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In Athens, cheers, then tears

12:20 a.m.

The end hurt for University of Georgia students. 

At Stegeman Coliseum, where the university held a watch party, many students exited in tears after the game.

“It’s so silent in here,” said Emily Austin, 19, a sophomore from Douglasville.

One student yelled “Go Dawgs,” drawing a smattering of cheers.

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Freshman Markell Hardee, 18, couldn’t believe what happened.

“It was a great game,” he said. “We fought hard. I’m really upset. It was a great game. Hopefully, next year will be the year.”

Fans pour out of bars in downtown Athens, hanging their heads in frustration, in anger, in defeat.

"My heart was racing this entire game, and it physically hurt me to watch this ending," said Tommy Makurat.

 Some students resort to kicking trash cans and shouting expletives about Alabama. Some students call friends and loved ones, tears streaming from their eyes. Other, putting on a good face, yell out "Go Dawgs" in continued support of their team.

The once-empty streets of Athens are now full of disappointed UGA fans, who, for a while, had felt the Bulldogs could do it.

There was no cheering in the streets, no one rushing to jump in the Herty Field fountain. The Chapel Bell is deserted, destined to remain silent tonight.

11:45 p.m.

Some students sat with their hands over their mouths. Others with their hands together in prayer. A few actually sat at the edge of their seats.

University of Georgia students were nervous and frustrated as Alabama tied the game with less than five minutes left, losing a 13-0 halftime lead.

"I was really looking forward to the first half where we were winning uncontested, and now it's starting to look like the Rose Bowl," said Alan Rosa.

End of the third quarter

It was lights on as Bulldogs fans continued their tradition of turning on the lights of their cell phones at the end of the third quarter.

Inside Stegeman Coliseum, UGA fans screamed in fear as Alabama inched closer and closer toward the end zone. Coliseum staff stood at the exits watching each play.

With Georgia holding on to a 20-10 lead, Jawvid Ghaffari was feeling confident.

"I think if we play the way we've been playing, we've got it," he said. "Georgia always seems to pull through somehow, and they're doing that."

Ghaffari transferred to UGA last semester, and couldn't have asked for a better season.

"As my first football season, this is awesome," he said.

Halftime

UGA! UGA!

Those were the chants inside Stegeman Coliseum on the University of Georgia campus as the Bulldogs scored the first touchdown of the game as the first half ended.

UGA students screamed for joy. The mood became increasingly festive as the first half progressed. Students did the wave. They chanted.

UGA sophomore Emily Austin, 19, stood for nearly the entire first half.

“I’ve been nervous. A little on edge,” said the Douglasville native. “I think we have some momentum. We’re so excited to be here.”

As the Bulldogs marched down the field at the end of the half, students inside Woodford Bar were getting loud.

Despite a 6-0 lead, however, people were still very much on edge.

 "There's a lot of people that are very nervous," said Jordan Sennowitz. "I've been a Dawgs fan my entire life, 20 years, and I'm very nervous right now."

 While Sennowitz was clutching his beer tightly during key plays, Kelly G and her friend were dissecting the playcalling.

 "Both of our dads coached football in high school, so we watch the game very analytically," she said. "I think they're playing a lot off their running game."

 As for the atmosphere, "it's just electric," she said.

At halftime, some UGA fans were feeling nervous, but still confident about the game.

As “All I Do Is Win” chants echoed through Jerzees, Dawgs fans seem to find it way hard to believe that any outcome besides a “W” is possible.

“We worked had to get here and we deserve to bring this win home,” said Quendarious Crowder, one of the many attendees at the Jerzees sports bar.

University of Georgia students celebrate a touchdown near the end of the first half at a campus watch party on the campus' Stegeman Coliseum. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

8:55 p.m.

Cheers, jeers and screams.

Georgia fans in the Bulldogs hometown celebrated every positive play as the game started and held their breath at the most perilous moments, when an Alabama receiver was wide open in the end zone early in the first quarter.

Deafening screams filled Stegeman Coliseum when Alabama missed a field goal. 

The crowd in Flanagan's Bar was mostly non-reactive when President Trump was introduced during the pregame, with one or two claps and one expletive-laced comment. On campus, there were mostly boos.

The energy returned when the Bulldogs came out onto the field. Colin Boman and his friends were more than ready for the game to begin, discussing the 37-year championship drought at UGA and what the UGA players must be thinking.

