From the heart of Crimson Tide country, 17-year-old Hunter Dillard texted his uncle in Thomasville a few days ago pitching a road trip to Atlanta.
“It was a joke, really,” said Dillard, who lives near Dothan, Ala. But Jason Bennett called his nephew’s bluff, and at 5 a.m. Saturday they set off on the four-hour drive to Philips Arena for Media Day, a chance to see and hear Georgia’s players and coaches up close two days before they face off against Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship.
“We just had to be here,” said Bennett, beaming as he soaked in the atmosphere. He called Monday’s double overtime win over Oklahoma “by far my best moment as a Bulldog fan,” understandable since he was only three years old the last time UGA played for a national title.
Bennett's giddiness was shared by the thousand or so Georgia fans who crowded into the home of the Atlanta Hawks to eavesdrop on generally canned answers to oft-repeated questions about Monday's big game.
There were plenty of Alabama fans there, too, though not quite as many. Championships are old hat for the Crimson Tide — they’ve won four since Nick Saban took over as head coach in 2007.
So there’s reason for confidence. But not complacency, especially for the fans who’ve watched all that winning from afar.
“For me it’s cool to be able to see this in person,” said Tim Riley of Conyers. “You usually don’t get this kind of access to the team.”
Riley’s uncle, Mike Miller, raised his nephew to root for the Tide. He said he attends two or three games a year in Tuscaloosa but “it’s nice to have the game in your backyard.”
Still, Miller said he couldn't justify dropping $2,000 for a ticket to the game. He'll watch the game at home in McDonough with his wife, who happens to be a Bulldog fan.
Pausing a moment after snapping multiple pictures of her favorite Bulldog players, Melissa Maxwell estimates she’s spent $8,000 this year on the Bulldogs, including $2,400 for a ticket to Monday’s contest.
“There was no way I wasn’t going to be part of this. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said, and in her case that’s literal truth. Maxwell was born in 1980, the last time Georgia finished the season atop the college football rankings.
Though Alabama is favored to win, Maxwell said there’s no team she’d rather see the Bulldogs play.
“I lived in Alabama five years and I had to put up with them talking about how great they were,” she said.
But hey, the truth hurts.
“I’m not worried about Georgia at all,” said Earnest Buffett, 33, of Hueytown, Ala. “I’m 100 percent confident we’re going to win. Make that 110 percent.”
And although UGA fans outnumbered their Alabama counterparts at Media Day, Buffett said playing in Atlanta will feel like a home game for the Tide.
“We’ve won here so many times,” he said. Indeed, Alabama opened the 2017 season with a 24-7 win over Florida State at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the national championship will be decided.
It’s no surprise Georgia fans have some trepidation about Monday’s game — especially those whose fandom includes Atlanta’s professional sports teams.
“It sort of feels like the Falcons last year,” said Daniel Bailey, 24, of Atlanta. “Everything’s fallen into place. And now (Georgia) will have to beat the best team to win it all, just like the Falcons had to play the Patriots.”
And we all know how that went.
Bailey was a toddler the last time one of his teams won it all. So even though he’s still relatively young, he’s got a touch of that familiar dread.
“Until they win it all, I’m going to have that attitude,” he said.
Whatever happens Monday, he’s confident of one thing: Georgia won’t have to wait nearly four decades until they play for another national title.
Bennett expressed similar confidence about the program’s future. Saturday afternoon he and his nephew drove back to Thomasville, where the countdown for the biggest game of their lives resumes.
Monday just happens to be Bennett’s wedding anniversary. His wife just happens to be an Alabama fan.
“She said she won’t be too upset if Georgia wins,” Bennett said.
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