Sweetness in Bowl Form: A Tale of Two Happy Endings (maybe?)

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January 1st 2020
Published: January 3rd 2020
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In the world of college football, bowl games are beauty pageants at the end of the season that both end the year and set up the next one. Unless you’re playing for a national championship, that is. All the other games at the end of December and the beginning of January are understood to show the direction of your program—if you win the bowl game, you’re in good shape and get a little boost going into next year. Lose, and some people may get fired, but questions will certainly be asked about the health of your program. There are also several levels to bowl games; let’s call them tiers. The Playoff is the top tier, since only the four teams involved in it have a shot at winning the title. The next tier comprises the “New Year’s Six” bowls, where usually only teams in the top ten play (though exceptions for conference championship losers and the best team from the Group of Five exist). The Playoff usually takes up two of these six games, which means the remaining eight teams are the best ones that didn’t make the Playoff. We could probably list at least two other tiers below that, maybe more, but they are usually less hyped and less important in terms of the beauty contest. I attended one of them last week—the Camping World Bowl, where I saw Notre Dame beat Iowa State. See the previous blog post. This week, and in the new year of 2020, I got to attend the Sugar Bowl, one of those New Year’s Six games. The Playoff takes the top four teams, and since this game pitted the fifth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs against the seventh-ranked Baylor Bears, it had the potential to be the best game outside the Playoff. The spread started with UGA expected to win by seven points, but as the month progressed, more players decided to sit out the game in favor of not getting hurt before the NFL draft. The more players declared their intent not to play, the lower the spread went. At game time, the spread still favored UGA, but only by 3.5 points. All expectations said this would be a close game, and many experts predicted the lower-ranked Baylor Bears had more to play for and would come into the game excited. I heard quite a few people say that this was the biggest game that team had ever played in. Maybe. If so, their fans acted like it. Their team, however, did not.

I must confess, however, that I did not want to go to this game. At least, not at first. Or during the entire season. Dad and I went to the Sugar Bowl last year on January 1, 2019, only to watch UGA get embarrassed by the Texas Longhorns. And I paid a lot of money for those tickets. That experience was a turning point in my fanhood, both for the Dawgs and for the exorbitant prices for any game. It’s one of the reasons I undertook my plan this season for going to other places and paying a lot less for it. But I digress. I had hoped that if UGA wouldn’t be in the Playoff, then we could go to the Orange Bowl, one of the New Year’s Six games I have not yet attended (I have attended the Sugar, Peach, Cotton, and Rose Bowls, for those curious). But that didn’t pan out. The only thing that persuaded me to go this year was the cheap price. I bought four tickets, including fees, for less than the price of a single ticket last year. My intention was to get the whole family to go and make this their Christmas present—game tickets plus hotel rooms. But after I got the tickets, mom said she had to work and wouldn’t be able to go. And wouldn’t you know it, Nick said Dusty could go, so it was a repeat of the first weekend of the season with those two, just add dad.

We left the house at 9:00 AM on January 1st, for a seven-hour drive to New Orleans. The game wasn’t until 8:45 PM (EST), so that was plenty of time. I had attended a NYE party and spent the night in Warner Robins, so I left there around 7:00 AM after not going to bed until after 1:00. So I was already a little tired. We had to stop by Dusty’s place to pick him up on the way out of town, so we didn’t really get on the road until close to 9:30. I drove until we got to Tallahassee around 11:15 and then relinquished the keys. Both Nick and Dusty were surprised by this, since I had driven the entire long weekend when we went to Michigan. I was too tired to care. We stopped at the Whataburger in Tallahassee because duh—haven’t your read my blog before?—and then drove until just past Mobile, where we needed to stop for gas. And that was our last stop before arriving at the Superdome around 5:00 (EST) / 4:00 (CST). With all the stops, it still only took us eight hours.

