Can Georgia football end 40 years of frustration with a national title?

ATHENS, Georgia -- Quarterback JT Daniels remembers the first time his family made the drive from the Atlanta airport to the University of Georgia campus when he was in the process of transferring.

"Seeing all the Georgia Bulldog flags flying everywhere, to experience what it's like for football to be such a main focal point, I've loved it ever since I got here," Daniels said.

Daniels, who spent two seasons at USC before transferring to Georgia in 2020, was probably as impressed with the Bulldogs' $31 million indoor practice facility, $63 million expansion of Sanford Stadium and $80 million football operations facility, which was still being built at the time.

"Football is just another thing on the West Coast vs. football being the thing here," Daniels said.

So imagine Daniels' surprise the first time he heard that the Bulldogs hadn't won a national championship since 1980.

For a program that cares so much and spends so much, is centrally located in one of the most fertile recruiting hotbeds of the country and plays in inarguably the best conference in the FBS, winning another national title has been painfully elusive for far too long.

"If it's not coming, then what are we doing?" Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. "I don't look at it from the perspective of winning. I look at it from the perspective of what's important now, what are we doing now? And I know the people in this organization, the administration, the people in the state, the people that love Georgia and the energy and enthusiasm they have, it's just always been long overdue, right? I don't care if you won one year ago, it's overdue. So, for me, that's the end game, that's the goal. That's what you're always trying to work toward."

According to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information, 30 different teams have won a national championship since the FBS/FCS split in 1978. None of them has an active drought longer than Georgia's. Since the Bulldogs' last national championship in 1980, they've had 16 top-10 finishes in the final AP poll, the most during that span among teams that haven't won a title.

The No. 5 Bulldogs will take the first step in trying to end that dubious 41-year drought when they play No. 3 Clemson on Saturday night (ABC, 7:30 p.m. ET) at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"I wouldn't have imagined it would be 41 years," former Georgia coach Vince Dooley said. "We went 20 years without winning an SEC championship."

In 1982, Georgia's opener against Clemson had as much anticipation and hype as this year's matchup. The Bulldogs, with Herschel Walker leading the way as a freshman, had won the national championship two years before, while the Tigers captured their first national title in 1981, beating Georgia 13-3 at Death Valley along the way.

The season opener between the previous two national champions on Labor Day was so big that ABC elected to broadcast the game on Monday night -- a prime-time slot typically reserved for the NFL in those days. A loss wouldn't knock either team out of the national championship race. But long before the days of a four-team College Football Playoff, there was much less margin for error, even in a season opener.

Walker, playing with a bulky cast on his right hand because of a broken thumb, didn't play until the second half and was mostly used as a decoy in Georgia's 13-7 victory. He went on to win the Heisman Trophy and lead the Bulldogs to an undefeated regular season and their third straight SEC championship that year. But the No. 1 Bulldogs lost to No. 2 Penn State 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl, costing them their second national title in three seasons.

Clemson would wait another 35 years to win a second national title. Dabo Swinney, a Tigers assistant coach with no previous head-coaching experience when he got Clemson's top job, finally ended the drought, guiding the Tigers to College Football Playoff national titles in 2016 and 2018. Swinney did it with two quarterbacks from Georgia high schools: Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence.

Georgia has come agonizingly close to playing for -- or even winning -- a national title a handful of times since 1980, including a 26-23 loss in overtime to Alabama in the 2017 CFP title game.

Dooley, who turns 89 on Saturday, retired as Georgia's coach in 1988. Walker, 59, announced last month that he's running for the U.S. Senate. That's how long the Bulldogs have waited to win it all again.

So how do the Bulldogs end the drought?

"Just win that game you need to win to get in, I guess," former Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "It's not rocket science. If you get to that game, the one that gets you in, you've got to win it. It's just how it goes. I'm sure they're doing all the right things, but just because you're doing all the right things doesn't mean you're going to win. Georgia was in the playoff. They were on the verge of winning the national championship. I don't think they did anything wrong, it just got away from them."

If the CFP had been introduced before 2014, Georgia might have already ended its title dry spell. Richt's teams averaged nearly 10 wins per season during his 15-year tenure at Georgia from 2001 to 2015. The 2002 team, led by current College GameDay analyst David Pollack and quarterback David Greene, ended the Bulldogs' 20-year streak without an SEC title. Georgia finished No. 3 in the final AP poll.

The 2007 team, which featured quarterback Matthew Stafford, went 11-2 but didn't win the SEC East because of losses to South Carolina and Tennessee. The Bulldogs were left out of the BCS National Championship and looked like one of the best teams in the FBS while routing Hawaii 41-10 in the Sugar Bowl.

Five years later, Richt had his best chance at taking Georgia to the promised land. Georgia led Alabama 21-10 in the SEC championship game, but squandered the lead and lost 32-28 after Chris Conley caught a pass at the Tide's 5-yard line only to have time run out.

