Washington quarterback Jake Browning, shown during a College Football Playoff semifinal game in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in 2016, will return to Atlanta to play Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff on Sept. 1.
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Chick-fil-A Kickoff expands its map for this year’s game

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, usually a regionally convenient meeting of ACC and SEC teams, found one side of this year’s matchup much farther away. 

The Washington Huskies will fly about 2,200 miles from Seattle to play Auburn in the Sept. 1 game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, marking the first time a Pac-12 team appears in Atlanta’s 10-year-old season-opening event.

“More often than not, we’re going to continue to do ACC-SEC,” said Gary Stokan, the president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., which runs the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. “It’s tough to get the Pac-12 to come all the way across the country.” 

This year proved to be an exception, Stokan said, because Washington needed a high-profile non-conference game, and its coach was familiar with the Atlanta event. 

“Back in 2016, I had been reading about Washington having problems with the media ripping them for their non-conference schedule because they played Portland State, Rutgers and (Idaho) that year,” Stokan recalled. “I saw (Washington coach) Chris Petersen at Pac-12 Media Days and said, ‘I can help you with your schedule. I can get Auburn in 2018.’” 

Petersen was interested, having had a good experience in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff at his previous job. He brought his Boise State team here in 2011 to open the season against Georgia. Boise State, the first team from outside the ACC or SEC to play in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, beat the Bulldogs 35-21 -- another signature win for Petersen’s formidable program. 

(Boise State returned to Atlanta to play another SEC team, Ole Miss, at the start of the 2014 season. Boise State lost that game, but by then Petersen had left for Washington.) 

Following Stokan’s discussion with Petersen at Pac-12 Media Days in July 2016, Stokan had contract talks with Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen and programming discussions with the TV networks that hold rights to SEC and Pac-12 games. 

Washington did some juggling of its preexisting 2018 schedule to clear a date, moving a game against North Dakota from Sept. 1 to Sept. 8 and a game against Nevada, which had been set for Sept. 8, to another year. 

Auburn, which played in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff in 2012 (vs. Clemson) and 2015 (vs. Louisville), already had made clear its interest in returning in 2018.

“This is a good recruiting base for them,” Stokan said. “We had Alabama coming in 2017, so Auburn wanted to come in ’18. It was a little easier to get the deal done with Auburn, obviously, than with Washington.” 

Washington sought and received one interesting concession. 

“They requested to keep the (Mercedes-Benz Stadium) roof closed for the game, because in Seattle they don’t practice in the same heat and humidity that Auburn will,” Stokan said. “So we put a term in the contract that we will have the roof closed.” 

On Nov. 3, 2016, the Auburn-Washington matchup was announced.

What no one knew at the time is that, less than two months after the announcement, Washington would be in Atlanta to play Alabama in a College Football Playoff semifinal game in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 31, 2016. The Huskies reached the playoffs that season despite the criticism of its non-conference schedule. Alabama defeated Washington 24-7 in the final college-football game played in the Georgia Dome. 

It also was unknowable when the Auburn-Washington matchup was set that the 2018 Chick-fil-A Kickoff would turn out to be Auburn’s third consecutive game in Atlanta. The Tigers closed last season with back-to-back losses at Mercedes-Benz Stadium: to Georgia in the SEC Championship game and to Central Florida in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Of the 13 Chick-fil-A Kickoff matchups played since the event began in 2008, 10 have pitted an SEC team vs. an ACC team. Two matched an SEC team vs. Boise State, and the other pitted an SEC team vs. a Big 12 team (Alabama vs. West Virginia in 2014). 

In addition to their geographic appeal for an Atlanta event, SEC and ACC teams are more likely to have scheduling flexibility for a neutral-site game because those leagues play eight-game conference schedules. The Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 play nine-game conference schedules.

Stokan had long sought a Pac-12 team before landing Washington for this year’s game. 

The game will be the first meeting between Auburn and Washington in football. Geography ensures that Auburn will have the vast majority of fans in the stands.

Washington is ranked No. 6 and Auburn No. 10 in the preseason coaches poll. Both teams are led by highly regarded quarterbacks: Washington’s Jake Browning (9,104 yards passing the past three seasons) and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (3,158 yards passing last season). 

“You’re talking about a top-10 opponent, one of the best quarterbacks in college football, one of the best running backs (Myles Gaskin),” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said of Washington. “Coach Petersen -- his name speaks for itself. He’s one of the best coaches there is.

“Like I tell our staff, this is a good measuring stick for where this team is the first game.”

In preseason media surveys, Washington is picked to win the Pac-12, and Auburn is picked to finish second behind Alabama in the rugged SEC West. ESPN Analytics ranks the Chick-fil-A Kickoff the most important game of college football’s opening weekend in terms of potential College Football Playoff ramifications. 

“There’s a lot of chips on the table this first game,” Stokan said.

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