Spring football games don't take back seat in South

ATHENS, Ga. — There are three major sporting events taking center stage this week in Georgia.


There’s the Final Four in Atlanta, where a new NCAA men’s basketball champion will be crowned in the Georgia Dome on Monday night.

There’s the Masters Tournament, where players will start showing up this weekend at Augusta National Golf Club to prepare for golf’s ultimate major championship.

And there’s the G-Day spring football game on Saturday afternoon at Sanford Stadium.

You’d be surprised to know how many people rank that last intra-squad scrimmage as the most important of the three.

An estimated 44,000 fans – roughly the same number lucky enough to have badges to see a tournament round at the Masters – showed up last April to get an early glimpse at the reigning Southeastern Conference East champions.

A similar crowd (weather permitting) is expected this Saturday (1 p.m., CSS/ESPN3) to see for themselves if this team has the ingredients needed to get to the BCS title game that was so tantalizingly close last fall.

Will the talent-rich No. 1 offense overwhelm the rebuilt-from-almost-scratch defense? Who might be the new stars emerging to complement the established veterans for 2013? How will the new uniforms with the custom font and revamped Bulldog logo look in between the hedges?

“I’ve been pleased with what’s going on with spring ball to this point,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who expects a competitive scrimmage even if they’ll exclude kickoffs and punt coverage or any of the things that put players most at risk for unnecessary injuries. “When the ‘ones’ are playing, they’ll be going against the ‘ones,’ and the ‘twos’ will go against the ‘twos,’ which makes for a pretty even ball game.”

Coaches have long believed that spring camp is the most valuable time of year when coaches and players can install systems and work on whatever needs to be done without worrying about who the next opponent is. It’s time spent to focus solely on your own team – even if the newest toys from the latest recruiting class aren’t yet nestled in the fold.

While that intense off-season focus is most important for the program, it’s become an essential fix for devoted fans who can barely stand the summer months without America’s favorite game. The buildup to February’s signing day provides plenty of distraction (along with the NFL playoffs) in the weeks following the bowl conclusion. Then comes the spring game in fairly short order after that.

But once those scrimmages are done, college football generally disappears from view until the new season kicks off around Labor Day.

For that reason spring games – especially in the South, where fandom borders on religious fervor – have become increasingly embraced. Some like Alabama have even been nationally televised, with an average of more than 85,000 showing up the past three years to watch the Tide.

Ohio State drew a record 95,000 fans last year, proving football passion isn’t exclusive to the SEC.

South Carolina’s spring fever has grown as head ball coach Steve Spurrier has elevated the program – with attendance growing from 22,000 in 2010 to more than 34,000 last year. Gamecocks fans will have a chance to improve on that figure when the Garnet & Black spring game kicks off at 1 p.m. on April 13 (ESPN3).

Across the Palmetto state, Clemson will conduct its annual Orange & White scrimmage April 13 as well at 4 p.m. (ESPN3). A crowd of 28,000 showed up last year in Death Valley, but the Tigers are promising even bigger things in 2013.

What spring football does best is foster hope and renewal in fans. In games where you can’t lose, dreams run high for the upcoming season – and those dreams are justifiably large around here.

Last season for the first time in history – Georgia (12-2, No. 5), South Carolina (11-2, No. 8) and Clemson (11-2, No. 11) – all won bowl games to finish among the nation’s elite with at least 11 wins each. All three have legitimate aims at winning conference titles in 2013. All three have reasonable shots at competing for a BCS title.

And even rarer, all three will be able to determine the pecking order amongst each other with each team playing the other in 2013.

Clemson opens its schedule at home against Georgia and closes it on the road against rival South Carolina. The Bulldogs follow that much-anticipated opener by taking on the Gamecocks in Athens the very next week.

These are the games that will most define 2013 for each program. This is what they work for this spring.

“I want to leave a legacy as one of the all time greatest teams to ever come through the University of Georgia,” Georgia senior defensive lineman Garrison Smith said. “We’re going to have a lot of young guys coming through. Me being the lone senior on the defense, I would love to go out and bring a national championship to the University of Georgia and for Athens and the whole state of Georgia. Just to bring the title here would be some of the greatest history ever made.”

Similar proclamations and dreams can be heard in Columbia and Clemson.

The buildup all starts now.


GEORGIA: Saturday, 1 p.m. (CSS/ESPN3)

CLEMSON: April 13, 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

GEORGIA SOUTHERN: April 13, 1 p.m.

SOUTH CAROLINA: April 13, 1 p.m. (ESPN3)

GEORGIA TECH: April 19, 7:30 p.m.