 respectively. Now, Alabama was coming to town.

Big games between Georgia and Alabama were rare in the late 1970s and early 1980s, even though both teams were good. There were only six SEC games each year and Bulldogs-Tide didn’t get priority. But they were playing this year in Athens. And the Dawg defense delivered—they held ‘Bama to 86 yards on the ground and won 21-0. Georgia moved to #4 in the rankings.

But a letdown followed—a 21-17 loss at mediocre Ole Miss and the Bulldogs went plummeting to #11. They bounced back with a 45-0 blasting of lowly Vanderbilt. That set up another big game, this time with Kentucky.

Georgia and Kentucky had one conference loss, and were chasing Florida, who had yet to lose in league play. The Bulldogs needed to win this game and set up their annual November rivalry game with the Gators.  

The Bulldogs went on the road and made a big statement with an easy 31-7 win. They were now ranked #7 and followed that up by beating a pretty good Cincinnati team, 31-17 at home. It was time for the Cocktail Party rivalry game.

Florida was not the perennial football power that it became in the 1990s, but their 1976 team was one of the best the school had seen to that time. They had overcome a season-opening loss to North Carolina, were 6-1, and ranked 10th in the country. The winner of this game had the inside track to the SEC championship and the automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl.

The Georgia defense couldn’t keep up early in the game and gave up 27 points in the first half, trailing by two touchdowns. Goff quickly got his team back in the game with a touchdown pass and then the defense, aided by some questionable Florida game management, stepped up.

It was 4th-and-1 for Florida on their own 29-yard line and head coach Doug Dickey opted to go for it. “Fourth And Dumb” is how the play lives in Gator infamy. The Dawgs made the stop, scored the touchdown and the momentum irrevocably shifted. Georgia won 41-27.

The Bulldogs still needed to close out their SEC title and they did it with a 28-0 win at a bad Auburn team. Georgia was #4 in the nation. Their path to the national title was realistically blocked, with USC and Michigan both ranked ahead of them and playing each other in the Rose Bowl. But the Bulldogs did have a chance to play spoiler—the #1-ranked Pitt Panthers were ticketed as their opponent in the Sugar Bowl.

Before that happened, Georgia had the traditional Thanksgiving Saturday game with Georgia Tech. A shaky 13-10 win nudged the Dawgs down to #5 in the polls as they got ready for Pitt.

The Panthers had a Heisman Trophy-winning running back by the name of Tony Dorsett, and the Bulldogs stacked the box with eight men to try and deal with him. But things didn’t go as well defensively as they had against Alabama and Kentucky. Pitt was able to open things up in the passing game, Dorsett still went off for over 200 yards, and Georgia was pounded, 27-3.

It was a disappointing ending, but 1976 was still a year when Georgia won an outright SEC championship, and still held on to a final #10 ranking. The Bulldogs slipped back to mediocrity two of the next three seasons. But their ultimate vindication wasn’t far off—the arrival of a freshman running back named Herschel Walker and a national championship year in 1980.