No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs excited to finally play at night

Georgia fans light up Sanford Stadium to begin the fourth quarter.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Georgia fans light up Sanford Stadium to begin the fourth quarter. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

ATHENS – Hooray, a night game!

That’s the sentiment within Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall, which houses Georgia’s No. 1-ranked football team. While no formal survey was taken, it’s anecdotally clear through comments and social media posts over the past week or so that the majority of players who don the red and black prefer to play under the lights on Saturday nights.

That has come up a lot recently because the Bulldogs have not played at night this season. They’re about to Saturday, but that’s going to be on the road at Missouri (7:30 p.m., SECN).

It’s night games at home in Sanford Stadium that Georgia players truly covet. You know, with those flashing red LED lights and the fourth quarter, “Light Up Sanford” with your cell phone tradition. Players love that stuff.

Hence, the retweet circulated by middle linebacker Jamon “Pop” Dumas-Johnson late last week. A Georgia fan had tweeted a memory pic of fans lighting up Sanford Stadium in the fourth quarter of Georgia’s stupendous 2019 game against Notre Dame. Dumas-Johnson retweeted with comment, saying, “We need a night game this year @home.”

Georgia fans agree. Their cries have been heard lately, too. They feel like their team – still No. 1 in the land after winning the 2021 national championship – is getting short shrift by having to play early games this season. The Bulldogs’ first two games of the year kicked off at 4 p.m. The last two have been the dreaded “nooners.”

It’s the noon games that truly aggravate fan bases. Outside of sportswriters, it seems few other people care much about getting up early and getting to a football game. Fans prefer to tailgate as long as possible, then make their way to stadiums with plenty of time to take in all the pregame pomp and circumstance and hype.

Players, too.

“Night games, we love them,” junior offensive tackle Warren McClendon said of finally getting to play Missouri at night. “The atmosphere there is going to be good and I’m ready for it. Back-to-back 12 o’clock games, so to finally get a 7:30 is nice.”

Actually, it will be 6:30 local time in Columbia, Mo., which is in the central time zone. But McClendon’s point is well-taken. Like UGA’s 40,000-strong student body – a large portion of which showed up late and left early for last Saturday’s noon kickoff between the Bulldogs and Kent State – players prefer to play a little later in the day.

“I don’t know if we were awake to start,” quarterback Stetson Bennett said after Georgia’s lackluster showing against their MAC visitors. “It was a noon kick. Interception, fumble, dropped punt, just can’t have those.”

Fans and players can complain all they want, but the reality is, Georgia and other SEC teams have absolutely no control over kickoff times. Ever since the SEC sold out to ESPN to have every single game televised, the schools relinquished control of start times to the networks. Schools can make date stipulations – for instance, the Bulldogs refuse to play on any other day than Saturday – but schools are at the mercy of CBS and ESPN about what time their games will kick off.

Even last year, when the Bulldogs were in the midst of their run to a national championship, they seemed to draw an inordinate number of noon games. Georgia had five to go along with five afternoon kicks and just two true night games, which we’re defining here as 6 p.m. or later. Only one (versus South Carolina on Sept. 18) was played at home in Sanford Stadium.

The Bulldogs had many more night games in 2020 (4) and 2019 (5). Five of those nine games were played at home, including three in 2019.

Georgia also played five night games in 2017 and a whopping six during the 2012 season. Those were both very good UGA teams, which does have something to do with it.

Conversely, the Bulldogs played a whopping 11 nooners between the 2014 and ‘15 seasons. Though those teams both won 10 games, they were out of the SEC race fairly early. Still, the crowing among fans got so loud that Greg McGarity, then athletic director, was forced to complain.

“The reason we had so many noon games then is because we weren’t good,” said McGarity, now CEO of Gator Bowl Sports in Jacksonville. “We didn’t play well enough to deserve primetime. And there was nothing I could do. You can complain about it and certainly advocate for it, but the networks control everything. They’re going to pick whoever they want to play whenever they want.”

That script has yet to written for Georgia’s entire season just yet. After the 7:30 p.m. kick at Missouri this weekend, the Bulldogs’ kickoff times have been determined only through the next Saturday’s home tilt versus Auburn.

Not without controversy, that game was picked by CBS for the coveted 3:30 p.m. game of the week national broadcast slot. Meanwhile, the fan bases of LSU and Tennessee were infuriated to get stuck with an 11 a.m. central kickoff in Baton Rouge. The Tigers would play every home game at night if they could. But CBS, which for the moment still owns first-dib rights for SEC games, wanted Texas A&M at Alabama for the 8 p.m. slot on a rare SEC double-header Saturday for the network and picked the No. 1-ranked Bulldogs in the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry over LSU-Tennessee.

But the SEC’s current TV rights agreement with CBS gives the network sometimes as few as eight days during the season to decide what game it wants to broadcast. The remaining games are picked up by ESPN for slots on its family of sports networks, including the SEC Network. So, with the exception of Georgia-Florida on Halloween weekend – which is always the CBS 3:30 p.m. game of the week in that window, future broadcasts this season remain up in the air.

Vanderbilt at Georgia on Oct. 15 seems unlikely to be tabbed for a night kickoff. The guess is that Tennessee at Georgia on Nov. 5 could be.

Nobody but the network-programming gurus know for sure. And as the season progresses, they tend to wait until the last minute to ensure that they broker the best matchups.

If the Bulldogs don’t get any night games at Sanford Stadium this season, it won’t be the first time. Georgia did not get a home night kick in 2016, Kirby Smart’s first season. It had only one home night game last year and that was against South Carolina in Week 3. You have to go back to 2013 and 2014 to find one-night-game seasons before that.

Meanwhile, though players and fans have some qualms about playing noon games, the networks increasingly do not. In fact, with the Big Ten airing some of its best games at noon, ESPN is looking to find competitive matchups to go against them these days. Ratings wars are heating up as ESPN seeks to improve its lot ahead of a new agreement with an expanded SEC.

Bottom line: College football players must be prepared at most any time. At least for one Saturday, the Bulldogs are fired up about playing in Missouri at night.

“Honestly, I like the energy,” sophomore cornerback Kelee Ringo said. “It’s going to be a tough stadium, but so is every stadium in the East. Any game, at night, middle of the day or in the morning, is going to be tough.”

Said redshirt freshman guard Tate Ratledge: “I think everybody’s excited for it. We haven’t had one yet. It’s been a while. Night games are a big deal for everybody, even fans for the other team. It’s a great environment to play in.”

Dawg Tags: The AJC presents a daily look at the one thing you need to know about Georgia athletics today.

About the Author