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(Chip Towers/DawgNation)
A group of Georgia fans enjoys their balcony view above Bourbon Street Thursday evening in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Georgia Bulldogs fans have a special love affair with New Orleans

Chip Towers

NEW ORLEANS — Joe Purcell and Lori Lord of Athens set out for New Orleans in a rented 15-passengar van on Wednesday morning. It was raining when they left and didn’t stop all the way through Alabama.

Joe Purcell and Lori Lord (L), here at the Red Fish Grill, drove to New Orleans in a rented 15-passengar van to meet Heather Bray and some other friends before Saturday’s game between Georgia and LSU. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)

But the weather cleared about the time they made it to Biloxi, Miss., where they spent the evening eating and taking in the casinos. And it’s been nothing but blue skies ever since.

They rolled into New Orleans Thursday afternoon and made it to the Red Fish Grill on Bourbon in time to meet friends for happy hour, which meant $3 draft beer and 75-cent oysters.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,” Purcell pronounced, as he started on his second dozen oysters and washed them down with an Abita Amber on draft.

Purcell’s journey to New Orleans was being repeated hundreds of times over by Georgia fans, who were flocking to the Crescent City by the thousands on Thursday and Friday. Up and down Bourbon Street, and on Royal and in Jackson Square and the French Market, the same greeting was being exchanged at every street corner.

“Go Dawgs,” a red-and-black-clad individual would say to a similarly-dressed passer-by.

“Go Dawgs,” would come the obedient reply.

Nobody seemed to stop. They’d simply acknowledge that allegiance and keep moving on. There was too much to see and do to dilly-dally.

When it comes to the Georgia Bulldogs and New Orleans, theirs is a long and deep love affair. Unrequited for extended periods of time, the passion and emotion is instantly rekindled whenever the red and black contingent congregates here.

It is here, in the smelly, cobblestoned streets of the French Quarter, where many of the Bulldogs’ greatest memories have been made. Georgia won its only undisputed national championship here 39 years ago. Almost every SEC championship season the Bulldogs received validation here in the form of a Sugar Bowl, nine times in all.

So the memories are good and strong, and Georgia fans know their way around. Some were racing down St. Peters Street bound for the Cafe Du Monde and her beignets. Others made a beeline to the Acme Oyster House or Old Nawlins Cookery for some of the local fare.

By 1 p.m., live music was already flowing out of the open windows of the B.B. King Blues Club on Decatur Street. At 4 in the afternoon, a long line had already queued up in front of Preservation Hall to buy tickets for the 9 o’clock jazz show. The line to get into Pat O’Brien’s for Hurricanes was down the block well before dark.

The weather Thursday was sunny and unseasonably mild for these parts. The temperature gauge said 80, but firm breezes, the benevolent remnants of Hurricane Michael, blew steadily inland from the Mississippi River, keeping the heat in check. The sounds of jazz and blues music traveled with it.

This was the calm after one storm and before another. Hurricane Michael took his best shot at the Florida panhandle and South Georgia on Wednesday and carried destruction right through the middle of our fair state and on into the Carolinas.

But west of all that a congregation of Georgians began to form in the Big Easy. It had an air Thursday of troops gathering at a border and staging for an inland march.

The battle takes place on Saturday in Baton Rouge, 80 miles north and west of New Orleans. The No. 2-ranked Bulldogs (6-0, 4-0 SEC) visit No. 12 LSU (5-1, 2-1) at Tiger Stadium. It will count as only one win or one loss, either way, but the mass of people that have gathered and the sense of anticipation suggests there’s more on the line.

There are important implications, for sure. The narrative on Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs now is that they might be overrated, that they haven’t been tested and won’t be until they tee it up in a place known as Death Valley.

But the underlying message as the Georgia fans kept pulling into town and landing at the airport is that the Bulldogs simply don’t get here enough.

It has been 10 years since the Dawg Nation had the pleasure of coming out this way to play LSU in football. It will be 12 years before they come back again. In the SEC’s current eight-game, rotating schedule model, Georgia won’t get to face LSU in Baton Rouge again until 2030.

That’s way too long, for sure, and Kirby Smart agrees. Georgia’s dynamic young coach has joined the growing chorus of SEC coaches who agree the league should do away with the eight-game, rotating schedule and go to a nine-game slate. It’ll be uneven and imperfect, like they all are, but it will keep the Bulldogs from playing non-traditional rivals like LSU but twice in 22 years.

Then again, maybe that’s why the Georgia fans are flocking here like they are this weekend.

The Purcells came in a 15-passenger van because there weren’t anymore available at any of the local rental agencies in New Orleans. They’ve sold out. Their plan, to scoop up a big group of fellow Bulldogs, shuttle them up to Baton Rouge Saturday morning and then whip up a mess of jambalaya for a tailgate before the 2:30 p.m. kick, apparently is one shared by many Georgia fans.

But first, there will be another whole day of restaurants and jazz haunts and oysters on the half shell. About that, nobody wearing red and black was complaining.