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Georgia has home edge in SEC championship
ATLANTA -- There's nothing neutral about the site of the Southeastern Conference championship game.
They might as well put some hedges around the field at the Georgia Dome. Or maybe they could rename the place Sanford Stadium West.
Georgia is playing for its first SEC title in 20 years -- and bringing a lot of its closest friends along for Saturday's game against Arkansas.
"It's almost a home game for us," receiver Terrence Edwards said.
The fourth-ranked Bulldogs (11-1) have to travel just 75 miles to play in the title game, while the 22nd-ranked Razorbacks (9-3) must fly across three states to reach Atlanta.
Both schools received 15,900 tickets, but the Razorbacks sold 2,200 from their allotment to Georgia. In addition, nearly all the remaining seats at the 72,000-capacity dome probably will be filled with fans of the home-state team.
"I'm sure that Georgia is going to have a lot of fans there," Arkansas linebacker Tony Bua said. "That's fine. None of that matters. We just have to go out and play our game, not their game."
Clearly, though, the dome is going to look a lot like the Bulldog Nation. Georgia fans are in a frenzy over their chance to witness the school's first SEC title since 1982, when Herschel Walker was still taking handoffs.
The Georgia ticket office refunded orders for some 30,000 tickets. Most of the school's allotment went to donors who had contributed at least $11,654 to the athletic program.
Meanwhile, some 200 students lined up outside Stegeman Coliseum in freezing temperatures after the school announced it had acquired extra tickets from Arkansas.
"I went by the Coliseum and it looked like a shanty town," offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb said. "It's amazing how many people were willing to stay out all night in 20-degree weather for a chance to get tickets. As a player, you like to see that kind of support."
The SEC championship game began in 1992, and the first two were held at Birmingham's Legion Field. Alabama played in both, enjoying a definite homefield advantage for back-to-back meetings against Florida, though the Gators managed to earn a split.
The title game took on more of a neutral feeling after moving to the Georgia Dome in 1994. Over the last eight years, Florida or Tennessee always represented the Eastern Division, five different schools got in from the West, and stadium loyalties were split pretty evenly.
This season, Georgia finally broke the Gator-Volunteer stranglehold in the East, clinching the division title on a fourth-and-15 touchdown pass that beat Auburn (and, as it turned out, kept the Tigers from winning the West).
For Bulldogs fans, this is a chance to howl.
"We hope to use that to our advantage," Stinchcomb said. "If we get the fan support we're expecting, obviously that could be detrimental to the other team's offense. They won't be able to hear their calls in the dome."
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt shrugged off the obvious advantage that goes to the Bulldogs playing so close to home. If anything, he's looking forward to the chance to impress some local recruits.
"We've been getting three or four players a year out of Georgia, so this isn't going to do anything but help us," he said. "They're probably going to have many more fans. That's OK. We've been doing OK on the road, and we're tickled to death to be in the SEC championship game."
Indeed, the Razorbacks have done just fine outside Arkansas. After losing in six overtimes at Tennessee, they won impressively in trips to Auburn (38-17) and South Carolina (23-0). Arkansas also beat Mississippi State and finished 3-1 on the road.
In addition, the Razorbacks have essentially been in a must-win situation since an Oct. 19 loss to Kentucky that left them 3-3 overall, just 1-3 in the SEC. They've won six in a row since then.
"I like the role of underdog. It puts more pressure on them," safety Ken Hamlin said. "After Kentucky, we knew we had to win every game. From then on, we had a mindset that it was a one-game playoff."