Pigskin Pursuit

An eight year odyssey across the backroads of America during the ultimate College Football roadtrip.

Tag: Georgia

Georgia State vs Troy – Panthers prowl past the Trojans…

If you’re a regular reader, you’ve probably heard a familiar refrain by now about things in the college football world which are quick to draw my ire. Domed stadiums, for instance, are one such example. Their very existence is antithetical to a sport meant to be played and enjoyed in the elements. Under beautiful October skies, and brisk autumn winds. College games played in NFL stadiums are another such complaint. Sterile and cold, erected in the wasteland outskirts of town and crowned with garish luxury boxes, NFL venues lack the charm and heritage of their college brethren. Even big cities themselves diminish the college football experience. The jewels of the college sport aren’t surrounded by skyscrapers, and they aren’t to be found in places like New York and Chicago – places where a college football Saturday draws nary a wink from the average citizen. The true gems of the game are tidy college towns like Tuscaloosa, Athens, Madison and Norman. Places where Saturday’s are alive, the air electric, the entire town embroiled, consumed with the promise of a big matchup.

A trip to Georgia State then, which satisfies all three of the reviled criteria stated above, was a curious choice for me. Located in the heart of sprawling downtown Atlanta, they play all of their home games inside the antiseptic confines of the hulking Georgia Dome – primarily the home of the Atlanta Falcons. As if those three affronts weren’t enough, the Panthers have only fielded a football team since 2010 and Georgia State itself is a tight, urban, commuter school lacking a campus in the traditional sense. Located right next to the monolithic Georgia State Capitol building, the GSU grounds are vacant on a Saturday morning with the exception of a few wino’s milling about Hurt Park. Clearly, expectations had to be tempered for this particular visit.

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Before the game, I head over to the Krog Street Market, a hip, repurposed warehouse and former home of the Atlanta Stove Works, a cast iron stove and pan forge that closed up shop in 1988 after nearly 100 years in business. In 2014 those industrial bones were converted into a covered market for a handful of new hipster food shops. Browsing through the space, surrounded by exposed brick and heavy timber beams, an artisan chocolate maker offers me free samples of steaming hot chocolate from an outstretched recycled bamboo tray, a ruse to which I almost fall prey until I uncover the dirty truth: it’s vegan hot chocolate.  In other words, brown colored water.  Nearby, a few dozen bearded waifs wait in line for the craft beer store to open, key chains dangling from their belt loops, presumably lined up for some obscure, limited release, “sour beer” that tastes like a foot.

There’s a Chinese dumpling counter, an artisan charcuterie shop and a grass fed ice cream maker, among many others, all under the same roof. It’s a brilliant concept really, an incubator for food startups. Shared rents and lower barriers to entry make it much easier for anyone with a spatula and a dream to throw their toque into the ring, without the high risk gamble of a traditional stand-alone restaurant. Diners are the real winners, and for any foodie, the sheer craft and variety to be found in Krog Street Market is a dream come true. One could spend a month gorging in here without getting bored. Be warned, however, that the variety comes with a trade-off. The hipster influx here is palpable and the unkempt hordes of faux flannel wearing, mustache waxing, black rim bespectacled buffoons are nauseating.

Not nauseating enough, however, to deter my appetite for barbecue. I fold into line for Grand Champion BBQ, one of the stalwarts of the Atlanta barbecue scene since 2011. The small stand here is a satellite location for them, the proteins presumably shipped in from the main smokehouse in Roswell. Like any good joint, the ribs and brisket are still carved fresh, and the slicer delicately unwraps the black crusted delicacies from clear plastic as he attends to my order. Both the pork and beef offerings here are decent, but nothing extraordinary. It’s the delicious, yet standard and predictable barbecue that I have come to expect from a gas fired Southern Pride smoker. It always eats well but may not exactly deliver on “Grand Champion” level expectations.

