"As good as anyone in the country"
1992 wasn't supposed to be Georgia's year, but the Bulldogs returned to top form, winning more games than any other season since 1983. It started off with a bang, too.
South Carolina, which had joined the SEC in the early 1990s, was slated to take on Georgia in its first ever SEC game and the first ever division match up for both programs. Also, the Bulldogs had not played the Gamecocks since they rotated off the schedule in 1989, which was a Carolina win.
Carolina came out strong, but the game developed into a one-sided affair. Georgia rolled past the Cocks 28-6. But seven days later Tennessee upset Georgia 34-31 in Athens. The loss put Georgia behind the eight ball in the Eastern Division. Georgia took care of business against Cal State Fullerton, Ole Miss, and Arkansas before dismissing Georgia Southern on October 10th. That month, the Gamecocks did Georgia a favor by upsetting Tennessee in Columbia. Georgia was in first place in the SEC East and seemed on its way to the SEC Championship Game.
"We had great team chemistry," Zeier recalls. "Garrison Hearst had a fantastic year that year; Andre Hastings played well. We were strong through both interior lines."
All of that added up to one of the most exciting seasons the Bulldogs had in nearly a decade.
After enacting revenge on Vandy and thumping Kentucky, Georgia set its eyes on Florida. The Gators, however, slipped out of Jacksonville with a two-point win, and gave themselves a lead in the East they never relinquished.
"We had a couple of cases where we were a little unlucky," Zeier said of the loss.
Georgia's two season-ending rivals still remained. At Auburn, Georgia needed a little luck at the end of the game to make the clock run out on Auburn's upset bid. Georgia held on 14-10 to win even though the Tigers were knocking on the door at the end of the game.
Hearst ended Georgia's season with a Heisman-like performance against the Jackets – thrashing them for 169 yards and three touchdowns in Georgia's 31-17 win. The win gave Georgia an invitation to the Citrus Bowl on New Year's where they outlasted Ohio State 21-14.
"We were 10-2 and as good as anyone in the country," Goff said of his 1992 squad.
Georgia's solid season fueled expectations for 1993. But Goff's Bulldogs were not able to meet those expectations, and eventually the support around Goff started to break out from under him.
The Turning Point
From the start of the 1993 season forward, things just never seemed to go Goff's way. The Bulldogs were touted as one of the teams to beat in the SEC. In fact, they entered the season as the #13 team in the country, but that lasted only a week.
After fighting back from a 17-7 fourth quarter deficit to take a 21-17 lead, Georgia's defense allowed South Carolina to drive the field in the last 2:52 of the game to win. Brandon Bennett scored on a one-yard dive into the end zone with two seconds left in the game. Carolina won 23-21.
Georgia, and Ray Goff's coaching career, never fully recovered.
The next week Tennessee scored 24 consecutive points to beat Georgia in Knoxville 38-6. Georgia then outscored Texas Tech 52-37 before losing to Ole Miss and Arkansas on back to back weekends. The Bulldogs then won three in a row against undermanned Southern Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which gave them a chance to save their season in Jacksonville, and they had their chance to pull the upset, too.
After trailing most of the rain-filled day, Georgia came to the 12-yard line down 33-26 with only five seconds to go in the game. Zeier hit Jerry Jerman for a touchdown and Georgia celebrated what looked like the tying score.
In the commotion of the moment no one noticed that Florida's Anthone Lott had called a timeout just before the snap of the ball. The touchdown was wiped off the scoreboard. Thanks to a pass interference call, Georgia had two more chances to score, but Zeier's 65th passing attempt, a Bulldog record, was behind Jeff Thomas and Florida won.
The Gators went on to win the SEC. Georgia ended the season with a loss to Auburn and a thrashing of Georgia Tech. The Bulldogs ended the season 5-6, Goff's second and final losing season.
After lofty expectations came crashing down, the pressure was on Goff again, but even more so this time. Pressure from boosters became a little better known. Dooley never made much of it in the newspapers, but he told Goff to turn the ship around in 1994. With Zeier being touted as a possible Heisman candidate his senior season, people were expecting Georgia to deliver in 1994.
The Bulldogs got off to a good start. Georgia was 3-1 out of the game with their only loss coming to powerful Tennessee. The solid start set Georgia up for a pivotal matchup with Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
The Tide, however, nipped Georgia after a see-saw battle when Michael Proctor hit a 32-yard field goal with 1:12 remaining in the game. The defeat was difficult to stomach.
"Just getting it all to mesh, we seemed to struggle with it a little bit," Zeier recalled about the game with the Tide. "We played well and gave Alabama a very, very close game, but we just came up on the short end of the stick."
The next week Georgia recovered to slay Clemson 40-14. The season was going up and down, but the Dawgs were about to hit a new low.
Vanderbilt had tripped up Georgia once before in the Goff era, an upset in Nashville during the 1991 campaign. But this time Vandy didn't squeak out a win they punished Georgia 43-30. The loss may have done Goff in for good. It was Georgia's first Homecoming loss since 1961. Vandy, long considered a bottom-tier SEC program – out rushed Georgia 415 to 60. The loss was crushing.
"The feeling on that is just like any game that you don't play up to your potential, and you're disappointed," Zeier remembered about that day. "There wasn't any kind of berating going on, or anything of that nature."
The berating, it seemed, was being reserved for Goff's call-in radio show. Fans pelted him over and over again about the loss.
"Everybody fired me," Goff told The Sporting News later that year about the calls he got on his show after the loss to Vandy. It's something he is still sensitive about to this day.
