Published 1: 13 PM EDT Sep 18, 2019
Jack Bauerle is the longest-tenured coach at the University of Georgia, his memory of great football moments in Athens stretching to 1970 when he enrolled as a varsity swimmer. He’s as good a person as any to ask how big of a deal it is that Notre Dame is coming to Georgia for the first time.
“Very seldom have I seen a buzz like this for any game,” said Bauerle, who has coached Georgia to seven team NCAA championships in women’s swimming. “Maybe 1976 was something like this when Alabama came in and they were undefeated and the town didn’t sleep on Friday or Saturday night. That sort of reminds me of what’s going on here.”
Or you can ask Loran Smith, the semi-official historian of Georgia athletics who was the longtime sideline reporter for football broadcasts and still serves in a variety of roles around the athletic department. He’ll take you back further, to 1929 when powerhouse Yale made a rare trip out of the Northeast to play the first game in newly-built Sanford Stadium. Or maybe to 1942 against No. 2-ranked Georgia Tech in the game that launched Georgia to its first Rose Bowl.
“It’s just something people feel like is uniquely special – Notre Dame coming to ‘The Hedges,’ ” Smith said. “Athens is always wrapped up in college football, but you’ve got Thursday’s edge on Monday this week.”
Though the SEC’s dominance over the past 15 years has made it fashionable around these parts for fans to dismiss Notre Dame’s relevance in the college football landscape, the Fighting Irish’s home-and-home series with Georgia has proven the opposite.
In 2017, Georgia fans traveled by the tens of thousands to South Bend to see Kirby Smart’s first huge coaching victory, turning as much as half of Notre Dame Stadium red according to some estimates. And for the return meeting Saturday, not only are tickets hard to come by — the get-in price had actually dropped to around $300 on Wednesday — but there’s some thought that as many as 90,000 people could show up in Athens on Saturday with no intention of attending the game, creating an unprecedented Super Bowl-like atmosphere around its historic downtown district.
“Much to the chagrin of a lot of people who don’t like Notre Dame there’s still that cachet with them that is still unmatched,” said Parrish Walton, a 2006 Georgia graduate who decided to go in with his wife and three other couples on an Airbnb rental house in Athens this weekend despite not yet securing an entry into the stadium.
“By all accounts this is the most anticipated home game since I’ve been born. We all kind of accept that the best time for us to get tickets will be very close to the game itself, day-of kind of thing and that’s the head space we’re all in. Worst case, we don’t get them and we’ll go have a great time in Athens, but the prices are pretty crazy.”
But there’s an underlying reason Georgia fans, who have seen big games fairly regularly in Athens whether it’s highly-ranked SEC rivals like Alabama and Auburn or recent series with Clemson, are uniquely energized by Notre Dame’s visit.
On Jan. 1, 1981, Georgia finished a 12-0 season and its first modern-era national championship with a 17-10 win over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. For any fan who remembers that game or had heard about it through lore, it represents the moment when Georgia could have ascended to blueblood status.
Instead, the program has spent nearly four decades chasing the validation that comes with another title while literally all of its traditional regional rivals — Florida, Auburn, Clemson, Tennessee and even Georgia Tech — have won a national championship.
But with the way Smart has recruited and structured the program in the image of Alabama (and came within one play of beating the Tide in the 2017 national championship game), Georgia fans feel like they’re achingly close to making that leap from very good to elite. And regardless of whether Notre Dame is really as good as its No. 7 ranking, there’s a validation in beating Notre Dame, in having the focus of the country on Athens on Saturday night, in creating an atmosphere that’s going to blow visiting fans away in its intensity and hospitality.
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In the end, Georgia just wants to belong in that club that Notre Dame has a lifetime membership in, and Saturday is one of those moments that can get you a little closer to joining.
“We’ve had amazing years under all the coaches, but these close calls — really in a sense playing for the championships the last two years — has changed the whole mindset I think,” Bauerle said. “Because of what Kirby has done and the great players we have with a mix of older guys, the expectations are national championship which is tough on players and coaches alike because you have to be good but you have to have things go your way all the time. But every coach knows if you keep knocking at the door enough, it finally opens. So everyone wants to be a part of that and all the Georgians are hungry for it.”
The psychology of all this is key to understanding why Georgia fans are so hyped for this moment. Go back to 2008 and the infamous “blackout game” against Alabama when a No. 3-ranked Georgia team got all hyped around wearing black jerseys only to go into halftime down 31-0. Or 2012 when Georgia had Alabama all but beaten in the SEC title game, which would have put the Bulldogs into the BCS championship against — you guessed it — Notre Dame, only to lose a 32-28 heartbreaker.
Finally, though, Georgia fans no longer fear these “game of the century”-type situations. Now they embrace them, largely out of the firm belief that Smart is going to deliver a national title sooner or later. They feel like no matter what Georgia is going to show up on the big stage, and fans are eager to show off the Bulldogs to the country.
“A lot of the national media says college football is better when Notre Dame is good,” said Jeff Dantzler, a longtime Athens radio personality and play-by-play announcer for various Georgia sports. “We kind of laugh about that down here, but I do get when they’re good what that means from a national standpoint and you can bet your bottom dollar the respect for Notre Dame here is immense. The two previous meetings have meant so much to Georgia, so to have them come to Athens will be a special deal.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken