The streets of downtown Atlanta were filled with Georgia red and Alabama crimson Friday as excited fans gathered in advance of the biggest football game of the season.
Hotels were filling with UGA and Bama fans as well as gawkers hoping for a glimpse of college football royalty. The kings and queens of tailgating reigned from their RVs in packed lots around the Georgia Dome. And over in Athens, home of the University of Georgia, bars and restaurants downtown were stocked with extra booze and food for what they hope will be a victory celebration.
The electricity that’s built for a week in the run-up to the Georgia Bulldogs’ battle with the Alabama Crimson Tide reached a crescendo Friday as two fervent fan bases readied for the SEC Championship game.
Some UGA die-hards are so excited they’ve been having trouble sleeping. Students can’t focus on upcoming finals and term papers. And, beneath it all, there was an undeniable stress bubbling up in advance of Georgia’s most important gridiron game in three decades.
“It’s the biggest game in my lifetime,” said Jonathon Ray, a 19-year-old UGA sophomore whose parents hadn’t even met when Georgia last won the national championship in 1980. “It’s hard to concentrate on classwork. All through this week, I’m telling myself, ‘Just get me to Saturday, just get me to Saturday.’”
Saturday’s finally here, and only the Crimson Tide, a college football powerhouse, stands between the Bulldogs and a ticket to the Jan. 7 BCS national title game against undefeated Notre Dame.
Amid all the pregame excitement in Athens and Atlanta, there was more than a touch of worry among even the most faithful UGA fans.
“People are sick with anxiety,” said Scott Towe, 46, who runs a Bulldogs memorabilia store in downtown Athens. “I wake up at 4:30 in the morning and try to think how we’re going to win. I catch myself dreaming game scenarios.”
Then, with a smile, he added, “I probably should get some help.”
Alabama fan James Mills, 59, of Tuscaloosa showed a bit more confidence. “If we play our game, we will win,” he said. “We should win handily.”
Mills and his wife spent part of Friday at the SEC Fan Fair at the Georgia World Congress Center. Thousands of fans swarmed around the event, buying souvenirs and shirts, participating in activities, and watching former players toss a ball around.
Friday was the de facto kickoff for pregame festivities, as students cleared from campus in Athens and fans started pouring into downtown Atlanta. The buzz was palpable in the area around Georgia Dome, where scores of huge RVs adorned with team colors and flags were already stationed in parking lots.
Some fans were letting nothing stop them from enjoying this weekend. At the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, where the coaches luncheon was held, Chuck Ellis, 60, of Birmingham was navigating through the crowd with one leg on a scooter as he recovered from reconstructive foot and ankle surgery.
“It’s a be-there situation, even if I have to get around on a scooter,” he said.
Not all fans came armed with tickets. Mike Fitzgerald could be spotted in the Hyatt’s lobby in desperate search for a pair of seats. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed,” he said. The 58-year-old and his wife had driven 1,200 miles from Minneapolis to see the game, and he’s not even a fan of either school.
“I’m an SEC guy,” Fitzgerald said.
Most UGA students are more than mindful they are enrolled at a fortunate moment in their school’s history. And if they aren’t, there are thousands of alumni who graduated during more trying times ready to remind them.
“We’re going to be a part of history. We all realize that,” said Anush Vinod, a 21-year-old senior. “It’s hard to concentrate. It’s not just students; it’s faculty and staff, too. Almost every single class starts with a professor asking how excited we are about this game.”
Indeed, at the start of a history class in a massive lecture hall on the UGA campus, a professor implored his restless students not to forget the term paper due next week amid the championship frenzy.
Back in Atlanta, Janie Smith could hardly contain her excitement. She hasn’t missed a home game in 27 years, and she wasn’t about to miss this one.
“It gets your blood running through you,” said Smith, a 49-year-old Athens woman who was sporting a Bulldog shirt, bag, ring and watch. “It’s crazy. To have this chance in our hand, it’s every Bulldog’s dream.”
So what of the fans who couldn’t pull a miracle — or cash in their retirement funds — and land a ticket for the game? Many are planning elaborate viewing parties or charting their trajectories to sports bars and restaurants.
Alas, UGA fan David Silverman will not be one of them. The 24-year-old analyst, who has long prided himself on eating four Varsity hot dogs before big games, will be breaking that tradition this year. Instead, he’ll be at a wedding. In Miami.
Don’t feel too bad for him, though. Throughout the ceremony and party, he’ll be watching the action unfold on his iPad.
“I’m not missing this game,” he said. “Don’t worry — I’ll be very discreet.”