The drive, however, was anything but boring. Okay, the road and the views might have been pretty uninspiring, except maybe those bridges around Mobile and Lake Ponchartrain. But I learned a lot about several things. First off, the Florida panhandle is basically a third-world country when it comes to cell reception. Many places went down to 3G, and then there were the empty spots where the network was just 1X—no internet at all, but maybe phone calls and texts could get through if you held the phone high enough. Dusty also informed us when we picked him up that his dad had given him Sirius XM radio to use, so we were excited about the possibilities. At first, we listened to a few comedy routines, but they were usually short excerpts, and many weren’t very funny without more context and buildup. So after lunch, Dusty suggested (because of course he would) listening to Vivid Radio on there. This turns out to be a station for porn stars. But it’s not what you think. It wasn’t just the audio from pornographic videos. It was mostly like talk radio, except the hosts and their guests were in the porn business. So we got to hear a great deal about what they go through and all of their … stuff. It was very educational. But I like to keep this blog PG-rated, so I won’t discuss any of the specifics. Let’s just say we laughed a good bit, especially when we weren’t just in awe of what they were discussing so openly.

But back to the football stuff. Parking across the street from the Superdome was $30, tying it for the most I had paid all season (at FSU). Dad covered that and wouldn’t take no for an answer. After we got parked and out of the deck, we went over to the Fan Fest. On the way, it was a little disheartening to see so much more green than red. And then at the Fan Fest, the same situation prevailed. It got better over the next hour, but it seemed as if all those predictions about the Baylor fans outnumbering Georgia fans were going to be true.

I remember last year being disappointed by the Fan Fest, and it was no different this year. If you like loud cover bands and pricey beer, then this is your place. I like neither of those things. The swag game was so weak—just some trailers or booths with overpriced merchandise (I got the bowl pin I usually get but didn’t get last year, but it was identical to the one from the Camping World Bowl, just different teams and logo—lame!) and two AllState tents set up to give away t-shirts—either red or green, but no team name or logo—if you filled out their little form for them to contact you later. No thanks. Nick did it, but he was the only one of us to get the red shirt with “mayhem” written on it. Then there was the big display with Sugar Bowl 2020 and the two team helmets that people were lining up to get their picture taken in front of. If that’s not an encapsulation of Western society in 2020, I don’t know what is. We weren’t going to stand in line, but dad wanted a picture of us with it, so we got a picture of people taking pictures of themselves with the display in the background. Okay. They did have decent restrooms there, but everything else was quite lackluster. Do better, Sugar Bowl.

The gates to the Superdome opened at 5:30, which meant we would have two hours until the game began. Nick and Dusty went back to the car to drop something off, so dad and I stood out front and waited for the gates to open, and then for them to return. There was a small crowd waiting to go inside as soon as the gates opened, but after that, the lines were basically nonexistent. The four of us went inside around 5:45 and were grateful to find escalators available to take us all the way to the top. Last year, dad and I were in row 2 on the lower level, so we were able to find our seats easily. The view was great for all pre-game activities, but after the game started, we were looking at the big screen as much as the actual game, just to find out what happened because there was no way to judge how far a pass or run went. This year, I was happy to get seats in the upper level after I saw the views. We could see the whole field easily, which made it easier to figure out those distances. And despite being in the middle of the upper deck, the field wasn’t very far away (like at Alabama or Clemson). The Superdome holds 75,000 people, but it feels larger.

And the crowd size definitely didn’t make the game look like it was a major event in college football. It got larger as game time approached, but even after the event, the attendance was reported as only 55,000. I asked Jack back home if the stadium looked as empty on TV as it did in person. There were so many gaps on the upper deck and especially the middle deck. And my friend Kay told me that there were lots of empty seats in her section—the lower level near the Redcoat Band.

