The supermoon gleaming down on our winter landscape has brought quite a harmonic convergence to begin the new year. Under that lunar orb Monday night, football fans from neighboring states who live and die with the fortunes of their Saturday heroes will tailgate side-by-side before their teams decide the national championship, Georgia’s Bulldog Nation meeting Alabama’s Crimson Tide legions.
They will gather in Atlanta’s new spaceship of a stadium next to the rubble of the one it just blew up, where each has already won a big game: Alabama beat Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in September; Georgia bested Auburn for the Southeastern Conference crown last month.
The game should be a classic, and it’s tempting to refer to it as a welcome distraction to the usual parade of politics, scandal and other more serious news. But to fans of these teams, those items are the ones relegated to the back pages.
Cold snap? Nothing warms the day like lining up for a championship. State legislature beginning? Rest assured, members of the General Assembly will be in as big a hurry as anyone to bang the gavel Monday and scoot down the road to the Benz by kickoff.
It’s a third straight January of football fever for North Georgians. Last year, the Atlanta Falcons took us on an unexpected ride to the Super Bowl, though we’ll refrain from mentioning the final score. A few weeks before, Gainesville High alum Deshaun Watson led Clemson over the same Alabama team for the national title, a rematch of their showdown the year before.
The Falcons are back in the playoffs Saturday against the Rams in Los Angeles, where cheers from Georgia’s two-overtime Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma may still echo off the mountains. Yet this year, the bigger buzz comes from Bulldog faithful whose team has a shot at the national title for the first time in more than 30 years.
Those were the days of Vince Dooley, Buck Belue and Herschel Walker, who led Georgia to the 1980 title by beating Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl, and made a run at a second trophy three years later before losing to Penn State in the same locale. Since then, there were a couple of conference titles and bowl victories, but a bid for No. 1 remained elusive. UGA’s closest brush came in a tight loss to Alabama in the 2012 SEC title game that ended with the Dogs at the Tide 5-yard-line when time expired.
That hunger for another title had Georgia faithful hoping that Dooley, then Ray Goff, then Jim Donnan, then Mark Richt could take them back to the promised land. The architect of this season’s run is former Bulldog player and Alabama assistant coach Kirby Smart, who has rewarded fans’ loyalty in only his second year.
Optimism was high at the start of the season, though a bit uncertain after a so-so 2016 season. An early-season victory at Notre Dame led fans and outside observers to believe the team had such potential, followed by big wins over Tennessee, Mississippi State and Florida. Those fires were temporarily doused by the Dogs’ loss to Auburn, then revived when they beat the Tigers in a rematch for the SEC title.
Then came the Rose Bowl, a game for the ages in which Georgia roared out of a 17-point hole to win in overtime and give Bulldog Nation the dream matchup it longed for.
Yet the Tide is no slouch when it comes to a big local fan base. The team with 16 or more national championships, depending who’s counting, was symbolized for a generation by Paul “Bear” Bryant and his houndstooth hat, now by Nick Saban’s perpetually intense scowl, but the results have been the same. Bama has won four titles since 2009 and came within an eyelash of a fifth before Watson’s heroics last year snatched the trophy for Clemson.
Fans of these SEC titans harbor an undercurrent of respect for each other amid their rivalry. The venomous dislike they feel for other foes like Auburn, Florida and Georgia Tech isn’t as intense. Each acknowledges the other as football royalty, and particularly in Georgia’s case, knows that beating the other would cement their team’s legacy.
In fact, it’s not too far-fetched to call this the biggest football game in the history of a state that has seen Super Bowls and SEC title games.
And rest assured, if that chapel bell rings in Athens all night Monday into Tuesday, nothing that happens the rest of the year will wipe the smiles off the faces of Bulldog Nation.
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