ATHENS, Ga. -- The thing I've learned about Georgia football fans since moving to Athens more than four years ago is that, more than anything, they feel excluded. Since it last won a national championship in 1980, the football team is one of the 10 winningest programs in the sport and has been consistently excellent year-to-year; the Bulldogs currently have the third-longest streak of bowls games in college football and if Florida State loses on Saturday, they'll have the second. This is a legendary, inner-tier college football program that has a fan base as dedicated as any you will find in any sport. Do not forget how Georgia fans -- including me -- took over Notre Dame Stadium earlier this year, turning a venerated college football sanctuary into a sea of crazy people dressed in red barking at each other.

But despite all their team's success and all the widespread dedication, Georgia fans always feel like the party is happening without them. This is because, since 1980, they have not only watched the sport of college football explode in popularity and, at last, a true college football championship be instituted, it's because while doing so, they have been forced to watch all their hated rivals enjoy all the spoils. Since 1980, Georgia has watched as every single one of its rivals, every single team fans have been raised to despise even as they live right next to their devoted supporters, has won a national championship.

  • Alabama (1992, 2009, 2011, 2012, 2015)
  • Auburn (2010)
  • Clemson (1981, 2016)
  • Florida (1996, 2006, 2008)
  • Georgia Tech (1990)
  • Tennessee (1998)

College football is a sport of rivalries, and Georgia -- bordered on every side by states with nearly every major Southern college football powerhouse -- has stood idly by, a winning program but never a champion, for almost four decades, never getting its chance. While everybody else in the neighborhood did.

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I was at a holiday party a couple of weeks ago, hosted by friends of ours here in Athens. They became friends because we all have kids the same age. They're nice people, and while the kids all jumped around in the backyard, we talked Georgia football.

It was before Georgia's crushing loss to Auburn but after Georgia had clinched the SEC East, so, you know, the peak. There was little exuberance, however: Georgia fans have conditioned themselves to be on a constant lookout for dropping shoes. We fretted and sweated and tried to figure out how it might all go wrong. We told ourselves to appreciate what we have, that seasons like this one don't come along often and we must try to enjoy them while they were happening. Someone then pointed out that, well, Alabama has seasons like this all the time and we all frowned at him because he was right, the jerk.

I went to the bar to refill my beverage and, because I am an awkward oaf of a human being, bumped into a lovely older woman while pouring bourbon out of the decanter. I apologized and realized that I'd just thrown an elbow at Barbara Dooley, the deeply beloved wife of former Georgia coach Vince Dooley, the man who led that 1980 championship team and the man who has a statue of himself just across the street from where my son goes to kindergarten. She extended her hand to me. "Barbara Dooley, how ya doing?" I looked behind her and saw her husband, carrying on a conversation about a recent visit to New York City. She and my wife and I chatted for 10 minutes and wished each other happy holidays and went along our business at the party. Sometimes in Athens you're at a holiday party and you come across a Hall of Fame coach and his wife because they live in the neighborhood and it was a lovely night for a walk so they thought they'd just pop by.

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I was at the Georgia Tech-Georgia game with my older son, who just turned 6, on Saturday. Bobby Dodd Stadium is an ideal college football setting to watch your visiting team crunch the home team, with perfect views and a fan base that doesn't like to stand or make a lot of noise. My son's school is also across the street from the Butts-Mehre Museum and Practice Facility, the "nerve center" of Georgia athletics, which means athletes, always encouraged by their coaches to "be a part of the community," are constantly dropping by the school.

We sat in the stands as he called out the numbers and names of everybody playing. "There's 14, Malkom Parrish, Daddy," he said. "He came by our class and said hi. He was nice. I liked him."

This is the first season my son has watched so closely that he can call out the numbers and names of the players, that he can recite the scores of every game, that he can read stories about the team and the game they're playing the next week. Georgia has gone 11-1 this season and was ranked No. 1 for a small section of it. Georgia has dominated nearly every team it has played. He doesn't know of being excluded. He's just having the time of his life. And sometimes his football friends will come by and say hi to him at school.

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Georgia is a program that values stability and constancy. It does not like upheaval. Georgia fans look at the current madness at a school like Tennessee -- or the perpetual madness, I suppose, at every major college football institution -- and recoil. "The Georgia Way," they call it, and while it's largely an illusion, it's a useful one that everyone believes in nonetheless. They want everyone here to be a coach for life.