I was the only one of our group to buy any food here. Maybe they weren’t hungry, or maybe the prices factored into it. I bought the cheapest thing I could—a hot dog for $6.50—and my customary souvenir soda ($7) and brought them back to the seats around 6:15. I had finished both by the time the game started. The crowd filled in around us, but no one ever took the seat next to me (I was at the edge of our group near the middle of the row; dad was at the other edge, two seats away from the aisle). I did manage to get a lady to take our picture, but I don’t think she was used to taking pictures in stadiums. She and her husband and son (maybe five years old) live in the area but were originally from Georgia. When the kid saw my red Georgia scroll banner, he said he wanted one like that. So I ended up giving it to him if he promised to use it during the game. His parents promised he would and that it would go on his wall when they got back home. I glimpsed back a while later and saw them taking pictures of him with the banner unrolled. Cute.

Meanwhile, the Baylor side kept looking fuller than ours. Of course, it was harder to tell from side angles, but the green looked more numerous than red. Still. We even had a few Baylor people around us. To their credit, none of them ever got rude during the game. We only had one UGA guy, who looked to be a few sheets to the wind, get loud consistently. But he left by halftime, probably to get more alcohol, and we never saw him again. The Baylor people on the opposite side of the stadium were also louder than the Georgia people, but that may have been the angle of the noise. I really don’t know. What I do know is that they were excited to be there, and most of us who had been in this stadium for this same game exactly one year ago weren’t as thrilled. We were hopeful, but I must confess that my expectations were quite limited. I was just glad I hadn’t paid an arm and a leg.

When it came time for the teams to take the field, the lights dimmed; in a domed stadium, this is a very dramatic effect. But then the carts that each team had rolled out onto the field before this moment caught fire, and first the UGA team ran between their fire pits and then the Baylor team did. That was a cool effect. But then the lights came back on, and it was time for the game to begin.

So here’s how the game went, at least the parts that I saw. Georgia got the ball first and made modest gains before having to punt. The Baylor people were very happy about this. But their team did nothing with it, so they punted and Georgia did the same thing. It was looking to be a defensive game. Then Baylor got the ball and went a short distance before throwing an interception, and the Georgia people were very happy about this. Unfortunately, the Dawgs couldn’t capitalize on it. So the rest of the first quarter mostly consisted of the teams going nowhere. Finally, the Dawgs got into a good position but had to settle for a field goal. Nevertheless, being the first team to score takes a little of the tension out of the situation. Georgia got the ball back to start the second quarter and put together a 2.5-minute touchdown drive that really put Baylor in a hole. Did I mention the flea-flicker that really got the offense going, not to mention electrifying the Georgia fans in the stadium? But Baylor responded with a three-and-out. Georgia went back down the field and managed another field goal. Baylor just couldn’t get anything going, and they were getting in their own way with penalties—over 50 yards worth of them in the first half alone. The Georgia defense was doing a better job than Baylor’s and after another stalled drive, Georgia responded with touchdown after three minutes. The score was now 19-0, and Coach Smart decided to go for 2 instead of a PAT, but it failed, and the weird score held until halftime. This was definitely not the game anyone expected. George Pickens was making all the catches from Jake Fromm that he had been missing for most of the season, and the Baylor defense was paying for it, big time.

The third quarter was much more Baylor-friendly. They started the quarter with a long touchdown drive to announce that they hadn’t given up yet. Then they stopped Georgia with a three-and-out, and it looked like momentum might be swinging. Baylor got the ball back and looked to be making some noise before the Georgia defense finally sacked Charlie Brewer and forced a fumble, which the Dawgs recovered. And the UGA offense took advantage of the short field. They kept it on the ground for the most part, but the Baylor defense stepped up and forced a fourth down. Coach Smart called the fake punt, and Jake Camarda ran for six yards to pick up the first down. On the next play, Zamir (Zeus!) White ran it into the end zone for a touchdown, re-extending the Georgia lead. But Baylor kept up the fight. Their next drive took three minutes off the clock and resulted in their second (and—spoiler!—final) touchdown of the game. The new score was 26-14. At this point, Baylor’s defense really stepped up and sacked Jake Fromm on two consecutive plays. They were hoping to get some momentum back in their corner, but despite forcing another Georgia punt, Baylor suffered the same fate in their first play of the fourth quarter. Luckily for me, there was no more scoring for the remainder of the game. [It turns out that both teams traded five-minute drives for no points, and on Baylor’s final drive of the game, their backup quarterback threw an interception with less than two minutes remaining, at which point all the Baylor fans got up and found the exits.]

