5 things to know about the first football matchup at SunTrust Park

Kennesaw State set to baptize SunTrust Park in ways of football

They began this season at the site formerly known as Turner Field. They’ll end the regularly scheduled part of their program at SunTrust Park.

So, there’s the new Kennesaw State football recruiting pitch: “Come to KSU – it’s a Big South championship wrapped in a baseball fantasy camp.” 

The Owls will emerge from the Braves dugout Saturday afternoon and take on Jacksonville State in the first football game played at SunTrust Park. It’s a quirky little twist to a thus-far very good season, a chance to take a high-achieving, low-profile FCS program and give it a big, if somewhat out-of-character, stage.  

“That’s the basis of what this game’s about – doing something unique,” Kennesaw State coach Brian Bohannon said. “Having a chance to continue to brand our program. It’s very historical. When you look at the start of this program and the senior class, everything has kind of been about making history.”

Should be a cool experience. Otherwise, Bohannon is not crazy about playing a difficult out-of-conference game this late, when his Owls have some serious getting-whole to do before the start of the FCS playoffs.

Because this is far more than an exhibition, more than a lark. Why, it could be argued that KSU is facing a tougher opponent than Georgia (that would be UMass) on this mid-November Saturday.

“Can I just no-comment that one and let it ride?” Bohannon said as he laughed. “We got our hands full, I can promise you that. I’ll let (Georgia coach) Kirby (Smart) worry about the rest.”

It’s certainly more a meeting of competitive equals, between the No. 2-ranked team in FCS (KSU) and the No. 6-ranked Jacksonville State.

This is a rematch of last season’s playoff meeting, when the Owls upset Jacksonville State, scoring 14 consecutive points in the second half to win 17-7. And, more pertinent is the jostling for a favorable seeding going into the 24-team FCS playoffs. Higher seeds get to play at home. Eight teams get a first-round bye. All that will be an undercurrent to a football game in a big-league baseball park.

After losing the opening game to Georgia State 24-20, at the Panthers home field (the former Turner Field), KSU has run off nine consecutive, winning its second consecutive Big South Conference title along the way. And none of them have been close. Average margin of victory during the winning streak: Nearly 41 points. The Owls rank second in the country in both scoring offense and defense.

They’ve been playing football at Kennesaw State for only four seasons, and seem to be getting rather good at it. And what a shrewd move it has been to patiently bring itself along in FCS rather than try to rush into playing with the big boys. The Owls are right where they belong, and have very quickly become a relative big deal.  

It’s also a program that aspires to grow not just its own reputation, but that of a university. As an assistant down in Statesboro, Bohannon got to see up close how a then-FCS championship program could build another layer of pride and sense of self at Georgia Southern. So, why not Kennesaw State, too? 

“When you see the “G” or the “GT,” everyone knows it,” Bohannon said, referring, of course, to Georgia and Georgia Tech. “When you see that KS, we want it to be the same way. That’s Kennesaw State, man. They play some ball. It’s a heck of a school. Come check it out. That’s really what it was all about.”

If it takes playing a football game in a baseball stadium to get you to notice, so be it.

Certainly, count the experience memorable for this first generation of players. “The chance to open up at Turner Field and close out at SunTrust Park – that’s stuff you talk to your kids and grandkids about,” Bohannon said. 

During the playoff meeting last season, as Jacksonville State held his prodigious offense out of the end zone in the first half, Bohannon remembers yelling into his headset, “I swear, there’s 13 of them on defense.”

“They could just run so well and were so athletic,” he said.

About here it might be good to remind the coach that playing this same team at SunTrust Park doesn’t mean his offense can take a bat into play, regardless of how handy that would be.     

About the Author

Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer
Steve Hummer writes sports features for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He covers a wide range of sports and topics.