ATLANTA – It looked funny to most everybody who was visiting Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Friday. Not the stadium itself, or the retractable roof that doesn’t. The place is as awesome as everybody said it was, bugs aside.
They’ve actually done a remarkable job of retrofitting the Benz for its first SEC Championship Game and eliminated pretty much every indication that this is the Atlanta Falcons’ building. Well, except for 73,000-pound, stainless steel falcon statue out front.
It was all the Auburn signage everywhere that looked somewhat out of place. Obviously, there were Georgia signs as well, one for every Auburn representation, in fact. But the No. 6-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) have looked like they were headed here since late September.
No, it was the Tigers who weren’t expected to be here. At least they weren’t as late as three weeks ago. It was Alabama that has been earmarked for this game, all year really. But Auburn served notice with that 40-17 beatdown of then-No. 1 Georgia on Nov. 11th that this might be possible. That was also the night that the Tigers began to really believe.
It was then, at the postgame handshake, that Auburn coach Gus Malzahn – before telling a patrol officer that they had “beat the dog-crap” out of Georgia – said to Kirby Smart, “see you in Atlanta.”
Smart replied that he was going to tell Nick Saban that Malzahn said that. But it was all in good fun, we learned Friday.
“We were talking about that today when I saw him,” Smart, at the pregame news conference Friday at the stadium, said of his exchange with Malzahn. “I said, ‘you held up your end of the bargain.’ He asked if I did, and I told him I never did. But he held up his end of the bargain, and they got back to Atlanta.”
And that’s actually one of best things about Saturday’s SEC Championship matchup. For the Bulldogs, it is, of course, that Georgia is in it. To get there in Year 2 of Smart says a lot about and the direction and trajectory of the program under his leadership. Never mind that the Bulldogs can actually win it and reach the College Football Playoffs (more on that tomorrow).
But everybody expected Alabama to be representing the West this year. And to win it, too, of course. Just like the Crimson Tide did last year and the year before that and the year before that.
But Auburn slapped a 26-14 whipping on regal ol’ Bama, so it’s orange-and-blue rather than crimson-and-white that draped alongside equal amounts of red-and-black in every nook and cranny of this million-square-foot facility.
As much as Georgia might like that it’s Auburn rather than Bama – or not – everybody else around the league seems to be quite pleased about this year’s matchup.
“It’s kind of exciting not to have Bama back,” said Marcus Spears, a former LSU player who covers the league for the SEC Network. “You’ve got two different teams with a path, and one of them is going to have a chance to win the national championship. So it’s great for college football. I think it’s great for this league as well to not have the reoccurring theme every year. You have two different fan bases and a lot of people who are enthusiastic about it.”
Georgia and Auburn are jacked to be here. Everybody has been talking of how favorable a draw the SEC game is for the Bulldogs because their alumni representation in the city is so massive. But Atlanta also represents one the largest alumni bases for Auburn, with more than 23,000 living in and around the city. Yes, Alabama fans would have been here in great numbers as well. But they surely would’ve arrived with a different attitude, certainly not as enthusiastic and festive as the folks that were milling around town Friday.
SEC fans were everywhere around downtown Atlanta, especially the Peachtree Street area and in the restaurants and bars scattered from there up to Buckhead. These schools haven’t gotten to enjoy this event as much as they’d like. Just five times since the championship game came to Atlanta in 1994 have these two teams been in this game, and never against each other.
“There’s a little more buzz this year,” said Tim Tebow, who played in this event twice as a Florida quarterback and covers it every year as an SEC Network analyst. “I don’t think people saw a few weeks ago Auburn getting in. You could kind of anticipate Alabama-Georgia, and we’ve seen Alabama a lot lately. Having new teams in this creates a lot of buzz here. Being in this new building and all of the craziness with the College Football Playoffs just adds to this game. People know the winner of this game is getting in.”
That’s the objective. On Friday, Smart was glad the opponent is Auburn rather than Alabama, but not for the reasons one might think.
“I can only imagine sitting here today if we were playing them, what the questions would be like,” said Smart, Saban’s longtime defensive coordinator.
In that scenario, he knows full well the storyline would’ve been “protegé takes on mentor.” In this one, it’s Georgia seeks to avenge its loss to Auburn and punch it’s ticket to the CFP.
But playing Auburn again comes with its own set of hazards. This is, after all, a team that beat Georgia by 23 points just three weeks ago over at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Even if Kerryon Johnson doesn’t play – the status of the Tigers’ star running back is unknown after injuring his shoulder against Bama last weekend – all those offensive and defensive linemen who had their way with the Bulldogs’ lines of scrimmage will be present and accounted for on Saturday.
This is the seventh rematch in an SEC title game. Five of the previous six winners were the team that won in the regular season. Smart has said that his team would have to play with “more physicality and aggressiveness” to have a chance win do-over game.
How exactly he makes sure that happens? Smart was asked about that on Friday.
“You put a rock in their shoe and they get a little upset, and they get frustrated, and then they play harder,” he said.
It was a joke. Smart’s point is that there is no magic formula to that.
“I wish there was an easy trick to it, a gimmick to it,” he said. “I think physicality, number one, is recruited. I think, number two, it’s developed. It’s offseason demeanor. It’s built over time. It’s not just a snap overnight. But I do believe this: We’re a more physical team than we presented the last time we played them. But you can say that all you want until you actually do it.”
Indeed, Smart appeared loose, almost jovial, at the pregame presser on Friday. Just for the record, that’s not his general disposition in the hours leading up to a big game.
Perhaps that’s a good sign. Maybe it’s not. But Smart has coached in a lot of big games. That came with the territory serving as Saban’s right-hand man for the better part of 10 years at Bama before coming home to UGA.
On Friday, the Bulldogs used all of their allotted 90 minutes for their walk-through practice at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Smart said he wanted the players to go ahead and get over all the awe and wonder of the $1.5 billion venue in which they will play Auburn at 4 p.m. on Saturday. It’s doubtful that they did.
The new stadium will be as much of a feature for the CBS broadcast as the two teams playing in it will be. The building certainly looked all dressed up and ready to throw a party on Friday. It looked and smelled sparkling and new as the sunlight lit up the closed roof up top. Even jaded journalists craned their necks upward to take iPhone pics of the circular videoboard surrounding the retractable roof that doesn’t. The images Friday were all Georgia and Auburn and SEC insignia. On Saturday, they will be replays and promotions as well.
It has been a considerable challenge this week for the SEC and the hundreds of people involved to prepare the new venue for a game that was played somewhere else the last 26 years. The annual exercise to welcome in the SEC had become almost seamless at the Georgia Dome, which now lay in a pile of rubble right door on Northside Drive. But it had also gotten sort of stale, especially when Alabama kept showing up and winning without much resistance each year.
This one looks and feels different, with great things on the line for two different teams in a sparkling new arena where the national championship will be played next month. One of them is going to be step closer to being back here by Saturday night.
“The Georgia people are so enthusiastic about it,” Spears said. “Think about it: Georgia has had the team probably four of the last seven years to get to this game. To finally get to it is a big deal for their fans. Walking around, people talking and tweeting at me and hitting me up on Instagram let’s you know just how involved they are with the scenarios that could play out here tomorrow night.”
It could be Georgia, and wouldn’t that be something?