For the first time in the game's 11-year history, there will be no Vols and no Gators descending on the Georgia Dome like fireflies... and I can't tell you how refreshing that is. The Arkansas fans have been here before, back when Danny Ford was coaching. But for Georgia fans, this is virgin territory... and it's hard not to get caught up in their fervor.
This Vanderbilt fan just happens to have a ticket to the game. I could probably sell it to some drooling Dawg fan, pocket a few hundred bucks, and stay home and listen to Larry Munson call the game on radio... but sorry, Dawg fans, I ain't gonna. The game has plenty of curb appeal, even to a casual fan.
On the one hand you have Georgia, looking very much like a Team of Destiny. Georgia has not won an SEC championship since 1982-- coincidentally, the last truly memorable year in Vanderbilt football history-- when the Dawgs had Herschel Walker, John Lastinger & Co. Since then, for Dawg fans, it's been 19 long years of also-rans, woulda-shouldas, and mostly looking up at the Vols and Gators.
Until now. Second-year coach Mark Richt seems to have restored some of the magic that's been missing since the early 80's, when Vince Dooley and Larry Munson used to will the Dawgs to wins in close games. While the 2002 Bulldogs have looked dominant at times, they have unquestionably caught some breaks along their way to a divisional title and a No. 4 national ranking. When they needed Andrew Pinnock to fumble inside the 5-yard line, they got it. When they needed a crucial win over Tennessee, Casey Clausen couldn't play. When they needed a miracle pass play to beat Auburn, they got it.
So the Bulldogs should have enough tricks left to trump the Hogs from Fayetteville, right?
Not so fast... here comes an Arkansas team that has come out of nowhere to win the SEC West. Back on Oct. 19, when the Razorbacks dropped a home game to Kentucky to drop to 1-3 in the conference, Houston Nutt's team looked as though it might be staying home for the holidays. But faith and begorrah, the Hawgs bounced back and finished the season with six straight wins, including a near-miraculous comeback over LSU last weekend in Little Rock.
The Bulldogs feature cool quarterback David Greene, a stable of capable receivers, and the SEC's best defensive big-play specialist in David Pollack. Arkansas features durable running back Fred Talley and a defense that has the Razorbacks second in the nation in turnover margin.
Both teams feature a player who doubles as a basketball player (Fred Gibson for Georgia, Matt Jones for Arkansas). Interestingly, both teams have a venerable radio play-by-play announcer who cut his teeth on Vanderbilt games (Georgia's Larry Munson, Arkansas' Paul Eells). Georgia defeated Vanderbilt 48-17; Vanderbilt did not play Arkansas.
I'm picking the Dawgs to defeat the Hawgs, and I confess I'll also be pulling for Georgia to win. It's an SEC East pride thing (although admittedly I threw that to the wind last year when Tennessee was here). Mark Richt is a nice guy, and besides that, Georgia is the only team left standing that has a chance to bring the national spotlight to the SEC. If Virginia Tech beats No. 1 Miami-- and the Bulldogs will know the outcome of that game by kickoff Saturday-- Georgia, with a convincing win over Arkansas, may have a chance to slip into the Fiesta Bowl game for the BCS Championship vs. Ohio State.
As part of the SEC Living Legends Dinner on Friday night, the conference will honor former Vanderbilt All-American punter Jim Arnold (1979-82). The Dalton, Ga. native finished his Commodore career with 12,171 punting yards, which set an SEC record. For his career, he averaged 43.9 yards per kick. In his senior year, 1982, Arnold was named to six All-America teams. He later played professionally for the Chiefs, Lions and Dolphins.
Now that the regular season is over, here are this Vanderbilt fan's SEC Superlatives:
Coach of the Year: Mark Richt, Georgia.
Offensive Player of the Year: Artose Pinner, Kentucky.
Defensive Player of the Year: David Pollack, Georgia.
Special Teams Player of the Year: Derek Abney, Kentucky.
Freshman of the Year: Kwane Doster, Vanderbilt.
Game of the Year: Nov. 29, Arkansas 21, LSU 20. Matt Jones' late pass to Decori Bi