To grow up playing football in the South is to hope to play college football in the South. But not everyone realizes that goal. For many southerners, the quest for a Football Bowl Subdivision scholarship leads to distant places, such as the University at Buffalo, which will be taking five Georgia natives back home when it plays the Bulldogs in Sanford Stadium in Athens at 12:20 p.m. Saturday.
"Georgia is not a secret anymore," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said of the state's high school talent base. "Atlanta with the airport and the accessibility for people to come from just about anywhere in the United States to have a direct flight from Atlanta and go recruit and get out of there. It just makes sense for time and for what it might cost to do that. Everybody is in the state. Everybody is in Atlanta, and everybody is trying to find some Georgia boys to help them win, so it's not a shock to see them all the way in Buffalo."
Starting wideout and punt returner Cordero Dixon grew up 50 miles away from Athens in Suwanee. Backup wideout Devon Hughes hails from Tyrone, 90 miles to the southwest. It's about an hour commute (not accounting for traffic) from Atlanta, the home base of starting cornerback Najja Johnson. Quarterback Tony Daniel, who holds on place kicks, grew up 100 miles west in Hiram. The family of reserve linebacker Kendall Roberson can bolt up Route 316 and make it to Athens from Decatur in 80 minutes.
UB's Georgia natives are acutely aware of the Bulldog culture. College football fever permeates the South. But not all of them grew up avid fans of what they all refer to as UGa.
"A fan of Georgia? I always liked Florida State," Dixon said. "That was my favorite college team when I was a young kid."
Said Daniel, explaining he had little choice since his father was raised in Knoxville: "I grew up a Tennessee fan."
Added Hughes: "I wouldn't say I was a fan but I watched them and supported them just because they were the hometown team."
In terms of the football matchup, this qualifies as a long reach for UB. Georgia, the defending SEC champion, opens the season ranked sixth in the Associated Press poll. At least three Bulldogs are expected to go in the top 50 of the NFL draft including - if he declares - junior quarterback and Heisman hopeful Aaron Murray.
But games against the likes of Georgia and, in the past, Penn State, Wisconsin, Auburn and Tennessee, can help to convince recruits that Buffalo's the right place for them. One or two games a year against BCS schools trumps none at all.
"It's a good opportunity to just go down in Georgia and play where you played high school football," Dixon said. "I played in the Georgia Dome, but that's not like playing in a college stadium at Georgia."
"It's an excellent opportunity to come back home and play in front of family and friends," Johnson said. "It's definitely on my bucket list to play in Sanford Stadium. I'm looking forward to it, but at the end of the day UGa is still our opponent, and I'm looking forward to going down there and winning."
They've all been scrambling for tickets, trying to accommodate family and friends and former coaches. The demand is heavy at South Paulding High, where Daniel became one of the first Spartans to earn a FBS scholarship.
"So it's exciting for them to get to come and see me in a big stadium against a team they grew up cheering for their whole life," he said.
The hedges. The heat. The humidity. Sanford Stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
"Just to play at home is definitely a dream come true," Hughes said. "Just to play in front of the family. I never thought I'd be able to go back to Georgia and play a college football game. So that's going to be a real good time."
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