For Elizabeth Kozak and her fellow Nashville-based UGA alumni, next weekend's Georgia-Vanderbilt football game is like an impending thunderstorm, rumbling in the distance.
For months and weeks, they’ve heard it coming. Now, as the days have counted down into single digits, they’re beginning to see its form revealed over the horizon. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is a massive red-and-black storm, and it’s about to hit the Music City with a wallop.
“What I’ve heard is there are 30,000 people coming from the state of Georgia to Tennessee,” said Kozak, a Nashville resident who works for UGA as regional director of development and alumni relations. “It’s going to be like a game in Athens. Speaking for the local alumni here, we’re just really excited about seeing all the fans travel in and welcome everybody into Music City and show off our town around the game.”
Georgia football fans have always flocked to Nashville in good numbers for the Vanderbilt game. There is the dual attraction of the contest being played in a bustling city known as the epic center of country music and against an opponent where there are reasonable odds of a favorable outcome.
Traditionally, these two teams have faced off in the middle of the football season, usually in October. But for the first time in a quarter century, the SEC schedule has Georgia opening the season on the road against a conference opponent. Add to that the fact that the Bulldogs are coming into the year ranked No. 3 with designs on a national championship, and the anticipation over what might otherwise be considered a nondescript match starts to become understandable.
“It’s definitely being treated as a big game,” said Larry Leathers, Vanderbilt’s longtime director of sports communications. “With SEC Nation broadcasting from campus that morning, that just brings that much more attention to it. And, of course, Georgia is ranked third in the country. So there’s a lot of anticipation for a big game, and we expect a big crowd for this place. A conference game in Nashville on Saturday night ought to be pretty awesome.”
Here’s the kicker: Georgia-Vandy is not the only thing going on in Nashville on Labor Day weekend. Even for a town known as the entertainment capital of the South, there’s more happening than usual.
To start with, there’s the John Merritt Football Classic. Hosted annually by Tennessee State, which is located three miles north of Vanderbilt, the Tigers will play host to Mississippi Valley State at 6 p.m. local time, or 30 minutes before Georgia and Vandy are scheduled to kickoff. The football game will be played across the river at Nissan Stadium, the Tennessee Titans’ facility. But that is almost an afterthought for that event. The battle of the marching bands is the featured act, and that goes on all weekend all around town.
“That will bring in a lot of people also,” Leathers said. “That event is a tradition here and is probably one of the top things on the Tennessee State’s calendar every year. There’s a million other things going on in this town, too, and that’s what gets you.”
To add to the atmosphere, “Live on the Green” is also going on in downtown Nashville. The three-day music festival will feature dozens of artists, who will be performing throughout the weekend at Public Square Park, in front of the city courthouse east of the Vanderbilt campus.
All that activity has put a premium on hotel rooms. There are more than 46,000 in the Greater Nashville area, according to the Nashville Convention and Visitor’s Corporation, and the prices are even higher than usual. Most hotels in the West End, where Vanderbilt is located, are requiring three-night minimums. Price averages are around $300 per night.
“A three-day music festival and two football games has created demand on that Saturday night,” said Heather Middleton, a spokesman for the visitor’s bureau. “While downtown is pretty full and higher priced, there is still availability and more moderate pricing in the areas of the airport, Green Hills, Brentwood and Cool Springs.”
Middleton said the visitor's bureau can provide assistance finding accommodations at visitmusiccity.com or by calling 1-800-657-6910.
Expectations for Georgia’s season are at an all-time high. The Bulldogs’ consensus preseason ranking of No. 3 is the highest since they opened the 2008 season ranked No. 1, and Georgia is considered a favorite to play for the SEC championship and reach the College Football Playoff.
That has set the Vanderbilt ticket market ablaze. There has been both good news and bad news for Georgia fans on that front. The bad news is the Commodores’ facility – Vanderbilt Stadium at Dudley Field – seats only 40,500. Vanderbilt reports that it has sold all of its tickets, except for those reserved for sale as season tickets.
The good news is Vanderbilt never sells its allotment of season tickets, and most are available to consumers without the stipulation of an additional donation. They also have some three-game “flex packages” that include the Georgia game. So starting at $120 apiece, some enterprising Bulldogs fans have bought Vanderbilt season tickets.
“It happens, whether it’s Tennessee, Alabama or Georgia on the schedule,” Leathers said. “There’s probably some Georgia fans that have taken advantage of that. They either sell the other tickets, or maybe they’re Vanderbilt fans the rest of the year.
Kozak and her fellow UGA alums in Nashville have been hearing from their constituents’ cries and are doing what they can to assist. Matt Boeshore, president of the Nashville chapter of the UGA Alumni Association, said he set up a block of rooms for Georgia fans at the Holiday Inn Vanderbilt and coordinated the acquisition of nearly 400 tickets.
The alumni association is planning a massive party for their fellow Bulldogs. The Valentine, a four-story saloon located in the honky-tonk district on Broadway, has been established as the official epicenter. That will be the venue for welcoming party at 9 p.m. Friday There are also tailgate parties (requiring tickets) planned for Friday and Saturday near Vanderbilt Stadium near the Holiday Inn hotel in the West End.
Of course, hundreds of individuals are planning their own tailgate extravaganzas throughout the city. Everybody seems comfortable with the notion that some serious money is going to be dropped in the Music City that weekend.
“Hotel, tickets, parking, Uber, will be right around $1,150 for the two of us for two nights,” UGA football letterman Clay Ware said of himself and his wife. “Then food and beverage on top of that. I looked at staying south of town around Murfreesboro for a third of the price on hotel rooms, but my wife shut that down in a hurry.”