Each fall Saturday, Georgia players sit in the locker room with a set of pads in front, a jersey draped behind and music blaring through each ear. It’s a normal pregame ritual to prepare before an opening kick, but sometimes that moment gets an inkling sweeter.
A sense of excitement disperses throughout the room. Their heads may bop a bit more forcefully to the latest rap hit, too, when the game means something extra.
That doesn’t usually happen on the season’s first week, but there’s an aberration in the coming weeks: Georgia opens the season with an SEC contest. The Bulldogs’ first official kickoff is at Vanderbilt on Aug. 31 (7:30 p.m., SECN).
“It’s always fun to get out there with an SEC game,” senior safety J.R. Reed said Tuesday at SEC Media Days, his second consecutive season representing Georgia at the event. “It’s like the season starts a little bit faster. Your adrenaline starts rushing and you start jumping a little bit quicker. I can’t wait for it.”
Georgia hasn’t had such a luxury in recent seasons as it opened the 2017 and 2018 contests against Appalachian State and Austin Peay. Georgia’s last opener against a Power 5 program came against North Carolina in 2016, although those occasions against premier opponents will become more frequent as the Bulldogs bolster their scheduling efforts.
Georgia last opened the season with an SEC opponent in 1995, beating South Carolina 42-23 at Sanford Stadium.
Based on recent history, the Vanderbilt contest isn’t one the Bulldogs are taking lightly, either. Georgia lost to Vanderbilt in 2016, head coach Kirby Smart’s first season, 17-16. But the Bulldogs are in search of a three-game winning streak after consecutive victories of 45-14 and 41-13.
“Vanderbilt is a great team,” junior offensive tackle Andrew Thomas said. “They challenge us every year with a big defensive front. I’m excited for them and ready.”
Vanderbilt has a new look offensively after the departure of quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Despite a new signal caller, there are a few Commodore names that Georgia knows well: Kalija Lipscomb, Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Jared Pinkney. That trio serves as the main offensive weapons for Vanderbilt, some of whom have caused problems for Georgia and teams across the conference.
“I feel like I’ve played against those guys for ten years,” Smart said. “They seem like they’ve been there forever. They do a really good job getting those guys the ball.
“We go on the road to Nashville to play very well-coached Derek Mason football team. I have tremendous respect for those guys and the job they do, and our guys will be focused on that game.”
Despite consecutive blowout victories by the Bulldogs, Lipscomb had 55 receiving yards on three catches in 2017. Vaughn followed with a 79-yard rushing performance in 2018.
“We have to fly around to the ball, especially with guys that size,” Reed said. “We can gang tackle to stop those guys. That helps. … Vandy’s going to be Vandy, so they’ll do certain things. We have to play our base defense and do our job.”
Georgia will nearly have a home-field advantage at Vanderbilt Stadium as over half of the stands are decked out in red-and-black for each visit to Nashville. But nearly every season, the opening game serves as a feeler to ease a new-look roster into game action. That won’t be the case to a full extent this season, however.
That opportunity comes in the following two contests against Murray State and Arkansas State.
But as talk about championship aspirations and Alabama hung heavy across media interviews at SEC Media Days, there’s an excitement for a game six weeks ahead that sits on Georgia’s mind.
“There’s a lot of adrenaline (for this type of game),” Thomas said. “But once the ball snaps, it’s just like practice.”