At a recent celebratory family dinner, the subject turned (as it frequently does) to Georgia football, and the Notre Dame game came up. Not last year’s stunning road victory in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus, but next year’s return game in Athens.
The question: Who gets to go? It proved to be a lively discussion. There was no shortage of enthusiastic volunteers, and no consensus on who should fill the seat beside me.
The fact that we were discussing that game about 13 months before it takes place says something about the excitement the home-and-home series with the Fighting Irish has generated among UGA fans.
It’s not that Bulldog Nation is looking ahead, past the coming season, but Notre Dame in Athens is a once-in-a-generation kind of event, and folks rightfully are pumped up about it. In fact, the excitement generated in the fan base by that series with the Irish is like nothing I’ve ever seen in all my years as a Bulldogs fan.
In other words, it’s very much the opposite of the feeling fans get when they look at this year’s nonconference home schedule, starting Saturday with a visit by the Austin Peay Governors, and including later games against Middle Tennessee and UMass.
Those are, frankly, the kind of games where many season ticket holders give their seats away rather than make the trip to Athens for a less than compelling matchup that’s available on television.
In contrast, we saw the genuine excitement generated by the Dawgs playing a big-name nonconference Power 5 opponent last year, and what that excitement can do to galvanize the fan base.
After taking over Notre Dame Stadium, where the NBC broadcast crew estimated it was almost a 50/50 crowd, and then showing up in vast numbers again at the Rose Bowl, Bulldog Nation has earned the reputation as one of the nation’s best fan bases, one that will travel en masse outside the SEC footprint. (That’s contrary to the way things were during the latter years of the Mark Richt era, when middling results drew middling bowl games and, naturally, middling fan response.)
It also doesn’t hurt that a game against a Power 5 nonconference opponent looks really good on a program’s résumé come College Football Playoff time. The selection committee has emphasized the need for playoff-aspiring teams to strengthen their nonconference schedules.
Of course, I understand the rationale behind scheduling games with “cupcake” programs that won’t require a return visit. It allows Georgia to have one more home game.
But, if it’s a game that nobody cares about, are you really doing anything other than cynically soaking your fan base without giving them a satisfying day of football in return?
Scheduling a couple of those games per season is understandable for financial reasons, but three of them in one season is asking too much of the fan base.
Kirby Smart has upgraded the on-field product at Georgia. And, even though it means it constantly has its hand out to major contributors, the athletic association finally has upgraded the facilities.
Now, it’s time to upgrade the schedule. Never again should Georgia fans face the prospect of something like the non-Tech portion of this year’s nonconference slate.
Is the 2022 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Oregon, announced this week, a step in the right direction? Yeah, but that’s still not in Athens, and the loyal season ticket base will have to shell out extra for the game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
UGA already has some built-in scheduling negatives: There’s the problem of the Florida game never being in Athens because of the Jacksonville deal. Add to that the odd-year problem of Tennessee, Auburn and Georgia Tech all being road games in the same season, and you have a sucky home schedule every other year, mitigated occasionally when UGA lucks up with its SEC West crossover.
What Georgia needs is more home-and-home deals with Power 5 programs. UGA has a home-and-home with UCLA set for 2025-26, and Athletic Director Greg McGarity has confirmed Georgia is talking with both Clemson and Texas, which I’m thrilled to hear; as I’ve said here a number of times in the past, those are the two opponents I’d most like to see the Dawgs play.
I’m fine with Georgia participating in a neutral-site game in Atlanta every four years or so, just for the national exposure, prestige and financial windfall it brings the program. (The Dawgs already were scheduled to open 2020 against Virginia in Atlanta before Oregon was announced.)
However, the top priority for McGarity and company should be the home schedule Between the Hedges.
What I really would like to see is Georgia playing a second Power 5 nonconference game (in addition to Tech) at least every two years, even if that means they sometimes play just six home games instead of seven.
As McGarity acknowledged in announcing the Oregon game, Georgia’s head coach has expressed a desire to schedule an additional nonconference Power 5 opponent whenever possible. And, Smart said such a game “is a tremendous opportunity for our team and provides a great start to the season for our fans.”
Exactly, which is precisely what this year’s nonconference opener won’t do.
What’s new this season?
You’ve no doubt ready plenty about the West End Zone renovation of Sanford Stadium and the attendant new plaza adjacent to the Sanford Drive bridge. But, what else will Dawgs fans find different this year at games as Georgia kicks off its 125th season of football?
Josh Brooks of the athletic association provided me with a rundown of changes, beginning with the new Gate 1. You’ll now find the gate directly under the new, larger scoreboard, moved from its old position under the newly renovated bridge. UGA students will enter their West End Zone seating sections directly from the bridge roadway. Also, the new plaza and seating sections in this location feature upgraded and expanded disabled seating options.
The stadium sound system is something fans have complained about for years. Installed in the bigger video board is a new 260,000-watt Danley Sound Labs audio system, which the athletic association says should provide improved speech intelligibility and low frequency response. We’ll soon find out.
Another new feature of game days in Athens will be the Silver Dawgs, an idea UGA picked up on last year’s visit to Notre Dame. It’s a hospitality group made up of retired folks who are there to improve the Georgia football experience for fans, providing a smiling face and helping hand. They’ll be located at Gates 1-10 at Sanford Stadium, as well as at hotels and other popular gathering spots on campus and throughout Athens.
At stadium concession stands, prices have been rounded off to the dollar to help speed up transactions, and all points of sale will accept MasterCard, Visa, Discover and Amex in addition to cash. The West End renovation includes two new full-service concession stands at field level, and they’re bringing back the popular “Grab-n-Go” tents that were in operation last year, offering quick-serve items like bottle drinks, sandwiches, an assortment of packaged snacks and frozen lemonade. They’ve also added a portable concessions location on the new plaza located below the video board.
On the 100 level south side, the full-service stand near Sections 127-128 has been converted to a Grab-n-Go stand, in hopes of shortening waiting times and lines. Fans will be able to serve themselves by grabbing what they want and proceeding to the first available register to check out.
Another new addition this season is two portable, private nursing suites for either pumping or breastfeeding. One suite will be located near Gate 2 and the other will be located outside Section 222.
One change this year you’re sure to notice is new stadium graphics along the 100 level concourse, from concession and bathroom locations to Reed Plaza — something that’s long been needed to dress up the unattractive concrete walls inside what otherwise is a beautiful stadium. The idea behind the graphics is to reconnect fans with great eras, moments and plays in Georgia football history.
Kudos to the athletic association for making the effort, and I love the football history theme. It’s just a shame the results are rather uninspiring. You’d think that, at a university with an acclaimed art school, they could come up with some snazzier images.
Still, it’s a good start. Now, perhaps, a couple of statues of UGA athletic heroes? Or, maybe, some wall plaques of Bulldog greats turning Reed Plaza into a UGA walk of fame?
Finally, the athletic association is seeking fans’ feedback on concession stands and restrooms around the 100 level of Sanford Stadium. A terminal with happy face or sad face buttons will be available as you exit, to let them know what you thought of the experience. Don’t be shy about expressing your opinion.