Moments after Sony Michel darted down the sideline for a 27-yard touchdown to give Georgia a 54-48 Rose Bowl win and a spot in the national championship game, it was pure pandemonium on Broad Street.
As drivers made their way through the blocks of downtown Athens, horns were honked incessantly and some even blared the Bulldogs’ fight song on their stereo systems.
The pedestrians were just as raucous. Georgia students and alumni were sprinting down the sidewalks with arms raised in the air and the loud screams ensued. When they had to wait at a crosswalk, it was only more celebration – groups of friends engaged in bear hugs and the sense of elation was palpable.
“Go Dawgs! I can’t believe this,” said a driver who engaged in conversation with a pedestrian as he sat at a stoplight.
A few blocks outside the hustle-and-bustle of downtown, the university’s chapel bell could be heard. It has been a long-standing tradition to ring the bell after a victory, but there hasn’t been an occasion this special in over three decades.
The heartbreaking moment of the 2012 SEC Championship and the numerous nine-to-10 win seasons to follow were officially out of the minds of Bulldog fans. Now, only 60 minutes stand between Georgia and its greatest desire – a national title. To celebrate, the line to ring the ceremonious bell stretched to the intersection of Broad Street and Herty Drive.
Georgia sophomore student Josh Neal was gathered with his friends at the Beta Upsilon Chi fraternity house, but he knew exactly what he would do after Michel crossed the pylon – run to the bell.
“It’s so exciting, because I saved ringing the chapel bell for something completely special,” he said. “I rang it for the first time when I got accepted to the University of Georgia, and now again for us going to the national championship. It’s just an awesome experience, because it’s something so sacred.”
During the game, nearly every restaurant and bar had fans huddled around a massive screen. Even if you weren’t inside, you could hear announcers Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit as you walked the streets via loudspeaker.
The watch parties were aplenty, but the UGA Alumni Association hosted a gathering which brought out unique emotions for those that experienced the last national title. Inside the Live Wire Athens, hundreds of Bulldog alumni and students sat at tables to experience the rollercoaster of emotions that come with a back-and-forth shootout.
Whether it be the 14-point halftime deficit or the third-quarter comeback surge, the Georgia fans of young and old were persistently loud – just as it would be at Sanford Stadium. They would scream for their defense, and arms would even twirl in the air to the rhythm of the infamous chant when place-kicker Rodrigo Blankenship would boot his kickoffs.
“I was glad to be around people that would think the same as you do – win or lose,” said Diane O’Neal, a 1989 graduate who is married to an Auburn fan. O’Neal and her spouse made the trip from Orlando, Florida, to the Peach Bowl in Atlanta, then to Athens to join in on the festivities. “I didn’t expect this, but you hope for it then have the thought that Georgia never gets here.”
The hopes for Georgia looked bleak in the early stages, and the emotions of the assembled fans were present. Some had doubt and skepticism due to seeing the fourth-ranked defense allow 31 first-half points. Oklahoma featured Heisman winner Baker Mayfield and he was in the process of picking the Bulldogs apart.
But as Georgia put up points to close the half, a select few believed the Bulldogs would revert to form. And that they did; only allowing one defensive touchdown in the final 30 minutes of regulation.
“Georgia is a second-half team,” said senior student Summer Simmons, who highlighted the third-down stop by Roquan Smith, her favorite player, as a key play. “You think all right, it’s fine and you have to hold on. You have to stay strong, and now I don’t even know what this moment is like. To have your school go, it’s wild.”
Georgia’s first trip to the Rose Bowl in 75 years turned out to be an instant classic, and the stress (soon-turned elation) was at an all-time high for one alumnus who was a student when the Bulldogs claimed their last title.
Bill Parker, a 1985 graduate who was a freshman at Georgia when Vince Dooley led his team to the 1980 national title, spent nearly the entire overtime on his feet and his hands perched atop his head. He was one of many at unease, and he was unsure whether his Bulldogs could squeeze it out.
That was until his wish was received. He and his friends watched Oklahoma place-kicker Austin Seibert prepare to kick a 27-yard field goal and had one result in mind.
“Block that kick!” Parker and his ensemble screamed.
Lorenzo Carter used his vertical and leaped in the air to deflect Seibert’s try, setting up the Michel wildcat run to cement the semifinal victory. Parker stood in front of the television screen, pumped his arms in the air and allowed his friends to huddle him.
Parker experienced a long-awaited thrill and has hopes of making the trip to Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Jan. 8.
“We’re going to play for it again,” he said. “It’s amazing. Oh, it’s amazing. This is what you dream of as a Georgia fan, and it’s so long overdue.”