The writing was on the wall. Goff's job was in serious jeopardy. If things didn't turn around quick Goff could be fired by the end of the year.
Georgia needed a late fourth quarter touchdown from Zeier to Hason Graham to get a 34-30 win over Kentucky seven days later. The following week Florida beat Georgia senseless in the first game in Gainesville since 1931. The final score was 52-14. Florida went on to win the SEC.
Pressure was mounting.
"I'm very disappointed and concerned," Dooley told The Sporting News the week after the loss to Florida. The Athletic Director stopped short of saying Goff was to be fired, however. "I've never judged a season on one game. At the end of the season, I'll evaluate the situation. I am not going to respond to any hypothetical situations."
After the doldrums of the middle of the season Georgia was in need of a pick-me-up, but mighty Auburn, who had not failed to win a game in nearly two years, loomed.
The Tigers were on probation, but wanted to win the "national title" by going undefeated for a second consecutive year. They were not eligible to play for the SEC title because of the restrictions placed them by the conference and the NCAA. Only Georgia and hated Alabama stood in the Tigers' way of accomplishing their lofty goal – neither game turned out the way Auburn would have liked.
Georgia jumped out to a 6-0 lead after two field goals. Auburn tied the score with a touchdown, but the Dawgs' Phillip Daniels blocked the extra point, and the game remained tied at six. The block seemed inconsequential when Auburn held a two-touchdown lead in the second half. But Georgia rallied to tie after Zeier hit Juan Daniels on an electrifying 79-yard pass late in the third quarter and a four-yard pass to Brice Hunter at the start of the fourth. Auburn could have used that extra point after all.
After trading punts and with the score tied 23-23 the game came down to Georgia holding Auburn off the scoreboard as the clock wound down. Scrambling, Auburn moved into what looked like a game-winning situation, but Matt Hawkins' 44-yard field goal sailed right and Georgia held on to tie Auburn.
"We had a couple of good matchups we took advantage of," Zeier recalled of the game. "Defensively, we played great. We just happened to hit a couple of big plays that night."
Alabama knocked Auburn off the next weekend, and the Tigers never since accomplished their lofty goal of winning a national title.
Even with Zeier hurt midway through Georgia's final game of the season with Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs, led by Mike Bobo, laid waste to the Yellow Jackets 48-10. Georgia's back-to-back beatings of Tech in 1993 and 1994 remain the most lopsided back-to-back thumpings of Georgia Tech in Georgia's 99 meetings with their hated rivals.
The performances against Tech and Auburn may have saved his job, buy they were not enough to keep Goff off the hot seat. The loss to Vandy and the beating by Florida were fresh in Dooley's mind late that season.
The Final Go Round
Eric Zeier was gone. Terrell Davis was gone. Ray Goff entered what would be his final season as coach at Georgia needing offensive production from two players – Mike Bobo and Robert Edwards – who combined had one career start going into 1995.
Bobo played well in the big win over Georgia Tech the season before, but he was no Eric Zeier. Edwards was a cornerback-turned-running-back and had only a springtime's worth of practice to get ready for the fall. Neither player made it through the season. If they had, Goff's fate may have been totally different.
Edwards made Goff look real smart when rushed for 169 yard and scored a school-record four touchdowns in Georgia's 42-23 blowout win over South Carolina in week one. Goff looked like a genius after Edwards carried the ball for 156 yards and two touchdowns to give Georgia a 24-17 lead in the third quarter of the Tennessee game. But Edwards suffered a broken left foot later that quarter and Georgia let Tennessee slip away with a 30-27 win in Knoxville.
Injuries were about to really catch up with Georgia.
The Bulldogs took out New Mexico State without Edwards, who had been lost for the year, but were unable to recover when Bobo fractured his knee in the second quarter of Georgia's 18-10 loss to Ole Miss. Bobo was lost for the year as well.
Georgia couldn't live without its offensive stars. They were shutout by Alabama, but surprised Clemson, and then took out Vandy and Kentucky before falling to Florida and Auburn. Georgia was 5-5, and Goff was out.
Dooley fired Goff during the Bulldogs' off week before the Georgia Tech game.
"Obviously, I'm pretty upset right now," Goff told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about his firing. "But mainly I'm concerned about my players."
Years later Dooley said that firing Goff was hard for him to do.
"The decision to dismiss Ray Goff as head football coach in 1995 was one of the most difficult ones I have ever had to make. How could it not be difficult? No matter how justified the decision may have been, it was far from easy," Dooley recalled in his book Dooley: My 40 Years at Georgia.
Dooley also admitted firing Goff created a rift between the two men.
"As a result, we don't talk as much as I wish we did," Dooley said. "Ray and I have been cordial when we see each other, but I wish our relationship could be more than cordial."
"It was tough," Zeier recalled of watching Goff get fired. A rookie in the NFL that winter, Zeier said he didn't want Goff to go out that way.
"You feel for the people that you're close to, and he was my leader for a long time – my coach for a long time, so I obviously felt for him and what he was going through."
Zeier said Goff didn't stop coaching even though the world was falling around him.
"You know, the year that he ended up getting removed was probably the best year he had coaching," Zeier said.
Goff said he has very few regrets about his time at Georgia, and that he is at peace with what he accomplished while head coach.
"The thing that most people call ‘success' – I probably didn't have that, no. But do I feel like I was successful? I think it depends on what you term ‘success'. If it is building relationships with people and players, then yes. I feel good about what we did. Would I have liked to won them all? You bet. I would have liked to have won them all, but we didn't."
SUNDAY: Goff moves on with life after Georgia.