Two years ago, longtime coach Mark Richt was fired the day after the final game of the 2015 season, a season in which he had gone 9-3, and it briefly tore this town apart. Richt was beloved in Athens, a deeply Christian man who was dedicated to the collegiate ideal, of helping shape and mold young men into sterling adults who were beacons of their community. He did this while also winning 145 games in 15 seasons and being one of the most respected coaches in the sport. But he never won that national championship. His teams were known for losing at the exact wrong times, for getting up the hopes of the desperate Georgia faithful and dashing them at the worst possible moment. That year, Georgia hosted hated Alabama, a couple weeks after the Crimson Tide had lost to Mississippi. Georgia hosts Alabama essentially once a decade, and the entire state shook with anticipation for the game, which is still, to this day, the last time Alabama was an underdog in a football game. Alabama came into a dreary rainstorm and stomped the Dawgs, 38-10 -- I wrote at the time that "You stood in the stands, quiet, wondering what you should be looking at. The only place to look was down" -- and after that humiliation, the brass at Georgia decided Richt was simply never going to be the guy to win a championship here. The team went 6-2 the rest of the year. It didn't matter. Richt was canned, and then forced to sit at a press conference announcing his firing, as if he'd wanted it, as if he was retiring, as if he was OK with all of this.

Many Georgia fans were appalled that Richt would be treated this way, but also that the program didn't seem to believe in its own Georgia Way mission statement. Georgia wanted to be above it all, but it also wanted the spoils. Frankly: It wanted to be Alabama. But Georgia was supposed to be different. It was supposed to be above being Alabama. The firing of Richt split Georgia fans: Those who felt the program was special because of the way it and Richt carried itself, and those who just couldn't watch everybody else win a title when they never did. The latter group won out. We've all talked about Georgia football a little different since. Not in a bad way: This team is still the centerpiece of this entire town. But it's became something that was no longer a cause. There was no longer anything different about Georgia football. They just want to win like everybody else. The illusion has evaporated. This is a good thing, surely. It was, after all, an illusion. But a lot of people liked the illusion. Did Georgia really want to just be Alabama? Was that all this was about?

The rift was there, even heading into this season. It wasn't that people held it against the new coach. But after a rough 2016 season, you had to wonder: Did Georgia fire a great person who was an excellent coach for 15 years, perhaps selling a little bit of itself to do it, just to get worse? Oh, and hey, look how Richt is doing in Miami. Good for him.

This season has healed the rift. Winning 11 games will do that. But the scar is still there.

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Some friends in town and I started a podcast about Georgia football a couple of years ago. We get together once a week and drink some bourbon and just talk, as fans, as friends. For a dorky Midwesterner who's constantly checking Illini basketball scores on his phone when we tape, I've been made to feel welcome. You meet a lot of good people through podcasts. They are solely created by, and for, the passionate. So little is created for passion anymore. You should listen.

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The closest Georgia came to that elusive national championship was in 2012. The Bulldogs played Alabama, of course, in the SEC championship game, and led most of the way. But with less than a minute left, they trailed by four, and Aaron Murray, one of the best quarterbacks in Georgia history, drove them down the field to try to become a legend in Athens. The winner of the game would play an undefeated but not well-regarded Notre Dame team in the national championship game. This was Georgia on the precipice.

I know that reciting the details of this play will make Georgia fans scream, but: Georgia had the ball at the Alabama eight with 16 seconds, no timeouts and the clock running down. Rather than spike the ball -- potentially giving the Bulldogs two shots at the end zone -- Murray ran a play, tossing a pass to current Kansas City Chief and truly dedicated Star Wars enthusiast Chris Conley, who, as he was falling down, caught the pass, almost out of instinct. With no timeouts, the clock ran out. Alabama had won another SEC championship (and would go on to destroy Notre Dame in the BCS championship game). Georgia was left on the outside looking in again.

Mentioning this game -- let alone watching highlights of it -- will cause any Georgia fan's eye to begin twitching. I lived in Brooklyn with my wife and infant son at the time, on the 22nd floor of a high-rise apartment complex just across the Manhattan Bridge. When the clock ran out, I had to stop her from tearing the television off the wall and throwing it out the window onto innocent pedestrians below. It still hurts people here to even think about it.

But watch the play again, or, more specifically, watch the Alabama players and coaches celebrating directly afterward.

Look at that crazy Alabama coach jumping on top of his players after they've made the tackle of Conley. At Georgia's darkest moment, look at the happiest guy on the field.

That man is Kirby Smart, then defensive coordinator of the Alabama Crimson Tide. He is now the head coach of Georgia. He's the guy they fired Mark Richt for, the guy Georgia brass caused the whole rift to get here. He's now the one who has them one game away.

