Atlanta—The concept, as Gary Stokan saw it, was a simple one.
The year was 2008 and the President/CEO of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl was not the least bit bashful about his ambition for the game. He saw Atlanta as the college football capital of the world and wanted the city to host a BCS National Championship game. But at the end of the day, if that couldn’t happen he would try to do the next best thing.
Stokan believed very strongly that college football should not ease into its regular season—the best in all of sports—with a series of cupcakes and blowouts. The sport needed to begin its season with a splash and a celebration. The sport needed to take a page out of NASCAR’s marketing manual and begin with what Stokan would affectionately call “The Daytona 500 of college football.”
So a decade ago the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game was born. That first game would match Alabama, in its second year under Nick Saban, and Clemson, coming off a 9-4 season.
“The SEC-ACC matchup was a natural and it was our hope that the college football world would take notice of what we were trying to do,” said Stokan.
Alabama won the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff game 34-10. Saban liked it so much that the Crimson Tide came back the following year to play Virginia Tech. Saban’s third Alabama team beat the Hokies 34-24 and used it as a springboard to an undefeated season and a national championship. Now you know the rest of the story.
Saban has won five national championships in the past nine years and the Chick-fil-A Kickoff played a role in it. Alabama has played in the game five times, more than any other school.
Coaches started to notice what they were doing in Atlanta. They liked the exposure for their programs in the always-strong Georgia recruiting base. A win would get their team into the national championship discussion. And since it was at the top of the schedule, there was plenty of time to recover from a loss.
Cities around the country also were watching.
That’s why, on the first weekend of the 2018 regular season, in addition to Atlanta, we have neutral site games in Arlington, Tex. (LSU-Miami), Charlotte (Tennessee-West Virginia), Orlando (Alabama-Louisville), and Houston (Ole Miss-Texas Tech).
But once again the first, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, remains the best as on Saturday No. 6 Washington and No. 9 Auburn play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. It’s the best game of the opening weekend and honestly, it’s not even close. Consider:
**–ESPN puts together a Football Power Index that ranks games based on their importance to the College Football Playoff. That index ranks this as the third-most important game of the season when it comes to impacting the CFP.
**–This is the only Top 10 match-up on the first weekend of the season.
**–You like defense? This is your game. Washington had the No. 5 scoring defense in the country last season, giving up only 16.1 points per game. They gave up only 100.8 yards rushing per game, which was No. 4 in the country. Washington returns nine starters from that unit.
Auburn had one of the best, if not THE best defensive lines in the country last season. This group is even better.
**–You like offense? This is your game. Both teams have elite quarterbacks.
Washington’s Jake Browning brought his team to the national semifinals versus Alabama in Atlanta in 2016. With a year remaining he is already Washington’s all-time leader in touchdown passes with 78. He completed 68.5 percent of his attempts last season.
Jarrett Stidham, the transfer from Baylor, had a good first season at Auburn, finishing second in the SEC in passing yards with 3,158. He’ll be given more freedom in the offense by coordinator Chip Lindsey. Last season he set an Auburn record for completions (246) while being successful on 66.5 percent of his attempts.
**–This is a monster game for Washington. In fact, it’s a monster game for the entire Pac-12 conference, which needs some good news on the inter-sectional front. The Pac-12 went 1-8 (ouch) in bowl games last season. If Washington wins just two hours from the Auburn campus it would probably pay big dividends with the CFP selection committee.
**–This is a monster game for Auburn. Consider this: Auburn has to play Georgia and Alabama, both top five teams, on the road this season. Let’s say Auburn beats Georgia but loses to Alabama in the season finale to finish 11-1. The Tigers could be in the same position Alabama was in last season with the best “loss” of the teams being considered. The committee was looking for a fourth team and Alabama was there with only one loss.
Sold? You should be. The bottom line is we’re going to be talking about this game for the rest of the season.
That, said Stokan, was always the idea.
RANKING THE NEUTRAL SITE GAMES
1—Washington vs. Auburn (Atlanta): Auburn trying to break a two-game losing streak at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
2—LSU vs. Miami (Arlington, Sunday): LSU needs a win because on Sept. 15 it goes to Auburn.
3—Tennessee vs. West Virginia (Charlotte): First game for new Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt.
4—Alabama vs. Louisville (Orlando): Alabama’s quarterback questions start to get answered.
5—Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech (Houston): First team to 50 wins.