Georgia fans cheer, Auburn groans, BBQ abounds as UGA tops SEC

Georgia fans Buddy Robinson (left) and Chris Mileham tailgate before the SEC championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Credit: Branden Camp

Credit: Branden Camp

Georgia fans Buddy Robinson (left) and Chris Mileham tailgate before the SEC championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Auburn Tigers, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Terrell and Stephanie Martin of Jasper, Alabama, stood dolefully outside outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday afternoon, gazing through one of the soaring, triangular windows at SEC madness inside.

One slice of the acre-sized LED screen inside the stadium was visible through that window, even from halfway to Philips Arena, and the tornado roar of the crowd carried all the way to the Spring Street viaduct.

Yes, the Martins could have watched the SEC’s oldest rivalry from the 50-yard-line, but instead gave their tickets to their sons, Graham, 19, and Drew, 15. As Auburn scored the first touchdown of the game and a few scattered cheers and groans could be heard from the plaza outside the stadium, Terrell Martin sighed.

His sadness wasn’t due to the score. Martin is an Auburn fan. It was because, given the choice between his own happiness and the happiness of his children, he went with the latter. “I just hope they remember me fondly when they put me in the ground,” he joked.

Much excitement had led to this moment.

Football fans filled downtown Atlanta all Saturday morning, ready to see whether Georgia would answer back for its 40-17 loss to the Tigers three weeks earlier. Along Marietta Street a sports-talk radio station set up a remote broadcast, blaring tunes from a huge sound system, while fans in school colors played a beanbag-toss game as if their lives or their beer money depended on it.

By lunchtime, the “River Road tailgaters” had already moved into “The Gulch” like a red-and-black circus caravan, setting up their tents, a portable generator, big screen television, satellite dish, sound system, barbecue grill and portable toilet, and dancing to the Black-Eyed Peas. Situated out of the sun, just under the CNN parking decks, all were enjoying the run-up to the game as the cavelike parking area filled with a haze of charcoal smoke and the smell of grilling meat.

To satisfy the River Road appetites, Brent “Big Boy” Widener, decked out in Bulldogs gear, had prepared two slabs of ribs, 10 chickens (quartered), 10 pounds of barbecued pork, 4 gallons of Brunswick stew, 4 gallons of potato salad and 4 gallons of cole slaw.

Then, in the moments before kickoff, he made a solemn prediction that Georgia would “whoop up.”

“In all seriousness,” he said, his red beard bristling, “if our line performs better than it did three weeks ago, which I think they will, because they won’t be piping in that damn music, then we’ve got a chance to shock the world.”

Fans enjoy tailgating before the SEC championship game Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, in Atlanta. In their season rematch, No. 6 Georgia defeated No. 2 Auburn 28-7.

Credit: Branden Camp

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Credit: Branden Camp

Elsewhere among the tailgaters, Auburn fans Melanie Harrison and Harriet Deason, sisters originally from little bitty Sprott, Alabama, staked out a single parking space, opened up their SUV and enjoyed a moment of orange serenity.

They may have been out numbered by the University of Georgia tailgaters, but, as Harrison put it, ”both teams put the same number of people on the field.”

They hoped to make their way to the Rose Bowl this year, they said before the game began. “With cash, credit cards and red lipstick, we can do anything,” said Harrison.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, looking like a reverse-engineered alien craft, glimmered in the afternoon of an exceptionally warm December day, as a scrum of biblical proportions surged slowly toward Gate 2.

“I’m kind of short, and I get claustrophobia,” said 5-foot-2-inch Cindy Chesser, sitting a short distance away. “If I got caught in that crowd I would pass out.”

Instead, Chesser and her husband Joe, of Birmingham, waited for the crowd to thin out, though the crowd showed no sign of thinning as kickoff approached.

Others not lucky enough to have a ticket stood at the margins, to see if any jaded fan might want to turn a ticket in.

A thousand dollars. That’s what Nathan Sell, a senior at Auburn, heard that his tickets were worth. He thought that over as he stood in line. But Nathan wouldn’t sell.

“I’ve waited all my life for this,” he said.

Plus, his family, Auburn fans for generations, might not take it kindly.

Rick Smith, Georgia fan, Vinings resident and a lawyer specializing in technology, wouldn’t have paid that thousand, but he thought he saw a good scalping prospect as a young Bulldogs fan wandered the plaza, waving a ticket in the air.

No dice. The red-clad young man was only exhibiting exuberance — or the effect of breakfast beers.

University of Georgia students Jerilyn Williamson (left) and Mikaela Gay cheer on the Bulldogs during the SEC championship football game against Auburn on Saturday, Dec. 2, 2017, while watching at Jerzee's Sports Bar in Athens. 

Credit: Chamberlain Smith

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Credit: Chamberlain Smith

Students back in Athens gathered to watch the game together, in small groups at restaurants and bars, on the roof of the Georgia Theatre and in a large crowd at the Tate Student Center.

Nick Nelson, a UGA student watching in an Athens bar, had a lot riding on the game.

“(My friends and I) have a bet right now. If Georgia loses, we’re getting Tased,” he said. One of his friends had a Taser.

“If the Dawgs go down, we go down,” he said. “But right now, I’m not getting Tased, because the Dawgs are gonna win.”

Back in Atlanta, Knoxville resident Derek Turner, 26, expected to be watching from inside the stadium, but found himself and his friends standing outside Dantana’s sports bar, in the CNN atrium, a clutch of unusable tickets in his hand.

“They’re counterfeit” he said. “I bought fake tickets.”

The scalper who sold them — at $300 a pop — had long melted into the crowd by the time Turner made his way to a ticket scanner.

Making the best of a bad situation, he and his wife, Sarah Turner, and friends Will Chambers and Haley Kramer, who drove from Knoxville for the possibility of getting inside the stadium, instead watched at a sports bar and high-fived as Georgia turned a two-point conversion.

These Tennesseans are all Georgia fans. Turner had been in Atlanta for the 2011 rout of UGA by LSU, and again in 2012 when Georgia lost to the Crimson Tide. “That gave me sort of a sick feeling going home,” he said.

So, despite the fake tickets, he felt encouraged as Georgia crept ahead. “If we win, that will be the best feeling driving back that we’ve had.”

University of Georgia students cheer on the Bulldogs during the SEC Championship football game against Auburn on Saturday, December 2, 2017, at the Tate Student Center on the Athens campus. 

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When it was all over, a line stretched along the sidewalk as students and alumni waited to ring the Chapel Bell on the University of Georgia campus, a tradition following a Bulldogs win.

Many were cheering, dancing and clapping as the bell rang endlessly. Most didn’t have much to say following the 28-7 rematch victory over Auburn, giving Georgia its first SEC Championship in 12 years and an almost-gauranteed spot in the College Football Playoffs, except the old adage: “Go Dawgs.”

Nate Harris contributed to this article from Athens.