But I didn’t get to enjoy the fourth quarter at all. Thanks, dad. Truly, it was thanks to my dad disappearing and not letting us know where he went. At the end of the second quarter, he walked back up the stairs to go to the bathroom. Those steps were very large, even for non-septuagenarians, and according to his version of events, he decided he didn’t want to go back down the steps just to have to come back up at the end of the game. So he claims to have returned to our section and sat near the exit with a pair of people he talked to for the remainder of the game. The rest of us call BS on this version. None of us saw him there when we walked past that place, and he doesn't remember seeing any of us walk past him. Hmmm.

I had planned to go visit my friend Kay in the lower level and check out how many empty seats were actually around her. Nick suggested taking dad, since it would be less problematic to get him down escalators than back down and then up the stairs if he returned from the bathroom. So I followed dad up the stairs, maybe about two minutes after he left. I waited at least ten minutes outside the bathroom directly outside the top of those stairs, but he never showed up. So I checked the other three bathrooms on this level and found nothing. Then I went back to my seat, only to find Nick and Dusty, but no dad. So we waited a while, thinking he was getting some concessions or had met someone (seriously, he never meets a stranger and it would be totally within the realm of possibility for him to run into someone he knows at this event) and was talking with them. But as the third quarter progressed, and he never showed up, I became more concerned. By the end of the third, I was no longer able to sit there and do nothing.

My first stop was the Guest Services kiosk on our level, and I was directed to Guest Relations on Level 1 (they only do missing objects, not persons, I was informed), who directed me to the First Aid station on Level 5, who told me they thought someone matching dad’s description had been taken to First Aid on Level 1. When I got there, the workers told me they hadn’t heard of anyone with that description. “Have you talked to Dome security?” Of course not, because why would any of these groups talk to each other? I had left a report at Guest Relations, and now that I was talking to Dome security—the police people—the alert was sounded to all workers. They were on the lookout. They took pictures of the group picture on my phone, which the lady had taken before the game, and I got to stand there at First Aid while people looked around. “The good thing is that there’s only three minutes left of the game, so shortly it’ll be pretty easy to find him if he’s just sitting somewhere.” Duh. But I wait. The Dawgs win, the trophies are presented, the confetti explodes in the air, and herds of people pass in front of me toward the exits. I even see a former student of mine walk past with his dad. We exchange hand waves. But I have to wait. Nick has gone outside to make sure dad hasn’t wandered off into the cool, rainy night. Police tell me that they’re looking on all levels and outside. So I continue to wait.

Finally, one of the more polite police officers tells me they think they have him on the 600 level. That’s where our seats were, so that’s promising. We take the elevator up to the 500 level (as far up as it will go), and after a little confusion, I get to the center of the 600 level and see him: he’s all smiles, seated in a chair and chatting with the Guest Services people who are standing around him. Everyone had done their job, and we ended without any further mishaps. Dad was somewhat apologetic, but he really didn’t see what all the fuss was about. I didn’t tell this to mom as the situation was going on, but when we got home and told her all about it, her only response was that she would have killed him.

But then it was back to the car. The hotel was in Slidell, about thirty minutes away. Once in the room, he did say thank you for looking out for him, which is about as close of an apology as I could expect. The next day, on the way home, we stopped for gas just past Pensacola, where I found some mint/dark chocolate Kit Kats (which I’ve been looking for for months), and he bought a bag of them for me. An attempt to make up for the trouble from the night before? Maybe. At any rate, we stopped at Whataburger one more time for lunch in Mississippi, and the rest of the car trip back home was uneventful. And that concludes the 2019 football season for me. Twenty games in all, and I am quite happy to stay home for the next few weekends.

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