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After lunch, I head straight to the Georgia Dome for the Panthers early afternoon kickoff against the Troy Trojans. Garage parking for ten dollars is the only option within a few blocks of the stadium, the entire area engulfed by the concrete expanse of the Georgia World Congress Center. I circle the dome briefly, and, far as I can see, tailgating is completely absent. No grills, no tents, no unruly students or tired jock jams emerging from loudspeakers. The only sound to be heard on a Saturday afternoon is the pinging of strings against a colonnade of aluminum poles, flags flapping in the breeze.

I bum a free ticket from a few ardent fans lined up at the entrance, loyally decked out in bright blue Panthers sweatshirts and hats. But inside, the Georgia Dome feels the same as any other dome – antiseptic, sterile. Only the first level is open for Georgia State Games, and less than half the concession stands roll up their aluminum grates for business. The atmosphere feels cold and empty, like having the entire building to oneself. Admirably, there are a few thousand passionate Georgia State fans in the building, cheering, screaming, and doing their damndest to give the Panthers a home field advantage. The best of what fandom should be. Despite their earnest effort, they are dwarfed by the cavernous confines, their voices faint and helpless in the vacuum, swallowed up within the belly of this concrete monster. I feel bad for them. Their fledgling program needs a more appropriate home.

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Despite the sparse crowd, the contest bears the hard fought passion of the college game. Helmets pop and echo louder in the giant space, and coaches can be heard on the sidelines audibly lecturing linemen about blocking assignments. On the field, the Panthers put on a good show. Quarterback Nick Arbuckle has a lively arm, and he tallies up 368 yards of passing while zipping a pair of touchdowns. His target du jour appears to be lumbering senior tight end Keith Rucker, who hauls in 10 catches for 154 yards during his final home game. Panther fans are treated to the team’s second straight victory, as the squad trots away with a serviceable 31-21 win.

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In the end, I’m not going to tell you that a trip to Georgia State is some hidden jewel just waiting to be discovered. Because it’s not. And even the most ardent of Panther fans would likely say the same. In fact, they may struggle to stay afloat in a market already dominated by a bevy of professional sports franchises, and a longstanding college football program in Georgia Tech.

But, there is hope on the horizon for the Panther program, and a stadium of their own to call home. They were recently selected as the winning bidder to take over the soon-to-be vacated Turner Field property nearby, former ballpark of the Atlanta Braves, and the cornerstone of a 300 million dollar redevelopment project for GSU. With over 50,000 enrolled students passing through the halls annually, this project, coupled with the sheer number of alumni, could lay the foundation for a sustained program in the future. When all of this comes to pass, I may just find myself in centerfield for a ribbon cutting ceremony at a new Panthers stadium sometime around 2020.

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Georgia vs LSU – Dawgs take a bite out of the Tigers…

After spending the better part of Thursday and Friday gluttonously eating my way through the impressive Atlanta food scene, a binge highlighted by some house cured charcuterie and an unctuous pork belly banh mi sandwich from Star Provisions, I fight through the oppressive traffic on I-85 South towards Hartsfield Airport.  There, I greet my cohort for the weekend – Brian.  A former benchwarmer on the University of Maryland lacrosse team, he assured me he had plenty of experience watching college athletics from the sidelines.  But having been to a few epic SEC games before, including a trip to the Florida Georgia game in Jacksonville, aka “The worlds largest outdoor cocktail party”; a last minute trip to Athens was more than enough to lure him out of Saint Louis. He presses his 6’6” frame into my shiny silver Toyota Corolla, which, between the two of us, nearly bottoms out the suspension in the little go kart.   What looks like an easy 1-1/2 hour drive on Google maps proves arduous instead, as the route is littered with construction zones, traffic lights and surprisingly awful Georgia drivers.

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The pork belly banh mi from Star Provisions

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A house made charcuterie sampler at Star Provisions

 

We set our bags down briefly at the hotel, pound a couple of Yuengling tall boy cans, and walk over to Clayton Street – the throbbing heart of downtown Athens.  I’d heard legends about the nightlife in Athens, widely regarded as one of the finest college towns in the country, but unless you regularly wander Bourbon Street in New Orleans, little can prepare you for the delightful mess of Clayton on a home game weekend.  As revelers spill out of bars, the sidewalks are teeming with bodies.  Frat boys in khakis and topsiders, girls sporting tiny dresses and shiny heels, all of them punching their smartphones furiously while elbowing into or out of the myriad bars lining the street.  We press into All Good Lounge after making a quick scan of the scene and order a couple of green Yuengling bottles.  From there, the night melts into a handful of different pubs along Clayton, each of them as jam packed as the next… Athens is an impressive scene.