 "This game hasn't even started yet, and I feel like I'm watching the last quarter of the Rose Bowl," Kyle Mason said.

 

7:30 p.m.

Usually, Stegeman Coliseum is filled with Georgia Bulldogs fans cheering on their basketball team.

Tonight, thousands of them were staring at the big screen to watch the Bulldogs football team play. UGA opened the Coliseum for students to watch the national championship.

A loud roar filled the arena as the Dawgs took the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. A smattering of boos came as the Alabama Crimson Tide arrived.

Some students waited more than one hour in the steady rain to enter Stegeman. One student dressed as Darth Vader. 

Freshman Leita Williams was dressed in her father’s red Bulldogs sweatshirt for good luck.

“I’m so excited,” said Williams, an Gainesville native, as she chatted with friends.

Eryck Warmsley, 18, a freshman from Atlanta, didn’t have a special clothing item, but he was optimistic about a Bulldogs victory. His prediction: Dawgs win 23-17.

Warmsley had another prediction if Georgia wins.

“I don’t imagine a lot of people are going to be in class tomorrow,” he quipped.

6:30 p.m.

In downtown Athens, UGA students and fans were crowding some of their favorite haunts downtown to witness what they hope will be a miracle the Dawgs haven't reached in 37 years: to win it all and become national champions. 

Naomi Thomas, a master's student, is excited to spend her time downtown watching the game surrounded by other students. She's thinking about going to the Georgia Theatre, one of her favorite spots downtown. 

“I’m really excited for it, I didn’t go to college in the U.S., so the whole college football thing is new to me, but it’s amazing to be caught up in the atmosphere and excitement that goes with it, especially for such a prestigious game,” said Thomas.

Students cross in front of the Georgia Theatre on their way to one of the local hangouts. Photo Credit: Victoria R. Knight

Nicholas Hulfeld grew up supporting the Dawgs because his father is an alumni of the university. He's a student at Valdosta State who decided to drive up and watch the game in Athens since he couldn't afford tickets to the national title game. 

 “I feel like Athens is the next best thing. When we win it'll be a great celebration," said Hulfeld. 

Hulfeld brought his friend Brian Voigt, also a Valdosta State student, along for the ride. Voigt said he's thinking about transferring to UGA, and Athens already feels like home to him. 

 "I love the town and it's just a great place to watch the football game, especially one this big," said Voigt. 

On campus, excited students waited in line to watch the game from Stegeman Coliseum.

 Matt Hester, a senior at UGA, is planning to watch the game at the Blind Pig on the eastside of Athens. He's excited that his team has made it this far, and he's predicting the Dawgs will come out on top. 

 "31-27. Dawgs win. One of our touchdowns will be from a turnover," said Hester. 

The electronic sign on this University of Georgia bus echoes the sentiments of Bulldogs fans everywhere. ERIC STIRGUS / ESTIRGUS@AJC.COM

5:30 p.m.

Classes began late at the University of Georgia on Monday because of concerns about the weather.

Some didn’t happen at all, thanks to Bulldog Fever.

Many students, apparently, began preparing early for Monday night’s national championship game against the Alabama Crimson Tide. UGA freshman Jackie Yalta, 18, said her Spanish professor cancelled class Monday when less than half of the 20 students showed up.

“Everyone’s on the edge of their seats (about the game),” said Yalta, who grew up in Lawrenceville.

The campus was awash in red and black Monday afternoon. Most students, staff and residents were dressed in some form of Georgia Bulldogs paraphernalia. The campus buses had signs on their electronic billboard that read “Beat Alabama.”

A light rain fell on the campus Monday afternoon, but it did nothing to stem the excitement on the 37,000-student campus.

The university organized a watch party at Stegeman Coliseum for students. Some planned to watch the game there. Others, like Yalta, were hoping to watch from the big screen in their residence hall.

UGA grad Katie Anderson, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees here in the mid 1990s, came to Athens with her family from Newnan to watch the game from a sports bar on campus.

“I’m so happy to here,” she said, dressed in a gray sweatshirt with the G emblazoned across the middle.

Her two children, Will, 17, and Sarah, 12, of course, were also wearing Georgia gear. Even her husband, Scott, an Auburn alum, wore a Georgia T-shirt underneath another shirt.

“I’m so proud of how far we’ve come,” Anderson continued. “If we win, that’s the cherry on top. It’s been a fun ride.”

Please return to www.ajc.com and www.myajc.com for updates from Athens.

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