New Year’s Day, 1981.

The Atlanta metro population is roughly 2.2 million, about 1/3 of what it will be 40 years later. Most players on the 2020 Georgia football roster won’t be born for another two decades. Kirby Smart is a 5-year-old growing up in Bainbridge, Georgia, 40 miles north of Tallahassee. Future Bulldogs defensive coordinator Dan Lanning isn’t even born yet. The east end of Sanford Stadium is still a wide-open cavity, so fans gather by the railroad tracks and take in games for free.

Not one of them has ever heard the word “COVID-19.”

But fans and foes of Georgia know this day best as the last time the team from Athens reached the top of the college football heap. Both the older generation who lived it and the youngsters who read about it and watch old clips on YouTube lament the fact. Fans of other SEC programs know the date just as well — it’s often their first piece of ammo when it comes to smack talk.

But the Dawgs have embraced it, right down to their new Nike uniforms honoring that 1980 team. The one that featured Herschel Walker, Buck Belue, Vince Dooley and the vocal cords of Larry Munson and ended with a national championship-clinching Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame.

So much has changed since then. And so much hasn’t.

But while they might not admit it out loud, the Dawg dreamers — both inside and outside Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall — have to at least entertain the question.

Could this finally be the year?

Any chance at dominance will be predicated upon defense

It’s a wide-open SEC, even more than normal. Alabama is most prognosticators’ favorite, and a coronavirus-impacted Cocktail Party on Nov. 7 will likely decide who faces the Crimson Tide in the conference title game.

That’s assuming we get that far. Any college football season is a statistician’s sandbox, fraught with variables and unexpected turns that happen when you ask 11 18-22-year-old young men to pull in a common direction. Throw in a worldwide pandemic that cuts down crowd sizes, rocks campuses and requires stringent medical protocols just to field a team, and you’ve got a prediction job so fluid it’d make even a meteorologist nervous.

Not to mention a creature of habit like a Division I coach.

“Composure’s always a very key ingredient,” Smart told reporters. “It’s always a concern of mine. … Usually composure is a little bit mimicked by maturity. There more mature you are, the better composure you can keep.”

It’ll take both to get through this all-SEC slate. It’ll also take depth, which Georgia has in droves — especially on the defensive side of the ball. Leading tackler Monty Rice and cornerbacks D.J. Daniel and Eric Stokes highlight a group that returns the bulk of its talent after leading FBS in scoring defense last year.


“We don’t need anybody … to start feeling themselves based off last year,” Rice said this week. “Y’all like to psych us up on Twitter and all that because we did so great last year, but (Week 1 opponent) Arkansas and that group over there, they don’t care about what happened last year. Neither do we.”

Stalwart stopping power is table stakes against the likes of Bama, Kyle-Trask led Florida and — if a Playoff appearance comes to pass — Clemson.

Could the Dawgs make it that far? They’d likely at least need to go undefeated before the SEC Championship Game, or win it if they come in with a loss. The Big Ten’s recent return-to-play announcement adds Ohio State or perhaps another challenger to the 4-team mix.

But we’ve seen staunch defenses carry teams through the SEC gauntlet and to a national crown before. The 2012 Alabama team — with a defense coached by Smart — comes to mind.

It’s even more important considering the Bulldogs don’t even know who their starting quarterback is yet. But whether it’s JT Daniels or D’Wan Mathis, the skill around them and offensive line in front of them is fraught with potential.

‘It’s time to make a statement’

Potential is a cruel mistress, though. It can make your heart skip a beat one week and see it ripped out the next.

That’s a sensation Georgia fans from Helen to Tybee Island know all too well. The 2017 National Championship Game is the most extreme of seemingly countless examples covering the past 40 years.

The next test comes Saturday at Arkansas. A total of 16,000-17,000 fans will be in attendance. Smart will square off against former Dawgs offensive line coach Sam Pittman.

It also comes against the backdrop of COVID-19 and a year of political and social unrest. While football might pale in comparison to the issues that have arisen in the world this year, it does have a way of healing while helping.

It’s hard to imagine a group of players from different backgrounds gathering to speak out against racism like the Bulldogs did Sept. 2, with full support of their head coach, and not coming out of it tighter.

“We believe in education and action,” Smart said. “We want to educate our players every way possible in the proper ways for them to take action and the ways they can bring about change.”

And with the season hanging in the balance all summer, the latest opportunity to restore glory in the Peach State isn’t taken for granted.

Who knows how far it could go?

“I was not very confident that we were going to play this year, especially after the other conferences shut it down,” Rice said. “We here for a reason, so let’s play.”

Said receiver Kearis Jackson: “It’s time to make a statement. I believe everybody (on our team) has the ability to do that. … Everybody you put into that game, they gonna ball regardless.”