ATLANTA - The Georgia Bulldogs will climb aboard their buses Friday and head to an Atlanta-area hotel, just as they do before every home game.
The following day, they'll walk into the stadium through a cauldron of red-clad fans, just as they do between the hedges.
A neutral site? Hardly.
The 13th-ranked Bulldogs will clearly feel at home when they meet No. 3 LSU in Saturday's Southeastern Conference championship game at the Georgia Dome.
"I don't think neutral has anything to do with it," said Andrew Whitworth, the star of LSU's offensive line. "This is a pure Georgia game."
While the Tigers are the designated home team, they know that most of the fans - two-thirds or more, if past games are any indication - will be wearing red and black. Come on, the game is being played at the GEORGIA Dome, for crying out loud.
"It's a Georgia home game, just like it was the last time we played them there," Whitworth said. "It's going to be fun, it's going to be a challenge. That's what we look forward to."
The SEC held its first two championships at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala., but the game moved to Atlanta's 70,000-seat indoor stadium in 1994 and has been there ever since. With a huge airport just 15 minutes away, plentiful hotel rooms within walking distance and a massive convention center right next door to the dome, the league has shown no inclination to consider another city for its signature event.
Atlanta had a true neutral feel for the first eight title games (even though it's closer and more convenient for fans of the Eastern Division winner). That all changed in 2002 when the Bulldogs reached the championship for the first time, transforming the Georgia Dome into Sanford Stadium West for a 30-3 rout of Arkansas.
Georgia (9-2) has kept up its winning ways, getting back to the championship game for the third time in four years. The dome-field advantage didn't have much impact in 2003, when LSU blew out the Bulldogs 34-13.
"We had a lot of Georgia fans there, but for some reason they weren't making any noise," said Ray Gant, a defensive lineman for the Bulldogs. "The LSU fans must have something in their water."
Indeed, most Georgia players said they barely noticed that significantly more fans were wearing red and black than gold and purple for the game two years ago. Maybe it was because LSU put together such a dominating performance on its way to claiming a share of the national championship. Maybe it was because the Tiger faithful were just a lot more raucous than their Bulldog counterparts.
Georgia safety Tra Battle is still trying to get the ringing out of his ears from playing at Tiger Stadium during the '03 regular season.
"If we were going against any other fans besides LSU fans, I think we would have an advantage," the junior said. "But when we went to LSU my freshman year, that was the most hostile environment I've ever been in my life. It was absolutely crazy. Even with the difference in the number of fans for this game, the LSU folks can hold their own. It probably equals out."
Georgia coach Mark Richt likes playing so close to home - Atlanta is only about 75 miles from the school's campus - but doesn't sense that the rest of the SEC believes the Bulldogs have an unfair advantage in the title game.
"We've got to win it a few times," Richt said. "If we lose every time, I don't think anyone will be worried about it."
While the schools receive an equal number of tickets, it's the remainder that tilts the crowd heavily in Georgia's favor. But LSU should have enough fans - at least 20,000 - to disrupt communications when the Bulldogs have the ball, according to Richt.
"If we make big plays, it's going to be loud on our behalf. If they make big plays, their fans are going to be loud," he said. "Our fans can be 10 times as loud, but it really doesn't matter after a certain point. You've just got to be loud enough to cause problems."
The Georgia Dome was a truly neutral locale when Florida and Tennessee dominated the East, with one school or the other claiming the title in the first decade of divisional play. But the balance of power has clearly shifted toward Athens, beginning with the school's 2002 championship - its first SEC title since 1982.
"Nobody was even discussing this when we weren't in the game," Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley said. "Now that we're playing in the game every year, it's kind of an issue."
Whitworth is one of those who believes the championship game should move around. Every now and then, he would like LSU to have a chance to play a little closer to its campus, though Hurricane Katrina has eliminated any immediate talk of the game being moved to another logical city, New Orleans.
"They need to mix it up each year," Whitworth said. "Atlanta is a great place, of course. But why can't they mix it up? Let's give some other teams a chance to have the home-field advantage."
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