On Thursday night, a long blue carpet that ran from the atrium doors of Atlanta’s College Football Hall of Fame into the facility’s event space—a replica football field—was star-studded with University of Georgia and Notre Dame luminaries, who gave predictions for the upcoming game in Athens and waxed poetic on all things college football.
Two Georgia football greats—Herschel Walker, the most decorated player in Bulldogs history, and Vince Dooley, the only national championship-winning coach in program history—joined former Heisman trophy winner, NFL star, and Notre Dame legend Tim Brown to take turns speaking to the media during the “Return the Favor” event. The invitation-only gathering was organized by several Georgia legislators and Coca-Cola executives in appreciation of how Notre Dame treated the Bulldogs faithful when the two teams played in South Bend in September 2017. Georgia left town after that game with a 20-19 victory during then-freshman quarterback Jake Fromm’s first career start.
The 2017 game was only the second time the two storied programs have met. The first was the 1981 Sugar Bowl for the national championship, in which the undefeated Bulldogs, coached by Dooley, won 17-10 thanks in part to running back Walker, the game’s MVP. Saturday’s will be the just third meeting in the 150 year history of college football, and a lot is at stake as the 7th-ranked Fighting Irish make their very first visit to Sanford Stadium to face the 3rd-ranked Georgia.
“Notre Dame’s brand is just magical, so having them coming between the hedges is really something you dream about,” said Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity. “To be able to get a team of this caliber and this brand [playing on our home field] just speaks volumes.”
Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium will be just one of historic stadiums where Notre Dame has competed. “We’ve been to Yankee Stadium, to Fenway Park, and we’re going to Lambeau [Field] next year,” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “This is the sort of venue where we love to come in to play. We are really excited about it.”
And thanks to the addition of 500 temporary seats, part of an agreement Georgia made when the two teams established the home-and-home series in 2014, this game is expected to draw the largest crowd in Georgia football history—more than 93,000 fans.
Dooley, who wore his signature red tie and a lapel pin that combines the U.S. flag, Georgia state flag, and the iconic Georgia “G” logo, spoke about the recent re-naming of the stadium’s field. “It was an honor to have the field named after me,” he said, “but what was really special about that is sharing it with the ones that are responsible for it, my football players.”
Walker, one of those said players, emphasized the importance of Saturday’s match-up by reminding that the winner “[has] a good chance to be in the College Football Playoff.” Neither the Bulldogs nor the Fighting Irish have won a national title in more than three decades.
But Walker knows a rare occasion when he sees one. “As far as being a football game it’s exciting, but you’re going to see two good programs and two well coached teams,” he said. “You’re going to see two teams that are big, fast, and can run.”