Ohio State and Georgia have only met once before on the football field, which seems incredible for two such storied programs. When the teams meet on Dec. 31 in the College Football Playoff semifinals at the Peach Bowl, it will be one day shy of 30 years since the first meeting, and both programs are in much different places today than they were at that time.
The morning of the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 1993 dawned on an Ohio State team finishing its best season to date under John Cooper, who had taken over in 1988. Two losses (to Wisconsin and Illinois) and a tie would bring out the Buckeye fans’ torches and pitchforks these days. But we were mostly numb in 1993 after a 13-13 tie at home against Michigan. I was there that day, and although Ohio State came back from 13-3 down — thanks in large part to a missed PAT by Michigan — it did not feel like “one of our greatest wins ever,” as stated by then-OSU president E. Gordon Gee.
But I will admit, it was much better than the 31-3 loss I attended in Ann Arbor the previous year, when Desmond Howard did the Heisman pose. Failures against Michigan and in bowl games were far too common in the Cooper era, and now we’re living in a time when two consecutive losses to the Wolverines seems both surreal and unacceptable to many fans.
Georgia was also a different program at the end of the 1992 season. The Bulldogs tied Florida for first in the SEC East that season after finishing no better than fourth in the conference (pre-divisions) their first three seasons under coach Ray Goff. Georgia entered the game at 9-2, with losses at home to Tennessee and in the annual Florida rivalry game.
This year’s Bulldogs are 13-0, coming off last year’s national championship, have won 15 consecutive games and 31 of their last 32 contests. The teams enter the upcoming Peach Bowl with a Heisman finalist at quarterback on both sides.
On New Year’s Day 1993, it was the running backs who were the focus of everyone. Garrison Hearst finished third in the Heisman Trophy race that year behind winner Gino Torretta and runner-up Marshall Faulk.
Ohio State’s big offensive weapon was running back Robert Smith, who returned to the team after sitting out the 1991 season following a dispute with offensive coordinator Elliott Uzelac. Smith switched to a track scholarship for a season after he and Uzelac famously butted heads over practice time requirements vs. classes, but the star running back returned and was part of an incredible stable of rushers in 1992 that included a freshman named Eddie George.
As expected, the running backs were the stars of that 1993 meeting. Hearst ran for 163 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Smith carried 25 times for 112 yards and two scores. The running backs mainly canceled each other out.
Where Georgia had a decided advantage that day was at quarterback. Eric Zeier completed 21-of-31 passes for 242 yards. Most of the damage was done by receiver Andre Hastings, who caught eight passes for 113 yards against a secondary that included current OSU cornerbacks coach Tim Walton.
On the other side, Ohio State had Kirk Herbstreit at quarterback. Herby was more of an option-style running QB, and when called upon in that Citrus Bowl, things didn’t go well. Herbstreit completed just eight of his 24 attempts for 110 yards on the day. Still, the game was evenly played between two teams that had similar records. It was anyone’s game well into the fourth quarter when Ohio State was in position to take the lead.
However, as with many of Cooper’s teams, things went wrong at the exact wrong moment. Deep in Georgia territory, Herbstreit and fullback Jeff Cothran ran into each other in the backfield and the ball came out. Georgia’s Travis Jones recovered, and Zeier capitalized on the momentum, driving the Bulldogs down the field for the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run by Frank Harvey.
The Bulldogs won, 21-14.
So many things about the end of that game seem antiquated today. C.J. Stroud threw more passes at Northwestern (26) — despite the gale force winds in Evanston — than Herbstreit attempted in that Citrus Bowl (24). The running play with the game-changing fumble came on a third-and-11 situation at the Georgia 16, and it’s difficult to imagine a Ryan Day offense going to a rushing play under those conditions, despite Herbstreit’s obvious struggles on the day. Stroud has attempted fewer than those 24 Herbstreit throws in that game twice this season, but he left the game after building a huge lead in both — against Arkansas State and Rutgers.
Similarly, don’t expect a running back this year to tote the rock 25 or more times in this game, although it’s at least possible. No Georgia back has carried more than 20 times in a game this season. Ohio State has had several backs reach the 20-carry mark, and Miyan Williams and Dallan Hayden have eclipsed 25 each once, but both were largely due to a lack of other options.
Williams’ season high of 26 carries came in that Northwestern wind game with TreVeyon Henderson out. Hayden carried a season-high 27 times at Maryland with both Williams and Henderson injured and the Buckeyes struggling to throw, but able to run at will (Hayden ran for 146 yards that day).
That 1992 meeting was ultimately a fairly forgettable bowl game for Ohio State fans. Aside from the loss, there weren’t a lot of big plays by the Buckeyes. Ohio State’s longest play was 45 yards on a pass play from Herbstreit to Smith, but the longest OSU running play was 18 yards (by Herbstreit). Hastings’ longest play went 38 yards and Hearst broke off a 34-yard run for the Bulldogs. It seems like the 2022 meeting should have more explosive plays at least.
Georgia is a consensus favorite to win on Dec. 31, and has earned that distinction over the past two seasons. But, after meeting as decent teams on the first day of 1993, Ohio State has a chance to avenge a 30-year-old loss at a time when both of these legendary college football programs are in the top tier of the sport.