On the set of College GameDay last season (l-r): Desmond Howard, Rece Davis, Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit. (Photo by Allen Kee / ESPN Images)

Atlanta’s ‘bookend’ role in college football season attracts ESPN

Rece Davis believes Atlanta will host the best matchup of the coming college football season — twice.

Alabama and Florida State start the season in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 2, and Davis, host of ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” show, looks for the same teams to return to the same stadium for the College Football Playoff championship game Jan. 8.

“You’ll see Alabama-Florida State in September, and you’ll see them again in January,” Davis said while in Atlanta for an ESPN college football production seminar this week.

About 300 ESPN staffers involved in coverage of the sport, on and off camera, gathered at the College Football Hall of Fame downtown Tuesday and Wednesday to make preparations in the city that will play a large role in the season ahead.

Predictions weren’t part of the meeting agenda, but Davis willingly made one in a conversation with a reporter in the Hall of Fame lobby.

“I absolutely think so,” he said of an Alabama-Florida State rematch for the national title. “The loser (of the first game) won’t have any room to struggle, but they are the two best teams.”

College GameDay — ESPN’s weekly Saturday-morning program that has become part of the culture of college football — will kick off its 25th season of road shows by broadcasting from a set outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Sept. 2, the show’s first visit to Atlanta since 2012. Davis will be joined by four returning members of the GameDay cast — analysts Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and David Pollack — and one newcomer, reporter Maria Taylor.

The choice of Atlanta as the site for the three-hour show reflects the magnitude of the Alabama-Florida State matchup, which is billed as one of the better season-opening games in college football history, as well as the tidy storyline of starting GameDay’s season in the city where the national championship will be determined four months later on ESPN.

“The idea that we can bookend the season in Atlanta (was appealing),” said Drew Gallagher, College GameDay’s coordinating producer. “We’re looking forward to spending a lot of time here.”

“It’s kind of cool to see the season, in my eyes, begin and end here because this is becoming the epicenter of college football,” said Taylor, who grew up in Alpharetta and played basketball and volleyball at the University of Georgia.

She replaces Samantha Ponder as reporter on College GameDay and as sideline reporter on ABC’s “Saturday Night Football” games. Ponder moved to a new role as host of ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown” show.

The Alabama-Florida State game, which will air on ABC, will be the second event in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and the first college football game there. Both teams are expected to be ranked in the preseason top five.

“It’s going to be huge,” Herbstreit said. “Both teams realistically have a chance to chase for a national championship. I think the fact that the game’s here, where college football has such passion, really adds to it. … With a new stadium and that passion this market provides, I’m expecting an off-the-charts scene in that game.”

The game will be followed two days later by a second Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Mercedes-Benz Stadium: Georgia Tech vs. Tennessee (on ESPN). After that, the stadium has four more college football games on its schedule this season: the SEC Championship game, the Celebration Bowl, the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and the national title game.

College GameDay’s Sept. 2 show will be its 11th from Atlanta, dating to its first visit here in 1998. The most recent was on Dec. 1, 2012, preceding Alabama’s win over Georgia in the SEC Championship game.

The show’s set will be in a different location this time, moving from Centennial Olympic Park to International Plaza just outside the new stadium. Ongoing renovation in the park and the backdrop of the stadium drove the change.

“We will lock in content plans as we get a little closer, but we’ll try to find ways to spotlight the city, give a sense of place,” Gallagher said.

If discussion during the show touches on whether Alabama-vs.-Florida State will be repeated in the national championship game, don’t expect Howard to agree with Davis’ prediction.

“No, I just don’t think those things go as scripted that way,” said Howard, the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner at Michigan. “That’s the only logic. They don’t go as scripted.”

“That’s so scripted it’s unscripted,” Davis replied.

“That’s why he’s the host,” said Howard, laughing.

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