EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the seventh story in a series on the 15 most memorable SEC football games beat writer David Paschall has covered since joining the newspaper in 1990. The games are being presented in chronological order.
The biggest certainty within the first 10 Southeastern Conference football championship games was that the Eastern Division representative would be wearing some shade of orange.
Florida won seven and Tennessee claimed three Eastern titles from 1992 to 2001, but the 2002 East champ donned red and black.
It took a 19-yard touchdown pass from David Greene to Michael Johnson on fourth-and-15 with 1:25 remaining to catapult Georgia to a 24-21 victory at Auburn and a trip to the SEC title contest in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. That short trek was rewarding for Mark Richt's Bulldogs, who routed an inferior Arkansas 30-3 to clinch the program's first league championship since legendary running back Herschel Walker's third and final season in 1982.
The 2002 Bulldogs thrived in close games, and had Johnson not caught Greene's pass over Auburn defensive back Horace Willis in the back left corner of the end zone, that year's league championship contest instead would have pitted Tommy Tuberville's Tigers against Ron Zook's Florida Gators.
"I know it's only the East, but we're champions tonight," Georgia second-year coach Mark Richt said after the Jordan-Hare Stadium thriller.
Georgia traveled to Jordan-Hare having lost three straight series meetings and having posted just a 5-13-1 record against Auburn since Walker's departure. The misery against the Tigers looked like it would continue when Ronnie Brown ripped off a 53-yard touchdown run and Auburn outgained Georgia 233-63 during the first half to build a 14-3 lead.
Auburn had a 21-10 lead midway through the third quarter after a 21-yard touchdown scramble by Jason Campbell, but the Tigers then went three-and-out on six consecutive possessions. The Tigers also faced the wind in the fourth quarter, which was reflected by Damon Duval's final four punts traveling just 34, 33, 36 and 37 yards.
"You have to give it to their defense," Tuberville said afterward. "They won the game for them."
Georgia had lost the ball on downs at Auburn's 27-yard line the possession before reaching the 19, and another loss of downs seemed likely after three straight Greene incompletions and a false-start penalty. Johnson was Greene's go-to receiver that game due to Terrence Edwards being out with a separated shoulder, and he earned a place in Bulldogs lore with his leap over Willis that capped his 13-catch, 141-yard performance.
Johnson had just 11 catches all season before that outburst.
"We lost our best receiver, and then he comes out and makes one of the best catches in Georgia history," Greene said.
Johnson's winning play was called "70-X-Takeoff," which quickly earned a spot in the Georgia gridiron annals alongside the "P-44 Haynes" touchdown from Greene to fullback Verron Haynes that stunned Tennessee at Neyland Stadium the year before.
It was the injured Edwards who provided the parting shot amid Georgia's jubilation at Jordan-Hare, uttering, "Tell those Florida Gators they don't have to play anymore."
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