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Kirby Smart went to Georgia, played for Jim Donnan and left for a job at Valdosta State right before Richt arrived. He was an honor roll student at Georgia, a team captain and absolutely one of those guys announcers were always talking about being a coach someday. He briefly worked with Richt, in 2005, as the running backs coach, before following Nick Saban to the Miami Dolphins as the safeties coach and then to Alabama as Saban's defensive coordinator right as Saban was commencing his domination of college football. Georgia has been staring at Alabama for a decade, and seeing its prodigal son winning championships, and wanting him here.

Smart had some missteps in his first year and had some initial struggles with the media (something he's improved on considerably this season, yet another example, along with that sideline enthusiasm, of being a little less like Saban than everyone thought), but 2017 has been a dream season for him and for Georgia fans. The joke is that this year is the "Revenge Tour," as Georgia has taken all the old SEC East opponents who have tormented it since that 2012 game and whipped them across the head and neck with blunt objects. Tennessee, Florida, Missouri, South Carolina, even Vanderbilt: They all had to pay the piper, and they had to serve as outlets for Georgia's frustration in the final years of Richt to ever win increasingly winnable SEC Easts. When the first College Football Playoff rankings came out this year, Georgia was No. 1, for the first time in nearly a decade. Georgia fans worried that the No. 1 ranking would lead to complacency, to one of those inexplicable losses that plagued the Richt era (and we saw Richt have just last week against Pittsburgh). The Bulldogs instead trounced South Carolina to clinch that SEC East title that next week. They lost the No. 1 spot when they ran into the same Auburn-at-Jordan-Hare buzzsaw that Alabama ran into last week.

But this week, they can fix that misstep in the first-ever SEC championship game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, facing Auburn again, with the winner virtually assured of a spot in the College Football Playoff. It can happen right now.

This has been that dream season Georgia fans were waiting for. Freshman Jake Fromm took over for an injured Jacob Eason in the season opener and never gave the job back; I see buttons with Fromm's faces on it on the backpacks of coeds all over campus. Senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, two of the most beloved Georgia players in decades, returned for their senior seasons and have been fantastic. Their defense, led by future first-round pick linebacker Roquan Smith , has been among the best in the country and one of the most fun units to watch: Dan Rubenstein of the podcast "The Solid Verbal" joked that Georgia's defense plays like a bunch of little kids who have been told they get an extra 15 minutes of recess ("Yayyyyyy!!!!") and I haven't been able to stop thinking of them that way since. And Smart and his staff have been disciplined and smart and one step ahead of their opponents every step of the way all season. You couldn't ask for anything more. This was what everything was supposed to be leading toward.

Georgia football is probably just getting started. Smart has put together a terrific recruiting class for next year -- including the top quarterback prospect in the country, Justin Fields -- and will just keep stacking classes on top of each other. The SEC East still looks like a mess, even with Florida's smart hiring of Dan Mullen. There are a stable of backs behind Chubb and Michel who have shined throughout this season already. This is not a one-off. Georgia is trying to build an empire, and Smart and company look well on their way.

But you still have to break through. Georgia was outplayed and outcoached against Auburn, and now it gets another chance. Saturday's SEC championship game is the logical pivot point in the new Georgia world, the outgrowth of that 2012 title game, of that horrible loss to Alabama two years ago, of Richt's firing, of Smart's hiring, of all of it. It is as big a moment as Georgia has had in five years, and potentially a decade or more before that.

And that game has this town rocking back and forth in its chair until it starts. This place has a nervous energy that reminds me of the "Saving Private Ryan" scene before the final invasion, when everyone sits in an abandoned city, killing time and philosophizing, nervously, until the tanks arrive. But it's still our little college town. There's still kid's basketball practice on Saturday, in a league in which both my son and Kirby Smart's kid play. (He's a good kid, but his coach is maybe a little intense.) There's still school going on, and rushing to class, and terrible student drivers. There's still cocktail parties and bourbon and Creature Comforts and The National. But everybody is wearing a G, somewhere. It's all anyone can think about it. It has all been leading up to this.

Georgia football is the engine that has driven this town for decades, and in a way, the single organizing principle of the lives of just about everybody I know since I moved here. There has been turmoil and sadness and anger and fear, and there has been excitement and hope and inspiration and joy. Saturday is the culmination of years, of decades, of all of it. It's the whole world here. It probably shouldn't be. But it is.

It's just one football game. Even if Georgia wins Saturday, it still has a long way to go to win a title like all its rivals have. But it'll be in the game. Georgia will no longer be excluded. It gets to be a part. It's all anybody here ever wanted.

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