BATON ROUGE – Greetings from Tiger Stadium, where the atmosphere inside at the moment is much calmer and more tranquil than what’s happening outside.
My parking accommodations were a good bit north of the stadium, out beyond the LSU track and beside the tennis courts. That took me through a whole bunch of Tiger tailgates on the walk in.
But I’d been tipped off there would be a considerable Georgia presence west down Skip Bertman Drive. So rather than head on inside to my seat in the air-conditioned press box as I normally would, I decided to check out the Bulldog scene. I’d been doing that all week down in New Orleans and hadn’t been disappointed yet.
I wasn’t this time either.
LSU sequestered the UGA contingent to the outer edges of their vast parking configuration. But once you ventured far enough down Bertman, over the railroad tracks and down by the Vet School, the red tents popped up on the horizon like a massive nomad village.
That’s where I found Al Jordan of Warner Robins and Alan Thompson of Tifton. They occupied one red Georgia tent in a row of 12 along the road, with one purple LSU tent in between. They had the bass on their sound system cranked all the way up and, in their Nos. 27 and 16 Georgia jerseys, were dancing, waving, barking and generally having a good ol’ time by the side of the road.
They were like the majority of Georgia fans I talked to on my way to the stadium. They’d never been here and couldn’t wait for kickoff, then still nearly four hours away.
Give these guys credit. They deserved the respite. Instead of driving straight to Baton Rouge from Middle Georgia, they dashed South to Florida to help with the initial Hurricane Michael relief efforts.
“Those people needed some help down there; it was pretty bad,” said Jordan. “When we left, they had shut I-10 down for about 100 miles and so we had to go Highway 98 for a while. So it’s been an undertaking.”
As a result, they didn’t get to Louisiana until much later than they wanted, 9:30 Thursday night. As it turned out, though, that has been plenty of time to enjoy everything this once-a-decade trip has to offer.
“It’s been a blast,” Jordan said. “The LSU people have been great, even when we were busting on them pretty good.”
Jordan and Thompson have been doing this trip on the cheap, staying in Denham Springs rather than New Orleans, like at least 10,000 other Georgia fans. Some way or another, they’re all intending to get inside the 102,000-seat Tiger Stadium, which is not known for welcoming opposing fans in great numbers.
What we see today might be the greatest collection of opposing fans LSU has ever seen. That’s according to USA Today Network columnist Glenn Guilbeau, who has been covering the Tigers off and on for about 25 years.
He said Alabama and Florida fans come to Baton Rouge in pretty good numbers at times but, as regular visitors, not like what he’s seeing from the Dogs. Meanwhile, LSU doesn’t generally bring major non-conference opponents to Tiger Stadium. They meet in Houston and Dallas, instead, like the No. 12 Tigers did with Miami in the season opener.
So, LSU is quite aware of the significant Georgia presence that’s washing into Baton Rouge from New Orleans. And I can verify. The 80-mile drive from the Crescent City on I-10 was crowded with luxury liner buses, which were staging by the dozens in front of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Traffic immediately outside the city slowed at times to 20 miles an hour and below. It opened up to 60 over the swamps west of Lake Ponchartrain, then slowed to a crawl again on Nicholson into the LSU campus. The first thing spotted, though, was red Georgia tailgate tents and flapping Power G flags.
The fans aren’t the story today, though. Today it shifts to what’s going to happen on the field. That’s what everybody has come to see.
I don’t for a minute expect Georgia’s strong fan presence, however much it ends up being, to have any sort of impact on the game’s proceedings. If any fans affect the action, it will be LSU’s, who have a well-earned reputation for the noise and chaos they create here.
How the Bulldogs deal with that, an inability to hear, getting rattled by adverse moments and negative plays, that will determine whether Georgia wins the game or not.
But the Bulldogs have already won the day when it comes to its large and loyal following. At the DawgNation Invasion event at Manning’s down on Fulton Street in New Orleans on Friday, Gerogia fans showed up from San Francisco, New York, Boulder, Colo., and Houston, Texas, among other places. The greatest number, of course, came from Atlanta.
Together, they joined to form a second-line march down Bourbon Street in the middle of the afternoon. In mid-October, mind you. There is no championship or bowl game on the line, just a too-rarely played SEC intraconference tilt.
At the moment, Georgia is the only SEC fan base that’s tracking its team en masse like this. Kirby Smart has given fans a lot to be excited about, as defending SEC champions and national runners-up. There’s still a buzz about all that.
Should the Bulldogs win though, as is expected, they’re going to be increasingly hard to stop. As will their ever-fervent following.
“We love it, man; there’s just so much Georgia spirit in the air these days,” Jordan said.
Next stop, Jacksonville!