Georgia coach Kirby Smart has heard the reports that as many as 30,000 Georgia fans might be descending upon Nashville for Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt. He’s excited about that, but not necessarily surprised.
“Our fans do a wonderful job traveling,” Smart said at the Bulldogs’ first game-week news conference of the season on Monday. “When you get an opportunity for a three-day weekend and it involves Nashville — their fans will be the same way ours are — it’s a tough ticket right now because people want to go. People want to go to Nashville.”
Yes, fans do. And players do, too, for the most part.
But coaches don’t necessarily relish the idea of opening the season on the road against a conference opponent. That comes with inherent risks, the chief one being losing the game.
Smart acknowledged that.
“I think it is very different when you open with a conference team because of the enormous amount of pressure that comes (with it),” he said. “Are you going to execute in the moment, because your margin of error is reduced drastically compared to opening with a school that might not be a Power-5 program or something? You have to be organized, you have to be detailed, you have to focus and you have to be unselfish.”
There actually was a time when it was quite commonplace to open the season against a conference opponent. Georgia has done it quite often, 23 times to be exact.
The results have been fairly even. The Bulldogs are 12-10-1 in those contests.
But while intraconference openers used to be pretty commonplace in the SEC, the league has gotten away from it in its most recent years. Georgia hasn’t opened a season against a conference foe since 1995, when it played South Carolina at Sanford Stadium. That ended a four-year run in which the Bulldogs and Gamecocks faced each other to start the season consecutive years.
Georgia probably didn’t mind much, going 3-1 in those contests. But it has also had stretches that it opened the season against Alabama regularly, and that was something that Vince Dooley worked diligently to eliminate after he took over as the Bulldogs’ coach in 1964.
Georgia faced the Crimson Tide in seven consecutive season openers from 1959-65. The Bulldogs won the first and last one of those, but lost five in a row in between, to the detriment of coach Johnny Griffith.
UGA has also had short stints where it played Tennessee to open some seasons and Mississippi State. In fact, the Bulldogs have opened against the Vols at the beginning of some of their best years — 1968, ’80 and ’81. The ’68 game ended in a 17-all tie, but Georgia won the other two.
It’s been a long time since the Bulldogs opened a season on the road against Vandy. That last happened in 1956, and Georgia lost 14-0. But the Dogs prevailed the only other time they opened in Nashville, 19-7 in 1952.
Things are a lot different nowadays. Namely, Georgia is considered a powerhouse program at this particular time in history. The Bulldogs open the season with a consensus No. 3 national ranking, and they’ve been installed as three-touchdown favorites against Vanderbilt by Las Vegas oddsmakers.
The Bulldogs aren’t about to get caught up in all that. Vanderbilt is a team that knocked them off only three years ago, 17-16 in Athens. And even though Georgia has won the last two contests by four touchdowns or more, those games stayed competitive for the first half.
Being a conference tilt, nobody in the Bulldogs’ camp is about to take Vanderbilt lightly.
“I mean, it’s a game that means a ton,” senior tight end Charlie Woerner said. “Obviously the first game always means a lot, but the first game being the SEC opener, it means a lot to us. We’ve been really excited about it and practicing hard for it. It is an SEC game and a road game, so we know it’s going to be really hard.”
Said junior quarterback Jake Fromm: “We know it’s going to be a tough and physical game and we’ve got to get our bodies ready and get mentally ready to go play a tough opponent. … That’s what we signed up for and we’re going to go there and play our best game. We’re getting tested early so we want to set the tone early and that’s what we want to do as a team.”
“I love it, actually. You know, it’s SEC, man. It’s here, it’s right in your face,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “So you’ve got to kind of attack it. The season is here and it’s time to get going.”
It doesn’t hurt that tens of thousands of Georgia fans are trying to make it into a de facto neutral site game. Players have heard the tales of UGA followers buying Vanderbilt season tickets just to be sure they’re able to get into the Commodores’ 40,000-seat .
“That’s what I expect from our fan base,” Reed said. “If we go to Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt, I expect them to travel and bring a lot of people to the house.”
Said Smart: “It will be a tough ticket to get, and it should be that way. Our players are excited about playing in that kind of atmosphere against a really good football team.”
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism. AJC.com. Atlanta. News. Now.
Download the new AJC app. More local news, more breaking news and in-depth journalism.