Until last season, Georgia hadn’t played for a national championship since 1982, when it was still riding the back of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who had led the Bulldogs to a national title only two years earlier as a freshman.
Before the 2005 season, when star quarterback Vince Young led Texas to a 41-38 upset of USC in the Rose Bowl in what was arguably the greatest college football game ever played, the Longhorns hadn’t won a national title in 35 years.
They’ve sniffed one only once since.
Despite being members of different conferences, rarely playing each other and being separated by about 1,000 miles, the No. 5 Bulldogs and No. 15 Longhorns still have much in common heading into the Allstate Sugar Bowl at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on New Year’s Day (8:45 p.m. ET on ESPN).
The blue-blood programs haven’t met since Georgia’s 10-9 victory in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2, 1984.
“I think they’re very similar programs,” said South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, who played at Georgia and coached at Texas. “In terms of recruiting and the expectations they face every year, there are a lot of similarities between them.”
For starters, both programs are located in states with extremely fertile recruiting bases. According to research by Dave Campbell’s Texas Football Monthly, Texas produced 333 FBS signees in 2017, which was second only to Florida’s 354. Georgia was No. 3 with 220, which was ahead of California, even though the Peach State has about one-fifth the population.
Texas and Georgia are also among the richest Division I athletics departments in the country. The Longhorns ranked No. 1 among FBS schools, with $214.8 million in revenue during the 2016-17 academic year, according to USA Today research, while the Bulldogs ranked sixth with $157.8 million. Georgia coach Kirby Smart is the sixth-highest-paid coach in the FBS at $6.6 million per season; Texas’ Tom Herman is ninth at $5.5 million.
Those aren’t the only comparisons, either. Until recently, both teams were widely considered to be underachievers. And now, as the Bulldogs and Longhorns try to claw their way back to the top, they each have powerhouse programs standing in their way in their conferences — Alabama in the SEC, and Oklahoma in the Big 12.
“I’ve always thought both haven’t reached their potential,” former Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer said. “Both aren’t at the optimum of what they could be. Georgia’s good, really good. But they used to be great. Texas went from average to poor, and that shouldn’t happen at Texas and not in that state.”
After years of falling just short under former coach Mark Richt, who won 145 games and two SEC titles in 15 seasons, Georgia has returned to national prominence under Smart, a former Bulldogs defensive back.
In 2017, Georgia won its first SEC title in 12 years, defeated Oklahoma 54-48 in two overtimes in a thrilling College Football Playoff semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game Presented by Northwestern Mutual and lost to Alabama 26-23 in overtime in the CFP National Championship.
Georgia went 11-2 this past season, won the SEC East and lost to the Crimson Tide 35-28 in the SEC championship game after blowing a pair of 14-point leads.
“We hadn’t participated in a bowl like this in 10 years,” Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity said. “That’s a tremendous gap. We just never were able to reach that level until, really, last year.”
Smart, a former Alabama defensive coordinator, seems to be only getting started. The Bulldogs signed the No. 1 recruiting class (ahead of the Crimson Tide) in 2017 and had the No. 2 class (behind the Tide) following the early signing period in December.
Of course, Georgia is probably going have to figure out a way to beat Alabama on the field if it’s going to win its first national championship in 39 years in 2019.
“I think disappointment is a part of life,” Smart told reporters in New Orleans on Monday. “I think everybody in this room can say they’ve been disappointed at some time or another, they’ve been let down. But it actually makes when you do things well that much grander, because if you just won all the time or you just had success all the time, you’d never feel the agony of that disappointment.”
Texas fans have known about disappointment all too well since Young dashed into the end zone for the winning touchdown with 19 seconds left against the Trojans in the 2006 Rose Bowl.
The Longhorns reached the BCS National Championship after the 2009 season but lost to Alabama 37-21 after starting quarterback Colt McCoy was injured.
Texas never reached 10 wins again in Mack Brown’s final four seasons, and then Brown’s replacement, Charlie Strong, had three consecutive seven-loss seasons from 2014-16.
“Texas had its run, but they’ve struggled recently,” McGarity said. “I do think they’re two brands that are on an upward swing.”
Herman, who was hired away from Houston to replace Strong, went 7-6 in 2017 and then 9-4 this past season, including a 48-45 upset of No. 7 Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game in Dallas (the Sooners won the rematch 39-27 in the Big 12 championship game).
Texas signed the No. 9 recruiting class in the country in December, according to ESPN Recruiting research.
Todd McShay talks about the best NFL prospects in the Sugar Bowl including Texas wide receiver Collin Johnson and Georgia defensive back Deandre Baker.
“I think the national brand of Texas has stepped up with some of the bigger games they’ve been able to play in,” Smart said. “I know from a recruiting standpoint, we’ve gone head-to-head because he’s come to Georgia and recruited nationally. He’s come to Florida and recruited nationally. And we’ve gone to Texas. So we’ve had more times that we’ve actually crossed paths than I ever remember during my time at Alabama.”
A victory over Georgia might serve as a springboard for Texas, although the Longhorns might have to replace more than a dozen starters heading into Herman’s third season in 2019.
Longhorns quarterback Sam Ehlinger hopes underclassmen such as star receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey return for their senior seasons. The return of Georgia stars such as Nick Chubb and Sony Michel helped catapult the Bulldogs to the CFP in 2017.
“This is an elite game, this is an elite team, and winning this game would put us in a position to understand that next year, we have the ability to do whatever we want to do if we work like we have this season,” Ehlinger said. “I think it would be a huge step for this team.”
The Longhorns are trying to win 10 games in a season for the first time in nine years. Herman believes his team is ready for the challenge.
“For the first time in a long time, I think we understand that our best is good enough,” Herman said. “If we play our best, we can play with and/or beat any team in the country.”
Although beating Texas might not be consolation for letting another game slip away against Alabama — which cost the Bulldogs a second straight CFP appearance — ending the season on a good note is another important step in building an elite program, according to Smart.
“The comeback is what you do this for,” he said. “So this is our opportunity to go out and finish it and do it the right way, and we want to do that.”