Athens, Ga.—I attended my first football game at what is now Dooley Field/Sanford Stadium when I was 12 years old. With the colors, the weather, the bands, and the pretty girls, I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
Because of my career path, I have been back this stadium more times that vanity would allow me to admit.
I received my college degree here. My daughter received her college degree here.
I know this place.
I tell you that in order to tell you this: Trust me when I tell you that the atmosphere for Saturday night’s Georgia-Notre Dame game was the greatest I have ever seen Between the Hedges.
No. 3 Georgia engaged in a heavyweight fight with No. 7 Notre Dame, winning 23-17. And a huge factor was the largest crowd (93,246) in the history of the University of Georgia. The in-stadium crowd, along with tens of thousands who came without tickets, created the largest tailgate party ever in a town that has hosted a lot of big ones.
“They (the crowd) impacted the game tonight more than I’ve ever seen, not just here but anywhere,” said Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, a former player at Georgia. “They (Notre Dame) had to burn their timeouts because of the crowd. It made it a totally different situation at the end of the game.
“They were definitely the 12th man today.
Despite the enthusiasm of the home crowd for Saturday night’s game, the fact is that Georgia had a 60-minute slug fest after three straight easy games to open the season. Notre Dame, which has played one or two tough road games in its history, was thoroughly unimpressed with the crowd and that the folks in Vegas had established them as a 14 ½ point underdog.
And with the Fighting Irish leading 10-7 at halftime there was a serious rumbling through the crowd. This team was a lot better than they had been led to believe.
But Georgia knew going in that Notre Dame had some concerns about its depth, which would start to show in the fourth quarter.
“Our depth helped us,” said Smart. “It looked like we were fresher than they were in the fourth quarter.”
Still, Notre Dame had the ball and a chance to win inside the final minute. And surviving that kind of test, as Georgia did at Notre Dame in 2017 (a 20-19 win) can only pay dividends down the road.
That’s why Smart was literally beaming after the game.
“You don’t know what’s inside of you—in life and in football—until you get tested,” said Smart. “ (There were a) Lot of large hearts out there. They’ll fight you man. Over and over.”
Color Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly impressed—with his team and with Georgia’s team.
“The physicality was real,” Kelly said after the game. “It was probably one of the most physical games I’ve ever coached against any team that I’ve ever had. Georgia made a couple of more plays than we did.”
So now what?
Georgia takes this week off after which the Bulldogs get into the meat of the SEC schedule with games against Tennessee (1-3), South Carolina (1-3) and Kentucky (2-2), which all lost on Saturday. After another week off comes the crucial game with Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 2. The following Tuesday the first set of rankings from the College Football Playoff selection committee will be released. Georgia will certainly be in the top four if the Bulldogs are still undefeated.
Some will say that Saturday night’s loss in Athens kills Notre Dame’s (2-1) chances at the playoff. I don’t buy that. If the Irish keep winning I think the committee will be impressed that Notre Dame went into this kind of atmosphere and traded punches with the No. 3 team in the nation and had a real chance to win.
Notre Dame is faster than I thought, more resourceful than I thought, and Book is a gamer at quarterback. Alabama got into the playoffs at 11-1 in 2017 and won the whole thing. Don’t forget about Notre Dame.