ATHENS — One of the more anticipated games in recent University of Georgia football history finally arrives Saturday in Sanford Stadium, with the anticipation undiminished by the opposing team not bringing quite the ranking or record expected.
Ask the citizens of Bulldog Nation about this game, and you don’t hear about Alabama’s No. 13 ranking or one-loss record. You hear about what a victory over the vaunted Crimson Tide would mean to Georgia’s program and to its fans.
UGA junior Reed Turry’s anticipation is rooted in painful memories of the Bulldogs’ past two encounters with Alabama. He recalls being 13 years old and “so upset” when Alabama built a 31-0 halftime lead in a 2008 victory over then-No. 3 Georgia in Athens. He remembers leaving the Georgia Dome “almost in tears” after Georgia fell five yards short of beating the Crimson Tide in the 2012 SEC Championship game.
“For me, this game has been circled on my calendar since the day it was announced,” said Turry, who is from Alpharetta and the fourth generation in his family to attend UGA. Adding to the day’s drama for Turry: His younger brother is now a freshman at Alabama.
Josh Hancher, a 1997 Georgia graduate, considers the game even bigger than the 2012 SEC Championship showdown.
“We are the favorites. We are playing in front of our home crowd,” he noted. “If UGA wants to be on the national stage, we must win. We must look like a champ.”
No championship will be directly on the line, of course, and whatever happens on this first Saturday in October, there will be other pivotal games that can make or break Georgia’s season. A loss to Alabama wouldn’t keep the Bulldogs out of the SEC title game if they were to win the rest of their conference games. But a win over Alabama would stoke Georgia fans’ dreams of a berth in the College Football Playoff and perhaps resolve their frustrations about the 2008 and 2012 losses to the Crimson Tide.
In addition to the recent series history, Bulldogs fans who shared their thoughts in interviews and emails offered a number of other reasons this game has been so intensely anticipated for so long: Alabama’s brand name as a college-football power; its three national championships in the past six seasons under coach Nick Saban, compared to Georgia’s 35-year national-title drought; and the relative rarity in recent decades of UGA football games against the Crimson Tide.
The teams will meet for the 67th time in a series that dates to 1895 — Alabama leads 37-25-4 — but for just the 15th time in the past half-century. This is merely the Crimson Tide’s third trip to Athens in 20 seasons.
Under the SEC’s current schedule rotation, Georgia and Alabama won’t meet again in a regular-season game until 2020 in Tuscaloosa and won’t meet again in Athens through at least 2025.
Georgia (4-0) is ranked No. 8 in this week’s Associated Press poll, five spots ahead of Alabama (3-1), and Saturday’s game marks only the fourth time in series history the schools play in Sanford Stadium with both sides ranked. The other such occasions were in 1946, 1976 and 2008.
Alabama’s home loss to Ole Miss two weeks ago dropped the Crimson Tide in the polls, but seemed to have no bearing on this game’s luster.
“(It) will be, I think, the biggest game played in Athens in a long time,” said UGA fan Roman Henry, of Milledgeville, adding: “A win Saturday means a new era of Georgia football.”
Georgia wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell acknowledged the game has immense implications, at least for perception.
“I think the way this works, the way the college-football system works, you’re only as good as the opponents you beat and however they’re perceived is how you will be perceived,” Mitchell said. “Alabama is perceived as being a powerhouse. So you beat a powerhouse, then who do you become?
“That’s the opportunity.”
As excitement about the game enveloped Athens this week, Georgia players and coaches mostly tried to maintain a business-as-usual approach to their preparations and proclamations. But they understand how their fans feel.
“A lot of people have been excited about this for a while,” coach Mark Richt said, feigning revelation. “At least that’s what I hear.”
Loud and clear.