COLUMBIA, MO. – People here are calling Saturday night’s Georgia-Missouri game the most anticipated game in the history of Mizzou football.
That’s significant considering the Tigers have played some pretty big games.
But none of those games, the locals contend, created more buzz than the buildup there has been for tonight’s game. Missouri (1-0) plays host to the No. 7 Bulldogs (1-0) in its first game as a member of the SEC. The Tigers have belonged to the Big 12 — or its previous incarnations of the Big Eight and Big Six — since 1907.
So it’s, it’s …
“Huge!” said Chad Nicolet, a Missouri fan from Alton, Ill. Nicolet was beginning his “preparations” for the game early Friday afternoon with a beer in the Campus Bar and Grill on South 9th Street, along with his friends Josh Lynch and Arianna Lynch.
“It’s the historical significance, first of all, of coming into the SEC,” he explained. “It’s the No. 7 team in the country coming in. It’s the college football atmosphere. Honestly, what I want to know is why ‘GameDay’ is in College Station [Texas] and not here? You don’t get any bigger than this.”
Into the middle of this madness stroll the Bulldogs. For the first time since 1991, they’re playing somebody other than South Carolina in the conference opener. That they’re doing it against a frothing team and fan base is not ideal.
“It’s not the best draw, but it is what it is,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You’ve got to play them sooner or later, and you’ve got to play somebody first. I think no matter who you play first, it’s a game that means so much. Because it’s an Eastern Division game, it does mean a little bit more. All those things are important. It’s on the schedule. Let’s play it.”
That it happens to be a game with historical implications against a new conference member is, to them, trivial. Georgia comes in as the top-10 team, as the consensus pick to repeat as SEC East champions and as 2 1/2-point favorites. In short, the Bulldogs have a lot to lose.
“It’s unprecedented; we know that,” Georgia linebacker Christian Robinson said. “But we’re really trying to focus on going in there and treating it like any SEC game. We want to win this one so we can move on.”
The atmosphere promises to be intense. Under Gary Pinkel, “The Zou” has become known as a tough place to play. The Tigers have won two of their past three at home against ranked teams, beating No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010, while splitting with No. 6 Oklahoma State (loss) and No. 21 Texas (win) last year.
This one is just as tough a ticket. Missouri fans spoke of buying seats for $150 to $500.
“Our fans have been talking about it since March,” Pinkel said. “It’s huge. That place is going to be wild. All of that is great.”
Georgia fans think it’s great, too. Traditionally one of the better traveling teams in the SEC, the Bulldog Nation was in Missouri en force. UGA distributed 6,000 tickets to season-ticker holders, but thousands more have traveled here.
Columbia is located in the center of the state and has a small airport. So the majority of Georgia’s fans flew into St. Louis 100 miles to the east. Many others were coming in by way of Kansas City, Mo., 125 miles to the west. Hotel space is limited in Columbia, so many others were staying 30 miles south in the state capital, Jefferson City.
But all were making a best of it. Atlanta’s Brian Hoyt and four friends flew into St. Louis with plans to attend the Cardinals-Brewers game Friday night, Georgia-Missouri on Saturday and the Falcons-Chiefs on Sunday in Kansas City.
“It’s the ultimate guys’ trip,” Hoyt said. “It’s one of those things that went from from being a joke to, ‘No, let’s do this.’”
Some people made the long drive — Columbia is about 700 miles from Atlanta and a solid 12-hour ride. Most didn’t.
Dave Smith of Milledgeville usually drives his full-size RV to all of Georgia’s away games. But he, his wife and two friends from Dublin came by plane instead.
“It was just too far,” said Smith, eating pizza and drinking beer at the well-known local haunt, Shakespeare’s Pizza. “It’d take us two days to get out here and two days to get back. But we didn’t want to miss it. The significance of the game is huge. Probably bigger for them than for us.”