ATLANTA — When Georgia won the national championship on New Year’s Day 1981 — AJC headline of Jan. 2: “Unbeaten, Untied, Unbelievable” — it played 12 games. Six were against SEC teams. This isn’t to impugn the Bulldogs’ schedule, which featured Clemson, South Carolina, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame and a non-SEC Texas A&M. This is to note that the conference opponents Georgia missed were Alabama, the reigning national titlist; Mississippi State, which dealt Bama its one loss; and LSU, which finished 7-4.
Of the four other teams that finished above .500 in league play, the Bulldogs faced only Florida. (Pretty sure you recall how that turned out.)
So: Six league games, as was the norm, and a nicely spaced six to boot. Georgia opened at Tennessee on Sept. 6. (Guessing you remember that, too.) The Bulldogs didn’t face another SEC foe until Oct. 11. That began a run of three games — Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky — against teams that would finish 3-15 in league play. Then a step out of conference for South Carolina and George Rogers. Then Florida in Jacksonville and Auburn, which was about to bid adieu to the overmatched Doug Barfield, at Auburn. And that, league-wise, was it.
We flash forward four decades, arriving at a year the likes of which none of us has known. The first non-conference opponent Georgia will face is unknown. It must first play 10 times against SEC opposition, with a potential 11th game awaiting at Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the league championship. This isn’t just unprecedented. Before COVID-19, it was unimaginable.
The SEC — let’s all say it together — is the nation’s roughest conference. The Big 12, which numbers 10 members, has adopted a play-everyone-else league schedule. For numerical reasons, the 14-team SEC couldn’t even if it so desired, which no SEC coach in his right mind would. The place where It Just Means More is Just Too Rough. But the virus hit, and everything changed.
For many reasons — a stated desire to travel less, a calculated move to push back the start date, an unstated desire to irk the ACC — the SEC wound up with a 10-game schedule, no outsiders allowed. By the second of those 10 Saturdays, we’ve already seen the difference it can make.
The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry was scheduled for its 125th installment Saturday night in Athens. “I’ve been a part of a lot of Auburn-Georgia games,” said Kirby Smart, who played for the Bulldogs and now coaches them. “I’ve never been part of one in Week 2.”
Not since 1936, when the series was then staged in Columbus, had these two met before November. Then the Bulldogs face Tennessee. Then they play Alabama in Tuscaloosa, then Kentucky in Lexington, then Florida in Jax. No bye weeks anywhere. Barely time to take a deep breath. Georgia has known tough stretches before — the run of LSU/Florida/Kentucky/Auburn of 2018 comes to mind, though an off-week was interspersed — but not many like this. And then come four MORE league games.
The point being: SEC teams have never been tasked with doing what a 2020 SEC assemblage must do — play somebody else from the Just-Means-More association 10 weeks running. History teaches us how difficult it is for great teams to go 8-0 in this league. Tack on two more games and see what happens.
Here’s how many of Nick Saban’s six national championship teams (one at LSU, five at Alabama) went unbeaten in the conference season — one. His 2003 Tigers lost to Florida; his 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2018 Crimson Tide lost, in order, to LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Auburn. Urban Meyer’s Florida BCS champs lost league games to Auburn (2006) and Ole Miss (2018.) Les Miles’ 2007 LSU champs lost twice — to Kentucky and Arkansas, each in three overtimes.
We saw strange doings in Week 1. Mississippi State, under the sword-swinging Mike Leach, went to Baton Rouge and beat No. 6 LSU, the unbeaten 2019 national champ. No. 10 Texas A&M struggled at home against Vanderbilt. No. 4 Georgia trailed Arkansas, which hasn’t won a conference game since 2017, at the half. No. 8 Auburn led Kentucky by two after three quarters. No. 5 Florida yielded 35 points to Ole Miss, now under the tutelage of the legendary Lane Kiffin.
That was Week 1. Week 2 saw no similar upheavals in the afternoon games, unless the grim truth that Will Muschamp still isn’t a head coach counts as breaking news. Florida is 2-0, but it must travel to College Station next. Tennessee is 2-0, but it faces a date with Georgia between the hedges. Oh, and Alabama? Still pretty good.
It’s 2020, and this is the SEC. There are no guarantee games to pad the record, no Saturdays off to rest and recalibrate. There’s just another test against another school that takes the sport as seriously as you do, week upon week upon week. It’s hard to imagine any team sailing through undefeated, Alabama included.
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)