ATHENS — I was impressed. I’ve got to admit it, very impressed.
Not with the play of the Georgia Bulldogs necessarily, though I thought they did some good things. I was more impressed with the Bulldog Nation, such as it is, and the overall events of the day at G-Day 2016.
I’m on record saying that I thought Georgia would heed Kirby Smart’s call and pack out Sanford Stadium for the G-Day Game. I predicted it two months ago. But thinking something is going to happen and seeing it come to fruition are two different things.
And I have to admit, as I continued to click pictures of the North grandstands from my perch inside the press box at Sanford Stadium in the hours before the 4 p.m. kickoff, I was beginning to worry a little for Smart and for Georgia. I mean, Kirby had come out and said he wouldn’t be disappointed if fans didn’t come through and they came up short of 93,000. But as I was watching it unfold, neither of the two upper levels of the stadium were yet full with less than an hour to go before kickoff.
So I was concerned, but apparently Kirby was not.
“No, no, no,” Smart said during his postgame briefing. “I remember the first time at Alabama it was the same way. They don’t come until they have to come. They came and they came in droves. When we came off the field (for the last time before kickoff) it wasn’t completely full, but I was pleased with that. Then we came back out and I was, like, ‘Wow!'”
Actually, Georgia had to turn people away. They never closed the gates or anything like. They just kind of let it all happen organically.
You started to notice shortly after kickoff that not only was the place full, it was overflowing. Fans lined every spot of space along the railings on the two tower stairwells on either end of the North upper section. And soon you saw the river of people that were flowing south down to Sanford Bridge into the Northwest corner were suddenly stopped still, then heading the other direction.
They didn’t have tickets or even employ turnstiles, so there’s no way to know exactly how many people were inside that stadium in the first quarter. But I would venture to say it was as many or more than has ever been in this 92,746-seat building.
For the good people that handle event management at UGA, I imagine that was a nightmare. But for Kirby and the Georgia football program, which was hosting the entire 2016 signing class and dozens of blue-chip recruits, it was a dream come true.
“All I’m thinking is ‘thank you, fans,” Smart said Saturday night. “For them to come out to do that and honor these kids and believe in this program and buy into what the entire organization wanted, was special. (Athletic Director) Greg McGarity, the whole organization, everything was buy-in. From the time I issued the challenge at the basketball game, marketing, everybody, acted as one team united and said ‘let’s push this goal.’ And everybody pushed and we got what we needed.”
As for the actual game, it didn’t look a whole lot different than the dozens of spring games I’ve witnessed. Coming out of it, the buzz was all about the fabulous five-star freshman quarterback Jacob Eason and all the wonderful throws he made. And he did make some nice throws.
I’ll say this about that: I do think it’s a predictor of future success when those young phenoms come in and show off a big arm. But here’s the catch — it’s not an indicator of immediate success.
What I saw from Eason on Saturday is exactly what I saw from a freshman named Eric Zeier in the spring of 1991, and it’s similar to what I saw from a freshman named Matthew Stafford in the spring of 2006. You could just sit there and watch them deliver a pass, whether it was completed or not, and know they had something their competitors didn’t in terms of raw talent and gamesmanship.
But that doesn’t mean Eason should start the first game. In fact, neither Zeier nor Stafford did. It took both of them well into the freshman seasons to break through, and then only after some early struggles. It was only a matter of time. That’s what I see happening here.
As for the Bulldogs, as ever, I don’t think you can decipher a whole lot about what they’ll look like in the fall against other teams from how they played against each other in the spring. Where the offense was good, the defense was weak and vice-versa.
Such assessments, I’ll leave to the young head coach.
“We’ve got a lot of getting better to do,” Smart said. “As far as the team, I’d like to have a little cleaner scrimmage. … I’d like to have seen a closer game.”
For him, too, the fans were the story on this day.
“I’ll tell you what, for the fan base to support our program and support our kids the way they did, it touches my heart,” Smart said. “There were a lot of doubters out there who said it couldn’t be done … But they came, and they came in droves, and I appreciate that more than they know.”
More on G-Day from DawgNation:
- Photos: 93K fill Sanford Stadium for G-Day game
- Coaches are much more optimistic about the kicking game
- One NFL star says Smart is taking the program to a ‘new level’
- Jacob Eason impressively surpassed his hype
- The biggest highlight of the G-Day game wasn’t on the field
- Watch: Kirby Smart’s press conference after G-Day
- Black beats Red, but there were other winners on Saturday
- Eason was rousing in his debut
- A look back at G-Day’s biggest plays