ATHENS, Ga. — Spring football games are fascinating. I never thought I’d put those words together in a sentence, but I just did.
They’re fascinating from the standpoint of what they’ve become. They once were kind of a just-for-fun show, with guest coaches on opposing sidelines or maybe alumni teams taking on the current one. Georgia has utilized both formats through the years.
Then spring games became sort of a necessary evil. That is, everybody else was taking it seriously and trying to get better during the spring, so you best do the same.
Now they’ve become a truly competitive exercise, and that goes well beyond the position battles waging on the field over 15 practices. Today, they’re yet another arena in which SEC teams can fight for recruits.
That’s why Kirby Smart is calling for Georgia fans to pack Sanford Stadium again for G-Day on April 21. He’s looking for a repeat of 2016, when the Bulldogs drew 93,000-plus for the annual spring game. Only, with the ongoing construction of the West End project, he’ll have to settle for several thousand less than that, regardless of the response.
While Smart is interested in creating a game-like atmosphere for his players — who will be divided into the Red vs. Black squads and, effectively, competing for pecking order before preseason camp — that’s really not what this exercise is all about. Smart and all the other SEC coaches are stumping to put people in every seat this spring because of the message it sends to recruits. These games are 2-hour, made-for-TV recruiting propaganda exercises.
As he spearheads Georgia’s marketing effort in advance of the nationally televised game, Smart isn’t even wishy-washy about that fact.
“It’s a big part of our recruiting piece,” Smart told 680 The Fan’s Buck Belue during an appearance on the Buck & Kincade Show on Tuesday. “Everybody loves good recruiting. I think our fan base is excited about getting good prospects in here and bringing a new group of Georgia football players in. We can’t do that without [fans’] help and we need a huge G-Day, because so many other new coaches are all passionate and they’re all crying to their fan bases about coming out to Gainesville and to Knoxville and all these places. We need Athens, Ga., to turn out like it’s the very beginning for us, because that’s what carries over with these kids.”
Smart is obviously talking about the Florida Gators and new coach Dan Mullen and the Tennessee Volunteers, who are under the direction of Jeremy Pruitt this year. Those new head coaches at rival SEC East programs have been calling on their fan bases to fill their respective stadiums to impress recruits who will be on campus that day.
The Bulldogs are certainly more established in Year 3 of the Smart regime, coming off an SEC championship and national runner-up finish in 2017. But Georgia’s ever-competitive, recruiting-minded coach is not about to rest on those laurels while his chief competition more desperately seeks a talent boost.
So, the Bulldogs and their considerable marketing machine have been full on with their promotion of he game this year. Hype videos are being pushed out regularly on UGA’s various social media channels, and Smart has started talking up the game a good bit whenever he’s interviewed.
Even the “halftime show” is recruiting themed. There will be no Ludacris or similar musical act this year. The plan is to introduce all 26 members of the 2018 recruiting class.
It will be interesting to see to what extent Georgia fans will heed Smart’s call. I’m interested in hearing from Dawg Nation to find out how many of you plan to come, and why. I suspect it will be like everything else Smart has asked for since he showed up from Alabama after the 2015 season.
It’s like the words from the prison warden from the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke: “He wants it. Well, he gets it.”
Here’s the thing. There’s plenty for true Georgia fans to want to see beyond current recruits and yet-to-enroll signees.
This will be the first opportunity for the fan base — not to mention beat reporters — to get a look at freshman quarterback Justin Fields. That’s not to mention eight other early enrollees, although cornerback Divaad Wilson will miss the game with a torn ACL sustained on the first day of practice with pads this spring.
There are intense position battles being waged at right tackle and left guard. It’ll be the first look at D’Andre Swift as the featured tailback. Georgia must replace all four of its starting linebackers from last season, so we’ll see what the new players look like. And there is no more intense competition than in the secondary, where three positions are up for grabs.
That should be enough to draw a good crowd. But it’s no longer about just having a decent turnout. Now it’s about filling up the place.
The logistics will pose a bit of the challenge. The giant ingress-egress that is Gate 10 underneath Sanford Bridge will be closed. I assume that means there won’t be a Dawg Walk, per se. I’ll let everyone know when I find out.
Meanwhile, Georgia is looking to avoid some of the issues it experienced when Smart deemed the 2016 game “93K Day.” As anyone who was there that day can tell you, that was more like 100K Day. It as a fire marshal’s nightmare. This time around, Georgia will be issuing passes — essentially seating assignments — at each of the gates. It’s basically general admission, but the recommendation from UGA is that if you have a preferred area of the stadium to sit in, enter through the gate nearest that area and you should be able to get to the area you want. Kickoff isn’t until 4 p.m., but gates on the sides of the stadium are scheduled to open at 1 p.m. Entertainment will begin shortly thereafter, with the annual alumni touch-football game.
Make no mistake about it — Smart is taking the whole day very seriously. He wants to make a statement. As he and his coaches have repeated often in marketing for the 2018 season, Georgia “isn’t going anywhere” after the exciting run last season.
But for him, this G-Day is more about ensuring Georgia’s successful future than what the Bulldogs might look like on the field in 2018.
“Momentum is a major factor,” Smart said of keeping the buzz going for the Bulldogs. “If [recruits] see a winning product and they see a team that was in the most-televised game of the year, the National Championship [Game], the second-most televised game, the Rose Bowl, and the fourth-most televised game, the SEC Championship [Game] — so of the four most-televised games last year, we were in three of them — that helps recruiting. And never mistake how important that is for recruiting.”
That, my friends, is what spring games are all about now. At least in the SEC.