ATHENS — Georgia fans were extremely disappointed to learn that the SEC Network had tabbed Saturday’s game between the Bulldogs and Ole Miss for a noon Eastern Time/11 a.m. local time kickoff. You know who isn’t disappointed? The Bulldogs themselves.
For those unfortunate UGA fans who have yet to participate in the glorious tailgating experience that is the Rebels’ famous Grove, your dismay is understandable. But fear not, as it is a resilient and loyal constituency at Ole Miss, which is used to these early starts and will adjust their menus and table décor accordingly. Plus, their tents tend to stay up postgame as well.
The hope for the Bulldogs is to drive their hosts back out into the Grove early, which the Rebels’ fans have been wont to do in previous years. And that’s made more possible by the early start time.
Traditionally, early starts in big SEC matchups are most troublesome for the home team. It seems that the home-field advantage is less pronounced after a short morning of croissants and coffee as opposed to a long, extended session of grilled meats and bourbon.
Meanwhile, for the visiting team, it makes an often grueling travel itinerary much more manageable. The Bulldogs will fly jets out of Athens on Friday afternoon, eat, meet, sleep, wake up and eat again before heading on over to the stadium. And they’ll be back in Athens Saturday evening in time to catch up with their girlfriends and potentially bask in the glory of another victory over Ole Miss. Georgia has beaten the Rebels 10 times in a row, for what’s it worth.
That’s decidedly different than the Bulldogs’ experience at Missouri this past weekend. Players and coaches had to sit around all day Saturday before the 7:30 p.m. ET kick, and then didn’t get back to Athens and into their beds until nearly 3 a.m.
“I’m a morning person; I get up and I’m ready to go,” senior outside linebacker Chuks Amaechi said. “Those late games, you’re kind of waiting all day, just getting more anxious. The fact that you have to watch 30 or 40 teams on ESPN play makes you want to play that much more. Just sitting there watching all those games, I felt like I wanted to just fast forward to 7:30 and kickoff.”
It took a while to get going, but that one turned out all right for the Bulldogs. They scored a touchdown with 1:29 to play to eke out a 28-27 victory. Georgia is now 3-0 against Missouri in Columbia.
The Bulldogs have a lot more experience playing at Ole Miss. They’ve played them 45 times over the years, including 37 consecutive meetings from 1966 to 2002. Georgia kept the Rebels as a “traditional West” opponent after initial SEC expansion in 1991.
The Bulldogs are 14-8 in games played in Mississippi, which includes five games in Jackson. They’ve won their last five in recently-expanded Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Georgia is pretty good at playing in these Nooners as well. According to UGA, the Bulldogs are 27-12 in games that kicked off at noon or thereabouts.
Of course, playing early games comes with its own set of unique circumstances. That’s especially true when the local time, which the Bulldogs switch to wherever they show up to play, is actually late morning.
“The biggest thing is getting the mentality of your players right,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s a different mentality when you have to do that. The night before is different. It’s nothing like our trip last week where we’ve got two meetings, one at night, one the day of the game. This is a wake up, eat a pregame meal, go play. They’ve got to have their mindset ready for that. I think Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are important for that because they have to have a routine. We want to keep that routine. I think that’s a big advantage for whichever team handles that best.”
A stickler for details, Smart and his staff are doing everything in their power to acclimate the Bulldogs for the early wake-up call. Regardless of class schedule, players have been asked to rise and shine early all week. And they directed players to set a phone alarm for 11 a.m. every day of the week.
“Not really anything loud to interrupt class or anything like that,” sophomore linebacker Natrez Patrick said. “But when the alarm goes off, we’re supposed to say to ourselves, ‘are you ready to go?’ Because this weekend that’s what time everything’s going to kick off. So I’ve been doing that, and I think it’s going to be all right.”
Of course, this is not the same old Ole Miss. The last two times Georgia visited Oxford, the head coaches were named Ed Orgeron (2006) and Houston Nutt (2011), and both those teams had awful seasons (4-8 and 2-10, respectively).
This one’s not off to a great start (1-2), but they’re ranked No. 23 and offensively explosive, as Hugh Freeze teams tend to be. Ole Miss is 35-20 in its five seasons under Freeze and has a .792 winning percentage (75-19-2) overall in home games played in Oxford in September.
I couldn’t find an Ole Miss stat for its home games that kicked off before noon. Suffice it to say, for the Bulldogs at least, this is not a bad thing.
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