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It’s an early wake up call on Saturday morning, and though I’m shaking a few cobwebs from a couple extra unwarranted Yuengling’s the night before, we’re both wired to get the day underway.  We make a quick stop at a liquor store for provisions, then tote our new stash of cold Yuenglings towards Sanford Stadium.  The streets are already lined with tailgaters, pressed into any free stretch of asphalt they can find.  A few tailgates have loudspeakers set up, replete with jort and jersey wearing, goateed MC’s babbling incessantly on the microphone in between bouts of insufferable southern hip hop tunes.  There should be some kind of licensing procedure to use a microphone in public, especially for LSU fans…

Just south of the stadium we meet up with Cody and Kendel, friends of mine from Dallas.  Texas Tech and Baylor grads, respectively, their college football experience had been solidly forged in the formidable Big 12 conference.  As avid sports fans, however, for the past couple of years the husband and wife duo has been traveling extensively to high profile sporting events. Inspired by my adventures, they finally wanted to see what SEC football hoopla was all about.  With the allure of a monster matchup in Athens, Georgia vs LSU would be a fitting introduction to their first SEC experience.  You can read Cody’s full take on his first SEC experience here

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We join their tailgate, graciously hosted by Kendel’s extended family.  Tossing our beers in the community cooler and shaking hands, we crack a few cold ones to get the day underway.  Shaded beneath the broad canopies of magnificent oaks, it’s a crystal blue late September sky overhead and a sublime day for tailgating.  While Brian and I immediately raid the snack table, we introduce ourselves to the rest of the group, all of whom are acquainted with Kendall’s extended family.  Bradi and Alan, the hosts, welcome us in typical Georgia tailgate fashion, swiftly sequestering us to the nearest table for a game of flip cup. Despite our newcomer status, little mercy is shown, and fifteen minutes later I’m already three beers deep.  It’s going to be that kind of day…

The morning quickly devolves into bouts of flip cup, beer pong and cornhole – interrupted only for fistfuls of burgers hot off the grill and a particularly addictive buffalo chicken dip.  While our tailgate is delightfully rowdy and boorish, a tailgate next to ours does a gender reveal for their expecting baby as a few of their toddlers scramble around in the bark mulch.  Anywhere else, this may seem peculiar, but at an SEC tailgate, it seems oddly appropriate.

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Georgia exemplifies the best of what SEC, and broader college football, tailgating is all about.  Our collective group of Alan, Bradi, LeAndra, Meredith, Lindsay and Katie are among the most welcoming hosts I’ve encountered on my travels.  A cup never runs empty, participation in drinking games is mandatory, and strangers are welcomed into the fold with open arms and sharp tongued smack talking.  The next four hours pass like minutes as we spend the resplendent morning drinking, laughing and reveling.  As the afternoon sun arches over the sky, it’s regrettably time to leave, but after this serious bout of tailgating, I’m appropriately lubed up for the game.  With pre game field passes awaiting us, there’s no way I’m missing a chance to walk between the hedges…

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Fighting our way towards Sanford Stadium, the scene outside the gates is a human cattle stock pen.  Sanford is built into a small valley on campus, a feature that limits access to the entrance gates, so thousands of fans cramp into the small basin between the stadium entrance and the Tate Student Center.  We jostle through the crowd towards the hospitality tent to pick up our field passes and game tickets, and make a quick dive into the coolers for a few final Yuenglings, naturally.  Shortly after, a University of Georgia representative leads our group through the entrance gates and into the darkconcrete tunnel.

