Georgia Bulldogs brace for anything-but-normal home opener

Georgia students and visitors look over socially distanced seats Georgia has put into place for the team’s home opener against Auburn in Sanford Stadium that will have limited capacity for fans. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com
Georgia students and visitors look over socially distanced seats Georgia has put into place for the team’s home opener against Auburn in Sanford Stadium that will have limited capacity for fans. Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

ATHENS – Greg McGarity is going to be at Georgia’s game against Auburn on Saturday. He just doesn’t know yet where he’s going to sit.

Normally he takes in home games in the AD’s box at Sanford Stadium, as one might expect of the Bulldogs' athletic director. But McGarity has relinquished his box and offered the space to UGA President Jere Morehead so his party will have more room to social distance.

That’s nothing, really. On Saturday, for the first time in 40 years of athletic administration, McGarity wasn’t on the road with the team when Georgia went to Arkansas. He wasn’t “in the bubble" of those subjected to multiple COVID-19 tests, so he didn’t travel. He watched the Bulldogs' 37-10 win over Arkansas at home on television, like most of the Bulldog Nation did.

So goes the 2020 football season, which is anything but normal, but happening nonetheless. Fall football is back at UGA. Finally.

“Everyone around here is excited to have everybody back on campus,” McGarity said Tuesday. “From a stadium standpoint, we’re ready and feel like we have a good plan.”

Pandemic aside, you couldn’t ask for a much better setup. Saturday’s game features a top-10 matchup between No. 7 Auburn (1-0) and the No. 4 Bulldogs (1-0). It’s expected to be beautiful, mild weather for the 7:30 p.m. kickoff. And in addition to the prime-time slot on ESPN, the network’s “College GameDay Show” will be in town all weekend.

There are a lot of unknowns, though, beyond the outcome of the significant SEC contest to be decided. But fortunately for the Bulldogs, they were able to take their time in getting to this moment. Not only did they play away in the first week, but they were able to observe other leagues that were playing before the SEC.

Georgia was able to glean a lot of details from their peers.

“It’s like you’re planning this big party, this big event, and you’re having your best friends and biggest constituents coming,” said Josh Brooks, Georgia senior deputy AD and chief of operations. "You want everything to be perfect, but you know you’re dealing with unique times and unique challenges. You can prepare for much, but then there are so many unknowns. There’s always going to be a surprise.

“It’s like the ol' Mike Tyson saying, ‘everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the mouth.’”

There are some “knowns.” Brooks estimates the actual crowd on hand to be between 20,000 and 21,000. That’s approximately 22 percent of the regular capacity for Sanford Stadium, which seats 92,746 when full.

About 3,200 will be students, which is 80 percent less than normal (16,000). Auburn got 500 tickets, and UGA expects all of those to be used. Some will go to faculty and staff as usual. The rest went to season-ticket holders based on UGA’s donations-priority system.

Georgia’s “opt-out rate” from that group was unexpectedly high. More than half of the 14,000 or so donors -- or 54 percent, to be exact -- said “no thanks, we’ll watch from home.”

The opt-outs either accepted UGA’s offer of a refund without losing priority status or donated it all to UGA Athletics' COVID-relief fund with the incentive of getting triple priority points toward next year.

“We were a little surprised by the opt-out number,” Brooks said. “We were hoping, whatever the number, that we could at least accommodate every season-ticket holder to attend at least one game. But it was even more than we first anticipated because we offered a great fan-based plan. … Some schools said you’d lose ticket priority if you took your money back. We didn’t want to do that during this unique time.”

So, what can the 20,000 or so fans expect Saturday? Much of what they would at any Georgia home game, just in smaller doses.

  • The Redcoat Marching Band will be in attendance, but with only about 100 or so members rather than the 400-plus that typically is at a home game. And they won’t be marching, but sitting at prescribed social distances in Section 112.
  • Cheerleaders and majorettes will be there as well, but in the stands with the band and not down on the sidelines.
  • Georgia is able to pipe in crowd noise as long as the respective team’s center is not set over the ball. By SEC rule, those sounds can’t exceed 70 decibels. However, they can crank it up to 90 decibels after a big play.
  • UGA plans to have every concession stand and bathroom open throughout the facility. While this has been Georgia’s plan all along, crowding issues at other stadiums this season have proved it a prudent one.

“Our mindset from Day 1 has been to give our fans the best experience possible, even if it cuts into our revenue a little bit,” Brooks said. “We only have four home games this year, so we wanted to make sure they were put on first-class.”

And, yes, there will be tailgating, but it will be severely restricted. Parking passes and game tickets must be presented to enter campus lots surrounding the stadium. But while tents and grills won’t be allowed, fans are welcomed to unpack a spread and enjoy it right there in the vicinity of their vehicles.

“It’s tailgating in the truest sense, with groups of four or five meeting at the back of their car,” McGarity said. “Those that have done that say it went well, that it was quiet and uneventful. We’ve learned from what others have done.”

Adding to the game-day experience should be the level of competition on Vince Dooley Field. Georgia and Auburn traditionally have always played in November, usually as the Bulldogs' last SEC game of the year and with titles on the line. That’s why there have been so many meaningful games played over the course of 128 years in what’s known as the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.”

Obviously, no championships will be decided in Game 2 of this year’s 10-game conference schedule. But it’s first of three consecutive momentous matchups for the Bulldogs in a front-loaded schedule that stacks Tennessee and Alabama right behind the Tigers.

“It’s always been a big game,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I never remember it being Game 2, that’s for sure. So, that is very unique in that we will be playing them pretty early.”

Said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “It is what it is. It feels exactly as it would in November. We know how important it is. … It doesn’t matter if we’re playing in November or March.”

There are plenty of tickets available for the game. You’ll just have to go to StubHub or another secondary-ticket distributor and, yes, pay a little extra for them. Georgia, as usual, is all out.

As of Tuesday, tickets that have a face value of $75 (or a total of $150 including the required donation for each one) were available on StubHub for anywhere from $168 to $750 each. So, it’s still a hot ticket.

That’s why Georgia players such as Nolan Smith don’t expect the Sanford Stadium atmosphere to be radically different than a normal home game, give or take 70,000 fans.

“In my honest opinion, I don’t think there’s going to be a drop-off,” the sophomore outside linebacker said. “I grew up a Georgia fan in Savannah, and I’ve been watching them play football all my life, and I don’t think out fans are too worried about ‘corona.’ I think they’ll come out and be pumped. It may be 75 percent less or whatever it is, but it’s going to sound like 100 percent and I can’t wait.”

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