"When you do think about it, we had a chance to make it to the BCS championship game," Richt said. "When you're that close to making it, regardless of who you're going to play, it hurts. I've thought about it over time, mostly people bringing it up to me. There might have been two or three years when we might have gotten in [a four-team playoff]."

Richt parted ways with Georgia after the 2015 season and was replaced by Smart, a former Bulldogs defensive back and longtime Alabama defensive coordinator. After going 8-5 in his first season, Smart's teams have gone 44-9 over the past four. They've played in three of the past four SEC championship games, winning in 2017, after which they came from behind to beat Oklahoma 54-48 in two overtimes in the Rose Bowl, but lost to Alabama in the CFP National Championship game.

That game ended in overtime, too, on the famous second-and-26 play in which Tide backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw the winning touchdown to future Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith.

"It hasn't happened because they haven't made the plays," said former Georgia kicker Kevin Butler, whose 60-yard field goal was the difference in a 26-23 upset of No. 2 Clemson in 1984. "They've been in the position to do it, but just haven't made the play. Alabama made the play. They certainly have the ability, they have the talent and now they have to go make the plays. When it comes down to those games, Georgia has to be on the other end. That's how you win championships."

With another college football season kicking off, Georgia fans from Athens to Augusta to Atlanta to Savannah have spent the past eight months pondering the same, decades-old question: Is this the year the Bulldogs finally kick down the door?

"I think if it's going to happen with Kirby, it's going to happen in the next two or three years," Dooley said.

Daniels, who became only the second freshman to start at quarterback for USC in 2018, then suffered a torn ACL in the 2019 opener, is much of the reason for the optimism. After recovering from the knee injury, he started the final three games of the 2020 regular season for Georgia, as well as the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Cincinnati, leading the Bulldogs to four straight victories. He completed 67% of his passes for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions.

Georgia fans are hoping he's even better another year removed from the knee injury and with a full offseason under his belt in offensive coordinator Todd Monken's system. Monken also was new to the team last year, and COVID-19 restrictions complicated the installation of his offense.

"It is different when you come into the season as a starter," Monken said. "I think he is more comfortable with our players. I think the second part is that he is just very comfortable with the offense and his ability to change things at the line of scrimmage. He just has a greater command [of the offense], which is normal. As we keep evolving offensively, he really appears to be in control of what we want done."

How much the Bulldogs open up the offense remains to be seen. In Smart's previous five seasons, they didn't rank higher than fifth in the SEC in passing. When they reached the CFP title game in 2017, they ranked 12th with freshman Jake Fromm under center.

"When we first got here, the first couple of years, you didn't feel like you had to outscore people," Smart said. "We felt like we could win with a good defense and a solid offense, and, to be honest, Alabama wasn't that much different than us the year they beat us. Most of the [Crimson Tide] wideouts that just went in the first round [of the NFL draft] were freshmen that year. To me, nobody really had that model until LSU did it [with quarterback Joe Burrow in 2019]."

With Daniels and a talented receiver corps returning this season, Smart believed he had the "perfect storm" to open things up on offense. But then star receiver George Pickens tore the ACL in his right knee in spring practice. It's unknown whether he'll play this season. LSU transfer Arik Gilbert, who was supposed to play receiver at Georgia, hasn't been with the team for weeks because of personal reasons. Tight end Darnell Washington broke his foot last month and probably won't play against Clemson.

With so many playmakers out, Georgia figures to rely on its running game and defense, at least early in the season.

"Everybody makes it about my philosophy, but I've wanted to score ever since I've been here," Smart said. "All I asked was that you have a tight end and you have running backs because that attracts the best quarterbacks. The best quarterback wants to play in an NFL-style system."

Smart admits that his offensive philosophy has evolved over the past couple of years.

"The NFL has changed in the last five years, too," he said. "Now it's five [wideouts], pass-happy and running backs like [Christian] McCaffrey and [Alvin] Kamara who are great receivers. When I got the job at Georgia, that wasn't the way the NFL was. It all changed when LSU started throwing it around and breaking all the SEC records on offense, and then Alabama broke all their records the next year. That's the model now. It's not the model built around having a great defense; it's the model having really elite wideouts and a quarterback that can make really good decisions."

Regardless of whether Georgia beats Clemson on Saturday night, the Bulldogs figure to be favored in their remaining 11 regular-season games. Win those and they will play for an SEC championship, maybe against Alabama again. Smart's teams are 0-3 against his former boss, Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide have won six national titles under Saban since 2009, three in the past six years.

"I don't have any doubt that we can play with Alabama, we've done it three times," Smart said. "We're just as good as them, and we've gone toe-to-toe with them."

If Georgia finally gets over that elephant-sized hurdle, its drought might finally end.