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We emerge from the tunnel into a brilliant wash of colors surrounding the field at Sanford Stadium.  A crystal blue sky overhead, bright red seats fill the grandstands, and the lush green of grass tucked in between the neatly manicured hedges that famously surround the field.  Standing on the sidelines, the stadium still hushed as spectators start trickling in, we observe the players taking warm-ups on the field.  Up close is the only way to grasp exactly how freakish some of these athletes are, the speed in which they accelerate, leap, or change direction.  We observe one player nonchalantly catch a 50 yard kickoff in the back of the endzone – one handed, over his shoulder – as if it were a set of tossed car keys.   Heralded Georgia QB Aaron Murray zips passes to his wide receivers, all of them running crisp, geometrically precise patterns with delicate footwork and split second timing.

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As the stadium begins to fill and the student section starts its boisterous pre game chants, the field crew ushers us off the grounds.  We find our seats on the 35 yard line, only a few rows up.  Seated adjacent to the student section, we’re in for a delightfully raucous afternoon.  As the pre game energy reaches its zenith, flags are raised and the crowd wails as the Bulldogs quickly hustle on to the field.  During the final moments of warm up, the student crowd taunts LSU Quarterback Zach Mettenberger with chants of “No Means No”, or, more accurately “Neaux means Neaux” according to a few painted signs.  The barb is a reference to his two sexual battery charges.  Originally a Georgia recruit and quarterback, Mettenberger was booted off the team in 2010 for these off field exploits.

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A few moments later, LSU place kicker James Hairston boots the ball high into the late afternoon sky and the crowd “barks” as the ball starts to fall.  After touching a knee down in the endzone, the Dawgs assume control first.   What follows is one of the most exciting, back and forth games that I have attended on my travels.  Far from a typical SEC defensive standoff, both teams move the ball with remarkable ease.   The Georgia defense is powerless against the LSU passing attack, and gives up several third down conversions over 20 yards.  On the other side, the Bulldog rushing attack, despite an injury to star running back Todd Gurley, absolutely steamrolls the normally stout Tiger defense.  Although Georgia leads for the first three quarters, they never pull more than a touchdown ahead, as LSU responds with each swing in momentum.  As the game swings back and forth, we sit down only a handful of times, the exuberant Georgia crowd stands nearly the entire contest.  The way it should be…

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Finally, in the fourth quarter, the game breaks stride.  With 4:14 left on the clock, LSU running back Jeremy Hill scampers 8 yards into the endzone for a touchdown.  The Bayou Bengals assume their first lead of the game at 41-37 as the crowd in Athens hushes in frustration.  But when senior Bulldog QB Aaron Murray takes over, he takes to the skies, zipping the ball to his receivers and ripping off massive chunks of yardage.  On only his 6th play from scrimmage, he fires a touchdown pass to Justin Scott Wesley to complete the 75 yard drive and bounce the Bulldogs back on top 44-41.

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While LSU would get the ball back with 1:47 left on the clock, more than enough time to get within field goal range, after nearly four quarters of frustration the Georgia defense finally comes up with a key stop.  They stifle the controversial LSU quarterback, as Mettenberger fires four straight incomplete passes, ending the Tigers chances.  The crowd roars in celebration as the Georgia bench storms on to the field, earning the team a pesky excessive celebration penalty.  But the 15 yard penalty is meaningless as the clock soon expires; the Bulldogs have pulled off a massive home win, and kept their SEC Championship hopes alive.

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Thank you to my friend Brian for the last minute spontaneity and hitting it hard the entire weekend.  Can’t wait for the next one man!

Thank you to my friends Cody and Kendel – always great to meet up with you guys for a game and I’m glad I got to be a part of your first SEC experience.  Let’s get another one on the calendar soon!

Thanks to the entire tailgating crew – Alan, Bradi, LeAndra, Meredith, Lindsay and Katie (and anyone else I forgot) for your warm hospitality and putting on a fantastic tailgate for my first Georgia game.  When do I get to come back???

And of course, special thanks to my other friend for the game tickets and field passes.  Amazing experience as always, and can’t wait to finally get to a game with you one of these days…

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