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Dawgs on Top: Sanford Crowd Helps Georgia Beat No. 1 Tennessee

Credit: Zachery C. Kelly / UGA Athletic Association

I’ve been in all kinds of crowds in my time as a Georgia fan. I’ve been in loud crowds, such as the 2013 game against LSU. I’ve been in fun crowds, such as the one at the 2017 Cocktail Party in Jacksonville. I’ve even been in wet crowds, such as the one that witnessed Alabama stomp the Dawgs in 2015. But I’d never been in a crowd that was simultaneously loud, fun and wet until last weekend.

The Tennessee Volunteers came to Athens with the No. 1 ranking in the College Football Playoff race and the belief that they could uncrown the Dawgs. That No. 1 spot and any remaining belief they could usurp the Dawgs at the top of the sport were left on the field at Sanford Stadium as Georgia whipped up on Tennessee 27-13.

I’ll leave those better equipped with knowledge of scheme and strategy to tell you the “how” of Georgia beating Tennessee, but I can quickly give you the “why”: Georgia is more talented. That’s it. The national college football media got wrapped up in the hype and excitement of the explosive Tennessee offense and ignored basic facts. Georgia is the second-ranked team in 247’s talent composite rankings. Tennessee ranks 19th. The Vols are a good team that ran into a great program in front of a raucous crowd.

It’s that crowd I want to talk about, because I’ve never been as impressed with Dawg People as I was Saturday. It was the most sustainably loud atmosphere I’ve ever witnessed for a college football game. With Vols facing their toughest road test of the season, Kirby Smart challenged the fanbase to show up early and be loud. It did him one better and stayed in the stands for the entire game, even when it rained for the better part of an hour.

“I’ve never seen our fans not leave the stadium like that, even when it rained,” Smart said. “Our fans were elite today. We asked them to be. They responded.” 

There was pride on the line for Dawg fans as well. In the buildup to the game, ex-Vols quarterback Erik Ainge managed to provide bulletin board material for the fanbase by tweeting his belief that Tennessee would be “just fine in Athens.”

“Playing between the hedges is overrated,” Ainge tweeted. “Not that loud and definitely not intimidating. It’s nothing like playing in Neyland.” 

We took that personally. Thanks to the crowd noise, the Vols committed seven false starts penalties. In one especially satisfying stretch, back-to-back false starts moved the Vols from 3rd-and-2 in the red zone to 3rd-and-12. They settled for a field goal. 

Ainge apologized to Dawg fans and gave props for the environment after the game. What other choice did he have after being proved so spectacularly wrong? 

The crowd adapted, too. Tennessee plays lighting-quick on offense, lining back up and snapping within seconds of the end of the previous play. In real time, 90,000 Georgia fans realized they could never stop cheering while Tennessee was driving; otherwise, they could find a split second to call in a play while it was (relatively) silent. The fans refused to give any kind of edge to the Vols.

Then came the third quarter, and with it, the rain. A lot of folks in the crowd, myself included, were ill-prepared for the weather. When the light mist turned to the steady shower, I expected droves to start heading for the concourse. Instead, it galvanized the crowd. At that point, the game was won. If Tennessee can’t score on us in clear weather, they sure as hell can’t do it in the driving rain. And they didn’t. 

Ainge’s comments might have held an acorn of truth back when he was under center for Tennessee more than a decade ago. But Sanford has been a fortress under Kirby’s watch. Since his inauspicious inaugural season, the Dawgs are 33-1 at Sanford. No opponent will relish a trip between the hedges unless they have a humiliation kink.

Saturday was my first trip back to Sanford in three years. Between the pandemic and living two states away, it was just never possible. But if part of the price of admission was skipping three years of home games, I still would’ve paid it. There just ain’t nothing like a Saturday in Athens— even when it’s raining.