Atlanta again has a big place in college football season

Another college football season kicks off Saturday in Atlanta, which again will be a prime destination for the sport.

The Chick-fil-A Kickoff game between Alabama and Duke at Mercedes-Benz Stadium helps launch a season that ultimately will hinge to a significant degree on what happens in Atlanta. The SEC Championship game here Dec. 7 likely will determine at least one spot in the College Football Playoff. And a playoff semifinal in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on Dec. 28 will determine half of the matchup for the national championship game.

“Most definitely, we are maintaining our ‘Capital of College Football’ name this season,” said Peach Bowl Inc. president and CEO Gary Stokan, who long ago gave Atlanta that moniker.

He proudly noted that “ESPN and CBS and Forbes have all called us that” in reports, based not only on the big games and big followings here, but also on the College Football Hall of Fame being located in downtown Atlanta.

Atlanta, which hosted college football's national championship game for the 2017 season and a semifinal game in 2016, will host a semi for the second time this season. The other semi will be played in the Fiesta Bowl in Glendale, Ariz., with the Peach and Fiesta winners meeting in New Orleans on Jan. 13 for the national title.

If all goes as preseason forecasts envision, Saturday's game could be the first of as many as three in Atlanta for Alabama this season. A media survey pegged the Crimson Tide as a heavy favorite to win the SEC Western Division and, beyond that, the SEC Championship game. And the preseason Associated Press and coaches' polls have Alabama No. 2 nationally, which portends a playoff semifinal berth in Atlanta or Glendale if the early rankings prove accurate.

“I know that is what (Alabama coach) Nick Saban’s goal is, to play here in the SEC Championship game after playing here in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff and then to play in our semifinal Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl,” said Stokan, whose organization runs both the Kickoff game and the Peach Bowl.  “I think when you look at the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the preseason polls – Clemson, Alabama and Georgia (in that order) – we’re sitting pretty looking at our semifinal game.”

The preseason polls will have no bearing on the College Football Playoff matchups months from now, of course. But the Peach Bowl will draw either the Nos. 1 and 4 teams or the Nos. 2 and 3 teams in the selection committee’s Dec. 8 rankings.

Saturday’s game, meanwhile, will mark the 15th time Alabama has played in Atlanta under Nick Saban, the Crimson Tide coach since 2007. Alabama is 13-1 in those games, winning 12 in a row here since a loss to Tim Tebow-quarterbacked Florida in the 2008 SEC Championship game, and is a 33-1/2 point favorite against Duke. A frequent participant in season-opening neutral-site games, Alabama is 5-0 in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff.

“I think it’s great from a program-exposure standpoint,” Saban said during a news conference in Tuscaloosa this week, shown on the Crimson Tide’s website. “We’ve had a lot of games in Atlanta; we’ve had some in Dallas; we’ve had other games in other places that has given the program a lot of exposure, which I think is really important.”

Stokan believes other factors that have helped lure Alabama to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff so often include the event’s proximity to a rich recruiting territory, lucrative payouts (Bama will get $4.5 million for Saturday’s game) and the competitive benefits of a high-profile opener. And Saban’s record in Atlanta “probably doesn’t hurt either,” Stokan conceded.

Atlanta's place in the college football landscape seems secure. The SEC Championship game has been played here every year since 1994 and has eight years to go on its current contract with Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The College Football Playoff will hold a semifinal game in the Peach Bowl once every three years through the 2025 season at least. The Chick-fil-A Kickoff has hosted 14 games in 11 years since its inception and next year will encompass two weekends to fit in three games (Florida State vs. West Virginia, Georgia vs. Virginia and Auburn vs. North Carolina).

While there is a clear recent trend toward colleges scheduling more high-profile home-and-home non-conference series – a response to declining attendance at on-campus games across the country – Stokan argues that Atlanta’s neutral-site game will be unaffected.

“If you look at our matchups long-term – we’ve got three games in 2020; we’ve got Alabama-Miami in 2021, Georgia Tech-Clemson and Georgia-Oregon in ’22, Georgia-Clemson in ’24 – I don’t think we’re going to have a problem,” Stokan said.