ATHENS, Ga. -- Since I moved to Athens more than two years ago, I've been trying to understand why Georgia football fans are always so downtrodden about their football team. Georgia, objectively, is a terrific football program. A Sporting News formula ranked the Bulldogs the 10th best college team since 2000. Coach Mark Richt, who has only been a head coach at Georgia, will move into the top 50 all-time coaching wins leaders soon. The Bulldogs haven't missed a bowl since 1996. I went to Illinois, where they'll carry a coach off the field if he sneaks into the Foster Farms Bowl every four years or so. I've never quite gotten why Georgia fans don't realize how good they've got it.
I get it now.
I've been going to sporting events, and writing about sporting events, and thinking about sporting events, for almost 40 years now, and Saturday, midway through the third quarter of Georgia's nightmarish 38-10 home loss to Alabama, I was a part of something I've never experienced before. After Crimson Tide quarterback Jake Coker ran it in from two yards out to give Alabama a 38-3 lead with 10:05 left in the third quarter, at least 50,000 people -- more than half Sanford Stadium's capacity -- stood up and left. Together. At once. I had seen people leave games early. I had seen crowds of people leave games early. But I have never once seen roughly the population of Hot Springs, Ark., or Williamsport, Pa., all rise up, as if directed by some invisible collective remote control, heads folded downward, and silently head for the exits. Everyone decided, right as Coker crossed the goal line, that they could not watch this anymore. No one had to say a word. We all just walked out right then, like someone had just set a sacred religious amulet aflame at midfield and we just couldn't bear to look at it anymore. I suppose that's exactly what happened.
It was a stampede of dejection. It had rained all day, every day, for about six days in Athens, but Saturday was the hardest rain all week. People still came out and tailgated all morning and all afternoon. They still revved up the generators and set up the DirecTV, they still flitted from tent to tent to see all their friends old and new, they still drank their bourbon and barked at strangers. It was absolutely miserable to be outside, but everyone still braved the elements, because it was Alabama. It was the Crimson Tide's first visit to Athens since 2008 -- an infamous "blackout" loss that now seems somehow comparatively quaint -- and its last until at least 2027, and people have had it circled on their calendars since the game was announced because dammit it's Alabama. The Crimson Tide are the measuring stick for all of the SEC, all of the country really, but especially for Georgia, because Georgia is always good but never great, and Georgia wants so desperately to be great. This Georgia team, thanks to its 4-0 start and its snarling defense and its Nick Chubb, felt like a great team early on. But you wouldn't know until you saw Alabama. Alabama would let you know if Georgia had finally broken through.
Georgia did not break through. The team exchanged punts through the first quarter, but it was worrisome how the Georgia offense, so powerful up to this point, was being shoved backwards constantly by the bigger and stronger Alabama defensive front. Georgia tied the game 3-3 in the second quarter, but Alabama was offside on the field goal, so Richt took the points off the board and decided to go for the touchdown. Instead, his offense was knocked 20 yards backward -- it was suddenly third-and-30, somehow -- and Georgia was lucky to get its initial three points back. And all was blood after that. A Derrick Henry 30-yard touchdown. A blocked punt for a touchdown. A gorgeous Coker 45-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Ridley. It was 24-3 at halftime. The field was too wet for the school band to come on the field to perform. They would have sunk, like everything else. You stood in the stands, quiet, wondering what you should be looking at. The only place to look was down.
But was there a shred of hope? New quarterback Grayson Lambert, who had transferred from Virginia and looked brilliant against South Carolina, was a nightmare in the first half and was replaced by backup Brice Ramsey, who had lost a much-discussed QB battle with Lambert in camp. Perhaps he could spark a Bulldog revival in the second half; perhaps he could reclaim the throne many had initially thought was rightfully his. Georgia stopped Alabama on downs in the first drive of the second half, and Ramsey came in, and the crowd cheered despite itself, and then he threw an interception to Eddie Jackson that Jackson returned 50 yards for a touchdown. Then, somehow, three minutes later, Alabama had another touchdown. And it was 38-3. And then we were all gone.
Fittingly, for all the gloom, it rained harder as we all left the stadium and trod glumly through campus to a soaked downtown than it had all week. No one said a word. No one even looked at anybody else. There was a week, through all the slop and the mud, when Georgia fans put aside their fears and their frustrations and their history of never quite being there, that they believed this was going to be different. It took 90 minutes for them to be disabused of that notion, again, and again, and again, and again. There may be a time, one has to think, when Georgia will at last reach the heights that its fans believe it can, and should. That day was not Saturday. Saturday was the opposite of that. Saturday was like the others, but worse. I definitely get it now.