Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC
ATHENS — Auburn made for an OK atmosphere with that oldest-rivalry vibe. Homecoming versus Vanderbilt was, well, Vanderbilt. Samford was kind of fun because it was Georgia’s first home game as the defending national champion.
But there has been nothing this season – and maybe ever – that will come close to approaching the anticipated energy and excitement inside Sanford Stadium for Saturday’s matchup between the No. 1 Bulldogs and No. 2 Tennessee.
“This one’s right there with the biggest of them, right there at the top,” said Jeff Dantzler, one of the Bulldogs’ radio announcers and a resident historian of the football program. “I mean, when you say Georgia is the top-ranked, undefeated, reigning national champions is pretty darn special as it is. And to have undefeated Tennessee coming in, I think everybody thought they’d be pretty good, but they look like that 2019 LSU team. They’re incredible.
“I feel like the hype for this one is justified.”
First off, it’s the highest-ranked matchup ever to be contested between Georgia’s hallowed hedges. That distinction previously belonged to No. 3 Auburn vs. the No. 4 Bulldogs in 1983. The Tigers won 13-7 that mid-November afternoon to clinch the SEC championship and snap Georgia’s streak of titles at three.
The only 1 vs. 2 matchup in Georgia history is Jan. 1, 1983, when No. 2 Penn State defeated the top-ranked Bulldogs 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, understandably, is thinking about none of that. He is laser-focused on trying to figure out how to slow down Tennessee’s juggernaut offense.
“I mean, I don’t even know the rankings or what they were,” Smart said during his weekly press briefing Monday. “It’s a big game, right? But there’s nothing about a number being in front of it. It would be a big game regardless because both teams are in the (SEC) East.”
It’s possible that either the Vols or Ohio State could leapfrog the Bulldogs in the CFP’s rankings on Tuesday based on the committee’s quantification of respective strengths of schedules. But even more important for Saturday’s Georgia-Tennessee contest is the SEC Eastern Division implications. The winner is far more likely to make the SEC Championship game in Atlanta.
“If Tennessee wins, their schedule’s cake; if (the Bulldogs) win, we’ve still got two hard conference games,” Dantzler noted.
Georgia has road trips remaining to Starkville, Miss., to play Mississippi State and to Lexington, Ky., to face the Kentucky Wildcats. Both teams were ranked in the Top 25 earlier this season, including a high of No. 7 by the Wildcats. Tennessee’s remaining games are at home against Missouri and on the road at South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Those are the last three teams in the East.
Though they’ve met many times as Top 10 opponents, the Bulldogs and Tennessee never have played as Top 5 opponents. Georgia is 1 and Tennessee 2 in the Associated Press poll that was released Sunday, and 1 and 3, respectively, per the USA Today coaches’ poll. But the first College Football Playoff rankings come out Tuesday night, and that will be the ranking The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recognizes going forward.
The last time these teams met in a Top 10 matchup was Oct. 12, 2002, when No. 6 Georgia defeated the No. 10 Vols 18-13 at Sanford Stadium. No. 5 Tennessee beat No. 7 Georgia 22-3 in Athens in October 1998.
While there have been few of Saturday’s magnitude, the Bulldogs have had pretty big games at Sanford Stadium the last several years. Georgia was No. 1 and Kentucky No. 11 when the Bulldogs won 30-13 on Oct. 16 of last year. Two weeks before that, No. 2 UGA beat No. 8 Arkansas 37-0.
On Oct. 3, 2020, No. 4 Georgia defeated No. 7 Auburn, but that was during the limited-attendance, pandemic season. Then ranked No. 3, the Bulldogs also beat No. 14 Tennessee 44-21 a week later.
“We know it’s going to be a big game, but we can’t treat it like it’s the last game of the season,” junior Zion Logue said. “We’ve got to treat it like any other game, prepare like any other week, not stress anything or override anything, just go out and play football. But we know the atmosphere is going to be crazy.”
That’s for sure. As far as super-charged environments in Sanford Stadium, one probably needs to go back to Georgia’s 2019 game against Notre Dame to find one to match Saturday’s anticipated intensity. The Fighting Irish were ranked seventh and the Bulldogs were third in a late-September game in which Georgia needed to hold on for a 23-17 victory.
“That’s the biggest game I’ve ever been to here at the University of Georgia,” said Logue, who hails from Lebanon, Tenn. “Even on the sideline, you couldn’t even talk to the guy beside you because it was so loud.”
Smart, Logue and junior offensive tackle Warren McClendon all appealed to “the Bulldog Nation” to replicate such an atmosphere on Saturday. Like against Notre Dame, both ESPN “College GameDay” and “SEC Nation” will conduct their Saturday preview shows from UGA’s campus before the game. CBS selected it two weeks ago as its SEC national game of the week for the coveted 3:30 p.m. time slot.
“To me, this one’s much bigger because of the conference implications,” Dantzler said. “I get that Notre Dame had never been here. We’ve played Tennessee every year since 1992. But it’s definitely in the conversation for biggest game ever between the hedges.”
Of course, determining such a thing is a subjective endeavor. Longtime fans point to the 1983 Georgia-Auburn game, which determined the SEC championship on the field. The same two teams were undefeated – and so was Alabama – when they met between the hedges in 1971 as No. 6 Auburn and No. 7 Georgia. The Tigers also won that one, 35-20.
Some UGA fans were said to have sold their tickets for $100 that day, which would equate to $733 today. Lower-level tickets for Saturday’s game are listed between $565 and $4,174 on SeatGeek.com.
Whatever the price of admission, Georgia and Tennessee should make for an entertaining matchup.
The Vols are known for their explosive offensive attack, which has produced 49.4 points per game. Georgia counters with the SEC’s best overall defense and averages 537 yards and 41.8 points a game.
Saturday’s prospects are good for the Bulldogs, who opened as 12-point favorites but quickly saw lines fall to 7.5 and 8 points, per VegasInsider.com. They have been practically unbeatable at Sanford Stadium under Smart.
Georgia is 32-1 on Dooley Field since 2017, winning those games by an average margin of 29.1 points. The one loss was a major upset in overtime against South Carolina in 2019. In that same span, the Bulldogs are 7-0 vs. ranked opponents, winning those games by an average margin of 21.2 points, and 3-0 in Top 10 matchups, also by three touchdowns per contest.
“Being at home helps,” Smart said. “Playing on the road is always a little different. But Tennessee has played some big games this year. They played against Pitt on the road. They’ve played some good teams at home, too, and played pretty well against them. But every game is a big game, honestly, in the SEC.”
Tennessee defeated then-No. 14 Pitt on Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh. The Vols also beat LSU 40-13 in Baton Rouge, La., but that game kicked off at 11 a.m. local time.
Many Georgia fans complain about the Bulldogs not playing a night game at Sanford Stadium all season. It has rid them of the opportunity to participate in the coveted “Light Up Sanford” tradition that earmarks the beginning of the fourth quarter of each home game.
However, that actually may work out for the first time all season this weekend. Sunset is projected to take place at 6:37 p.m. Saturday. The game should just be entering the fourth quarter about then.
The anticipation over what the situation might be at the moment has never been greater. Smart was appealing to Georgia’s fan base to make sure it’s deafening in Sanford Stadium throughout.
“I want to challenge our fan base to be loud,” Smart said. “I mean, everybody talks about the Notre Dame game, but we want to be louder than that. We want to be there earlier than that. We had some great matchups last year here at home, and I thought the crowd really affected the game each time we had a big matchup. So, we’ll need them again, and we’ll be ready to go.”
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