Notre Dame fired up for trip to Georgia

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VIDEO: Georgia routed Arkansas State and hosts Notre Dame next Saturday night. Video by Chip Towers.

It won’t approach anything like we saw when Georgia visited Notre Dame two years ago – what possibly could? -- but the Fighting Irish and their faithful are excited about the football program’s historic visit to Sanford Stadium next Saturday.

And they’re mobilizing for it.

“We thought about organizing a ‘Green Out,’ but we weren’t sure we could pull it off,” said Rian Gorey, president of the Notre Dame Club of Atlanta, the local chapter of the Notre Dame alumni association.

Gorey was joking. While it has a huge fan following, Notre Dame remains a relatively small academic institution, with an annual undergrad enrollment of about 8,000 and a couple of thousand in its graduate schools. And its alumni are spread out all over the world.

But it does have more than 2,000 members in its Atlanta-based alumni association and, of course, millions of fans among Catholics around the globe.

“We’re not that big; Georgia dwarfs us with their 33,000 (students) or so,” said Gorey, a “double-domer” (two Notre Dame degrees) who has lived and worked in Atlanta since 1992. “But we certainly do have an active fan base. We do play teams all over the country all the time. We’ve been doing that since Knute Rockne was coach in the 1920s and nobody would play us. But coming to Georgia is special. There’s history there.”

Ah, yes, there is.

There is, of course, the national championship game in the 1981 Sugar Bowl, which Georgia won 17-10. And then there was the last matchup in 2017. That one, also won by the Bulldogs was unforgettable as well.

There was the outcome (UGA won a classic, 20-19). But then there was the mass migration of UGA fans to the Midwest for the Bulldogs’ first game above the Mason-Dixon line in five decades.

“I’ll never forget it,” Gorey said. “There were 250 Georgia fans at our tailgate that day. They just showed up.”

It won't match what Georgia fans did when they made their mass migration to Notre Dame Stadium in 2017, but the Fighting Irish promise to be well represented when the teams meet for the first time ever in Sanford Stadium next Saturday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Caption
It won't match what Georgia fans did when they made their mass migration to Notre Dame Stadium in 2017, but the Fighting Irish promise to be well represented when the teams meet for the first time ever in Sanford Stadium next Saturday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

There’s a lot to be excited about this time around, over and beyond historical significance of Notre Dame coming “between the hedges” for the first time. It’s because it will be a top-10 matchup with College Football Playoff ramifications that CBS tabbed Saturday’s game for a rare 8 p.m. kickoff.

That’s also why ESPN’s “College Game Day” chose to air Saturday’s national broadcast from the UGA campus. The massive set for the Saturday morning preview show will be set up on South Campus in the Myers Quad, unless inclement weather forces it to the lawn of the Special Collections Library on North Campus.

That will be the backdrop as the No. 7-ranked Irish will arrive undefeated after a 66-14 victory at home against New Mexico on Saturday. Likewise, the No. 3 Bulldogs (3-0) will come in off of their 55-0 win over Arkansas State.

That’s an will make for an even grander stage than when these schools last met on Sept. 9, 2017, when the Bulldogs were No. 15 and the Irish No. 24. That historic road win catapulted Georgia on to a season that featured its first SEC championship in 12 years and an appearance in CFP Championship game in Atlanta.

“The way you can prepare for that is to play in it,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Saturday. “There's no preparation for it, as far as the stage. The biggest thing you can do is let your players relax and play. The team that makes that makes the fewest mistakes will usually when these games. The team that over-analyzes it and hypes it up and makes it bigger than it is, larger than life, sometimes that gets you in trouble.”

Notre Dame also has had some success since then as well. The Irish reached the playoffs last year, falling to eventual national champion Clemson 30-3 in the semifinals.

Both programs have designs on returning to that national stage this season. So, this year’s rematch of Georgia and the Irish has a playoff feel to it. A lopsided defeat on either side could effectively eliminate any playoff aspirations for the losing team. That’s especially applicable to Notre Dame, which does not have a conference championship scenario to fall back on.

“I think there’s some trepidation for Notre Dame fans,” said Eric Hansen, a longtime columnist and assistant sports editor at the South Bend Tribune. “They’re definitely interested; they’re definitely intrigued. If you could guarantee them that they were going to win, I think they’d be even more about it. But I think deep down they’re worried that this could be another version of Clemson. They’re very concerned about what this is going to look like.”

Gorey concurred.

“I don’t know if I’d call it trepidation; I’ll just say Notre Dame has a ton of respect for Georgia,” said Gorey, a “double domer” with undergraduate and graduate degrees from Notre Dame. “I’ve been involved with Notre Dame for a long time and seeing Georgia travel two years ago and seeing that sea of red in South Bend and at Vanderbilt this year, that’s been very impressive. But it’s just a little bit different for us. We don’t travel like that. And we’re rebuilding a little bit this year.

“But we’re very excited about it. We’ll see.”

The Fighting Irish definitely will be well-represented Saturday, and all week really.

To start with, the Bulldogs are providing the school with 8,000 tickets, which is 500 more than any school UGA plays. It was a reciprocal agreement Georgia made when the programs brokered the home-and-home deal in 2013. That meant UGA had to add temporary bleachers to the West End plaza to add 500 seats, which will make Saturday’s official attendance a school-record 93,246.

Meanwhile, the Notre Dame faithful plans to be out in force. Gorey said he’s heard Irish fans have commandeered “a couple thousand” more tickets on the secondary market, which has identified this week’s ticket as the second-most in demand in college football this season (LSU-Texas to open the season was No. 1). The alumni association sold tickets to a pep rally at Wild Heaven West Brewery & Gardens on the Beltway in Atlanta and Gorey had to cap attendance at 850 because of space limitations. One thousand have signed up for the official Notre Dame tailgate Saturday at the Classic Center in downtown Athens.

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None of that should be confused with what happened in September 2017, when UGA fans flocked to South Bend, Ind., and Chicago by the tens of thousands for the first matchup of a home-and-home series. The number of Georgia fans that ended up inside 80,000-seat Notre Dame Stadium for the game was estimated to be around 40,000.

That event left both programs with nothing but good will between each other. UGA fans and administrators flooded Notre Dame with hundreds of letters and emails thanking the school for the hospitality they were shown while in South Bend. Georgia has since adapted the Irish tradition of scattering identifiable school hosts throughout campus to help answer questions and help visitors with directions. The Bulldogs’ straw-hatted version of Notre Dame’s “Blue Coats” are now called the “Silver Dawgs” and will be fully engaged Saturday.

In a related event, Chick-fil-A and Coca-Cola of Atlanta have organized a “thank-you event” for Notre Dame’s leadership and distinguished local alumni that will be conducted Thursday night at Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame. A joint golf tournament also was held at Athens Country Club in May to raise funds for the respective alumni associations. More than 400 people participated and $10,000 was raised for each side.

Meanwhile, former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz is assisting former Georgia Bulldog Billy Payne with a fundraiser Friday night in Athens.

“There’s a lot of good will between these two programs,” Gorey said.

For now, anyway.

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