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Georgia Tech looking for bigger crowds

Georgia Tech running back David Simms, left, celebrates his touchdown last Saturday with teammates.

Georgia Tech running back David Simms, left, celebrates his touchdown last Saturday with teammates.

ATLANTA -- Georgia Tech has given its fans plenty of reasons to get excited in the opening month of the season.

The Yellow Jackets are off to their best start since 2005 and ranked in the Top 25. They're leading the nation in all sorts of offensive categories, averaging nearly 60 points a game.

That's not enough to ensure a full house for the Atlantic Coast Conference opener against North Carolina.

Athletic director Dan Radakovich made a public plea for more fans to turn out Saturday, a sign of just how challenging it is for the Yellow Jackets to fill 55,000-seat Bobby Dodd Stadium in a faltering economy.

"When you have empty seats, everyone has a great idea about moving forward to get those seats filled," Radakovich said Tuesday, speaking after coach Paul Johnson held his regular weekly news conference. "We are not adverse to trying a lot of different ways to get people to experience Georgia Tech athletics, and football in particular."

He rattled off various seating plans. He gave out a toll-free number to reach the ticket office. He even repeated the forecast for the noon kickoff.

"It's supposed to be 76 degrees and sunny," Radakovich said. "We have a lot of great history and tradition at Georgia Tech. It's a fun atmosphere to come out and watch a college football game."

The atmosphere may be fun, but the Yellow Jackets (3-0) have long struggled to fill their stadium. In hindsight, the decision to add about 14,000 seats before the 2003 season -- mostly in a towering upper deck above the north end zone -- looks like a blunder, especially since the coach who pushed for the expansion, George O'Leary, left just as the new seats started going up.

The Yellow Jackets haven't sold out a game since they hosted Georgia in the 2009 finale. That unwanted streak is now at eight in a row after crowds of around 42,000 attended the first two contests this season against Western Carolina and Kansas, both played before huge swaths of empty seats.

There should be a better turnout for the Tar Heels (3-0, 1-0 ACC), but Radakovich said there were still nearly 10,000 available tickets as of Tuesday.

Georgia Tech isn't the only school having trouble filling seats -- Georgia's sellout streak at 92,000-seat Sanford Stadium ended last weekend -- but the attendance issue is particularly troublesome for the Atlanta school. The season ticket base is only 23,000, and there's just not enough fans willing to buy the rest unless the opponent happens to bring a large contingent of out-of-town fans.

The Yellow Jackets have long coped with being the second most-popular team in their own state and playing in a city with three major professional teams and numerous other entertainment options. The economic downturn has only made things worse for everyone. In addition, the campus just north of downtown Atlanta is not viewed as the classic setting for tailgating and socializing, which are such an important part of the college game in these parts.

Radakovich is doing his best to dispel that perception.

"If you walk around our campus, you'll see what a nice place it is. There's a lot of green on our campus, a lot of places to enjoy pregame festivities," he said. "With our location on the world's busiest road (Interstate 75-85, just east of the stadium), people don't always see that. They see Georgia Tech out a passenger-side window. But just take a drive through our campus, whether it's game day or not. You'll see what a really welcoming environment Georgia Tech is."

Johnson is hoping for a big crowd as the Yellow Jackets face their toughest test of the season.

"I know our players feed off that," he said.

North Carolina, which hasn't won in Atlanta since 1997, can't worry about Georgia Tech's attendance issues. The Tar Heels are expecting a hostile crowd -- no matter how many fans show up.

"It's a very challenging place to play," quarterback Bryn Renner said. "They have a great fan base and they're right on you and they're very loud. We've got to get used to the noise this week in practice and just stay focused and hopefully it'll be a good trip."