I am a native Midwesterner turned New Yorker who has now lived in Athens, Ga., for more than two years, and I have finally learned a little bit about this town. I know the best meal to order at Last Resort (the Gaucho), I know where they make the strongest cocktails (The Old Pal), I know where all the speed traps are (careful where Broad Street splits at Sr. Sol's), I know the best place to stake out for a tailgate (I'll never tell). And I've learned to how to send any Athens resident into an instant pit of deep despair. All you have to do is mention one of two days.
The first, oddly, is the night the Braves won the World Series. Out of all those division championships, the Braves only grabbed one title, the year after the strike, beating the Indians 1-0 in Game 6 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on Oct. 28, 1995. That very day, Georgia, for the first time since 1932, hosted Florida in Athens. (Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, the typical host for the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, was under construction, so they had a one-time deal in Athens.) The one time Florida played Between the Hedges … the Gators beat the Dawgs 52-17. Coach Steve Spurrier said he wanted to be the first coach to drop "half a hundred" on Georgia at Sanford. It remains the most points Georgia has allowed at Sanford Stadium. Even Braves fans around here don't remember that day with anything other than a pained grimace.
The other is Sept. 27, 2008, the last time Alabama came to Athens. It was the famous blackout game, where all fans were encouraged to wear black, and the team wore its black jerseys. College GameDay came to campus, Georgia was on the verge of being the No. 1 team in the country, and Georgia football -- so eager to be back on top again, to reach the pinnacle where it believes it always belongs -- at last had the world's attention. Alabama promptly jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead en route to a 41-30 win, and neither program has been the same since. Alabama became the preeminent college football factory in the country, and Georgia was sent on a seven-year journey through the wilderness, trying to figure out precisely what sort of program it was. They haven't worn the black jerseys since.
And then there is this Saturday. For the first time since that 2008 game, Alabama is coming to Athens. Every babysitter here has been booked for about a year.
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Georgia football has spent the last 30 years seeing all its rivals -- Florida, Auburn, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee -- win championships, and its turn has never come. It has led to a certain fatalism in the fan base and in the perception of the program nationally. Even in a year like this one, when Georgia has looked fantastic from the first snap and appears to have a bid in the SEC Championship Game just waiting for it, everyone is just waiting for the game where Georgia falls on its face.
It has also led to a certain seriousness of purpose for coach Mark Richt and his staff. They know that for all of Richt's success, if he doesn't get that national title that Vince Dooley got, his reign will always be considered somewhat of a disappointment. There's a statue of Dooley being carried off the field by his players just a short walk from my home; if Richt wins a title, he'll have one of his own, and if he doesn't, his 15-plus years will get a plaque by the stadium at best. Thus, in the past few years, the program has dialed everything up a notch. It's paying for a new indoor practice facility that'll be among the best in the sport. They brought in Jeremy Pruitt, who had just won a championship at Florida State, to be the defensive coordinator. They replaced former offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who took the top job at Colorado State, with Brian Schottenheimer, an NFL mind who so far seems to be fitting in just fine. Recruiting has intensified, culminating in next year's top recruit Jacob Eason, widely considered the best (or maybe the second-best) quarterback prospect in the country. Tired of all the "Georgia can't win the whole thing" criticism, there has been a pep in the step of Georgia these last couple of years. Everyone knows what a title would mean … and what not ever winning one would mean.
And it is all set up for the Bulldogs this year. The SEC East appears weak and unlikely to offer much resistance. The Bulldogs' late-season non-SEC East road opponents, Auburn and Georgia Tech, suddenly aren't nearly as imposing as we all thought. The transfer quarterback from Virginia, Greyson Lambert, is accurate, poised and possessing of a much stronger arm than anyone thought. The defense is swarming and devastating, led by linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, who you will see playing on Sundays very soon. And there is, oh yes, Nick Chubb, the only running back capable of challenging Leonard Fournette to be called the best in the nation. Georgia is stacked this year. There's an excitement here that hasn't been felt in quite some time. The corner has turned.
But there is still this game. There is Alabama. The idea of Alabama losing two games by Oct. 4 is absurd; it has lost three games in a season only twice in the Nick Saban era. This is famously the first game Alabama has been an underdog in since 2009. Some believe this could be a changing of the guard in a similar way as it was in 2008. It's Georgia's chance to take supremacy from Alabama. (Though one suspects Mississippi, Texas A&M, LSU, Florida and everybody else in that crazy conference will have something to say about that.) Georgia is trying to reach a level it hasn't in nearly three decades, and Alabama stands in its way, as Alabama always stands in everyone's way.
The game is particularly monumental because it is so rare. The SEC's schedule construction doesn't have Alabama and Georgia playing again until 2020, and that will be in Tuscaloosa. The next time Georgia hosts Alabama likely will not be until 2027. My oldest son will get his driver's license that year. He's currently 3. They have long memories down here. No matter what happens in this game, it'll resonate for decades to come. Will Saturday's game become a touchstone event that culminates in Georgia football fans reaching the heights they've dreamed of for so long? Or will it cause everyone's faces to fall, even 15 years from now? It will be everything.
And so Athens waits. It waits … in rain. The rain in Athens has been unrelenting for days. The game day the whole town has been preparing for years is being dampened and muted. Acres of parking are closed because of the rain. Tailgating traditions are being shifted around because of the rain. There's even a slight fear that thunderstorms might come and, if there is heavy lightning, even postpone the game. The rain is messing everything up. This should be a celebration, the culmination of a near-decade of waiting for Alabama to return. Instead, everyone is looking for tents and galoshes.
But it probably had to be this way. These games occupy their little pockets of history in ways no one could anticipate. Last time Alabama was here will forever be known as the Blackout Game. This week looks like the Rain Bowl. And it's going to change everything, like they all do. Athens is a town, like so many down south, that wraps its identity in its college football team. Georgia football will learn so much about itself after Saturday. So will the rest of us. Saturday night, Last Resort is either going to be a sad escape from the rain or just another place downtown where people are partying. Either way: Try the Gaucho. If your whole identity is going to be altered in one afternoon, it might as well do so on a full stomach.
(Postscript: I actually co-host a weekly Georgia Football podcast, and this week, we preview this game, if you're looking for more insight into the drama involved. There is much angst, and bourbon.)