What does it take to win an SEC championship?
A superior level of talent (stoked by a successful recruiting program) is a big plus, of course, and not just at the skill positions. Who you’ve got up front counts a lot on both sides.
An experienced coaching staff that knows how to teach what they’re asking the players to do also helps, as does having a well-funded program with top-flight facilities.
An advantageous schedule doesn’t hurt, either. And having your key players stay pretty healthy is big.
But, even with all that in place, it still can be difficult to break through the cluster of other programs that also have them.
So it is that, despite having twice made it to the SEC Championship game in the past four seasons, it’s been a decade since Mark Richt’s Bulldogs won the conference.
Assuming Georgia settles its quarterback competition successfully and doesn’t see another season marred by a rash of injuries, the Dawgs are again seen as having a good chance of playing in Atlanta in December.
However, a championship season usually hinges on a few key factors that make the difference, elevating a team from good to great.
We’re going to look at four of those keys to a championship over the next month here at the Blawg, starting today with No. 1: Quarterback play.
At some point, regardless of how well Nick Chubb and company are playing, the quarterback (whoever that ends up being) will have to step up and put the team on his back, making some big plays and leading a drive to win a game.
Aaron Murray had to do it too many times to count, and even then never quite got that championship. Sometimes, it was in a game that was expected to be closely contested, like in 2013 like when he threw a touchdown pass with 5 seconds remaining in regulation to send the game at Tennessee into overtime after Keith Marshall (subbing for a hurt Todd Gurley) had been lost to injury.
Other times, it was one of those games where Georgia came out looking flat against a lesser opponent, as in 2012 against Kentucky, when the Dawgs’ defense was having trouble stopping the Wildcats’ running game and Georgia eked out a 29-24 win thanks to Murray throwing four touchdown passes.
There are lots of other examples of the quarterback making the difference, whether it’s Matthew Stafford tossing that perfect overtime touchdown pass to Mikey Henderson to beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa in 2007 or, back in Richt’s first season, the game in Knoxville where Georgia got the ball trailing 24-20 with 44 seconds remaining and a relatively untested David Greene played like an iceman, bringing the Dawgs down the field to win with the fabled “hobnail boot” pass to Verron Haynes. Greene had seven other fourth-quarter comebacks in his UGA career.
Even back in that magical 1980 national championship season, with college football’s greatest ever tailback, Herschel Walker, playing a great game, quarterback Buck Belue still had to make a play against Florida, scrambling on third down on his own 8-yard-line before finding an open Lindsay Scott, in order to keep the Dawgs unbeaten.
Last season, you could say that, in part, Georgia fell short of winning the SEC East because Hutson Mason didn’t make enough plays against South Carolina or Florida. But Mason did rise up and lead his team to make what should have been the late game-winning drive against Tech. (The fact that it ultimately didn’t result in a win is due to a different factor we’ll discuss another day.)
Everything else aside, though, the bottom line is that, even with an all-world running back like Chubb and what looks to be an improved defense, if Georgia is going to win its first SEC title in a decade, there will come a point this season when Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta or Greyson Lambert has to step up and win the game.
In other words, they must rise to the occasion, as Erk Russell would say.
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg
Bill King is an Athens native and a graduate of the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. A lifelong Bulldogs fan, he sold programs at Sanford Stadium as a teen and has been a football season ticket holder since leaving school. He has worked at the AJC since college and spent 10 years as the Constitution’s rock music critic before moving into copy editing on the old afternoon Journal. In addition to blogging, he’s now a story editor.