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Curtis Compton/AJC
The Bulldogs had a makeshift Dawg Walk that took them between the Tate Center and the Zell Miller Learning Center, into Gate 2 and down through the north stands.

Georgia, Kirby Smart make G-Day feel like more than spring scrimmage

Chip Towers

ATHENS — Nobody will readily admit it, but there was a good bit of angst going around before the G-Day Game on Saturday. It was shared in part by UGA officials, by fans and by coach Kirby Smart. I mean, it’d be pretty embarrassing for the coach to implore fans to pack out the joint and then they don’t.

But they did.

“I certainly think that was an incredible atmosphere,” Smart said after the game, won by the Black Team 21-13. “There were tons of people lining the Dawg Walk. I know our players really enjoyed it. I really just want to thank our fans for being out there that early.”

There was a little bit of a debate before the game about how many spectators it’d take to fill up Sanford Stadium on Saturday. It normally seats 92,746. But the entire west end was cordoned off because of a $63 million construction project that will give Smart the new locker room and recruiting lounge he wanted. Early in the week, Georgia was saying that meant room for 78,000. But on the eve of the game, executive associate athletic director Josh Brooks said in an email to DawgNation it’d be “roughly 82,000.”

They finally arrived at the number 82,184 as the official attendance, which is a lot. That’s the second-highest total for a spring game ever. No. 1 is, of course, the 93,000 that came for Georgia’s first spring game under Smart, known as 93K day. If they had better accounting that day, it might be closer to 100K.

As it is, the Bulldogs have averaged 80,439 for Smart’s three spring games, which is kind of incredible on a lot of levels. Suffice it to say, Smart likes to make a big deal out of these deals.

“I just think people like Georgia football,” Smart said modestly. “When you have an opportunity on a nice spring day to come to Athens, I know I’d be dying to come if I lived anywhere in the state or within a five-hour radius. Get out of the house, get the kids out of the house, come watch a game. See the new guys out there, see who the new faces are. I think some of it is recruiting, but I think people enjoy football in Georgia.”

But there were a lot of concerns Saturday. Gates 1 and 10 underneath Sanford Bridge were both closed, shutting down a major point of ingress/egress for game days. Meanwhile, in an attempt to eliminate the chaos of general admission and keep tabs on how many people actually attended, a system was derived where ushers were handing out tickets to spectators as they came through the gates.

Just to get an idea of what this process would look like, I followed my family of five into the stadium to find the seats for the game. We didn’t go as soon as the gates opened at 1 p.m., three hours before kickoff. We waited an hour or so to let the crowd build a little.

I have to say, it couldn’t have gone smoother.

This is what the commemorative tickets looked like they were handing fans at each of the gates. (Chip Towers/DawgNation)

Just outside of Gate 9, we were handed five tickets. In addition to providing us a coupon for 20 percent off of wall art at the UGA Bookstore, the tickets directed us to Section 136. Looking up at the aisle numbers, the entrance for that section happened to be directly in front of us. After a brief logjam to get inside the aisle, it was like a parting of the Red Sea. We walked in and had our pick of seats. My group chose five on the aisle 17 rows up from the field. And that was that.

Elapsed time? Couldn’t have been more than two or three minutes, max.

I’m sure it was probably less orderly closer to kickoff as the sections continued to fill up. But it definitely was stress-free and kind of enjoyable in a way. My son and nephew especiallly enjoyed coming in and getting to pick our seats.

So UGA needs to be commended for pulling this off swimmingly. It even unveiled its newly formed “Silver Dawgs” group, the hospitality team it formed in the wake of the positive encounters at Notre Dame last fall. Former UGA faculty member Joe Crim, posted at Gate 9, told me there were 33 of them deployed around the stadium on Saturday. And they were helping in all sorts of ways, from providing clear bags for people who didn’t know to bring one to directing people to restrooms and concessions stands. Georgia wants to have 50 to 75 of them eventually, and station them in hotel lobbies, downtown and points of interest around campus as well.

As for the actual event, that wasn’t bad either. The G-Day Game itself wasn’t tremendously exciting or awe-inspiring because of great plays made. But there was a nice rhythm and flow to the whole day. And a lot of big ovations.

A lengthy video feature was played to resounding cheers on the giant new jumbotron before the game. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, each wearing the other’s jersey, led the “Call the Dawgs” cheer before kickoff. And pretty much the whole senior class from the 2017 squad that went 13-2 was on hand. The players were recognized on the field at the end of first quarter, where they showed off their newly acquired SEC championship rings.

Later in the second quarter, several of Georgia’s current and recently retired NFL players were introduced, including Alec Ogletree and Leonard Floyd. Soaking it all in were recruits. Lots and lots and lots of recruits.

I couldn’t identify any of them — see Jeff Sentell’s reporting — but there were dozens of them, and a lot of them seemed particularly big as they eclipsed the view of those behind them on the sideline during pregame warm-ups.

And then there was Justin Fields. The highly touted quarterback from Kennesaw got the most resounding applause when his likeness went up on the new gargantuan scoreboard, and did not disappoint when he went into the game. He made plays with his legs and his arm, finished with 207 yards passing and a touchdown and led Black team to victory. That gave the sun-soaked fans something to talk about on their way back home.

What did we actually learn about the 2018 Bulldogs? Not a whole lot, I don’t think. Overall, I’d say the defense played a lot better than everybody expected and Jake Fromm and the No. 1 offense had a bit of an off day. But, in the end, all these guys will be playing together come September.

Truly, though, that’s not what this day was all about. It was spring celebration of Georgia football. From that standpoint, the Bulldogs knocked this one out of the park.