UGA’s big day: Notre Dame tees it up between the hedges

Georgia vs. Notre Dame | Fans get ready for big game

It was Saturday between the hedges, but it was a Saturday unlike any other. Notre Dame was in town, and Notre Dame has played a lot of college football – for a while, it was the biggest thing in college football – without setting foot on Clarke County sod. And with the Fighting Irish came a slew of Georgia fans who, just wanting to partake of the color and pageantry and liquid refreshment, arrived downtown without holding game tickets.

In that regard, the long-ballyhooed game carried some trepidation. How big was too big? How many were too many? Travel plans were modified. One piece of advice: “If you ordinarily leave Atlanta five hours before kickoff, I’d make it six.” (Being unbelievably paranoid, yours truly made it eight – and arrived in two. The only backup, don’t you know, was in the heart of Atlanta.)

Said Greg McGarity, the UGA athletic director and UGA alum who scheduled this game: “I usually leave home around four hours before kickoff. Today I left seven hours before, and traffic was as heavy then as it is four hours before.”

ESPN’s “College GameDay,” in all its bloated glory, was here. (Corso picked Georgia, FYI.) The 460 media credentials dispensed – either a Sanford Stadium record or close to it – prompted Claude Felton, Georgia’s Hall of Fame publicist, to open the Dan Magill Press Box at 1:30 p.m., or six hours and 40 minutes before toe was to meet leather.

The magnitude of the game was, it must be said, in keeping with the magnitude Georgia has attained. It has known so many massive moments over the past 25 months – the maiden voyage to South Bend, the New Year’s pilgrimage to Pasadena, the two SEC Championship games and the national title tilt – as to have grabbed and held the nation’s interest. There might be two teams as good as these Bulldogs; there probably aren’t three or four.

Georgia is playing a brand of football its fans haven’t often received since Herschel Walker signed with the USFL, and the rewards of playing top-shelf football are gracing massive games and playing host to “College GameDay.”

Among old-time Bulldogs, the question of the day was, “Is this Georgia’s biggest home game ever?” Said McGarity: “I was talking to Ray Goff yesterday, and the only one we could think of that compares is Alabama in 1976.”

With Goff – and Matt Robinson, too – at quarterback, Vince Dooley’s Bulldogs beat Bear Bryant’s Crimson Tide 21-0 on Oct. 2, 1976. Georgia would contrive to lose at Ole Miss the next week, but its victory over Bama enabled it to win the SEC and play Pittsburgh in the Sugar Bowl. (Which didn’t go well, but never mind.) For Athenians, the afterglow of that October Saturday was compromised by the reality of Milledge Avenue and Lumpkin Street being shut down by the crush of humanity and vehicles.

Said McGarity: “And we didn’t have 94,000 seats back then.” (Nope. Sanford Stadium capacity was then 59,000. Ancient times, huh?)

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But seeing Alabama – or Auburn, or LSU – doesn’t carry quite the sizzle of seeing the gold helmets of Notre Dame on what’s now known as Dooley Field. Auburn comes here every other year. Alabama and LSU arrive every so often. (Felton’s antecedents for credential-counting included the Bama Blackout game of 2008, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger-led excursion of 2013 and the Tide’s Sanford appearance in 2015. Georgia lost two of the three.)

We all know that anything involving the SEC Just Means More – we know because the SEC never stops telling us – but this Saturday was afforded a shinier glow because a non-SEC team would be in attendance. McGarity again: “As far as non-conference games, there’s never been one like this.”

Said Loran Smith, Bulldog of many duties and long standing: “It’s the biggest intersectional game since ’29.”

And the distinguished visitor then was ...

“Yale.” (Really ancient times.)

For me, the standard for Sanford games was set Nov. 12, 1983. In Year 1 sans Herschel, Georgia was 8-0-1 (tie at Clemson) and ranked No. 4; Auburn was 8-1 (loss at Texas). The Tigers won 13-7. Bo Jackson rushed for 115 yards. Doug Smith, Auburn’s best defensive lineman, overwhelmed Guy McIntyre, Georgia’s best O-lineman. A flying finish – the Bulldogs trailed 13-0 with 2:12 left but scored and recovered the onside kick – felt short.

(I was working for the Lexington Herald-Leader and had driven down. I left the Windy Hill Marriott four hours before the game. I blundered my way through hair-pulling traffic – my soon-to-be AJC colleague David Davidson would tell me, “Never go 316” – and made the kickoff, but only just. I went 316 this Saturday, but it’s rather wider now.)

As for the game: Nobody was picking Notre Dame, and I wouldn’t have, either. But just having Notre Dame on its campus lent a touch of class to the host school, which is again home to a first-class program. Georgia’s home schedule has been tepid for several years, but nothing felt tepid this given Saturday. This one felt special.

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