The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl will feature the Heisman Trophy winner — and the runner-up, too. It will have the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, as well as the No. 4 team. It is expected to draw a television audience of more than 20 million viewers.
The game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 28 between SEC champion LSU and Big 12 champion Oklahoma underscores how inclusion in the College Football Playoff has transformed a 52-year-old Atlanta bowl that once struggled for survival. The Peach Bowl serves as a playoff semifinal this season, with the winner advancing to the national championship game in New Orleans.
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No. 1 LSU (13-0) is quarterbacked by landslide Heisman winner Joe Burrow. No. 4 Oklahoma (12-1) is quarterbacked by Heisman runner-up Jalen Hurts. The matchup is a far cry from the Peach Bowls of the 1970s and 1980s that drew middling teams and small crowds to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
“It is kind of amazing that a bowl game that in 1985 was ready to go out of business, if not for the city’s business leaders keeping it alive, now hosts No. 1 against No. 4,” Peach Bowl Inc. president and CEO Gary Stokan said. “Being part of the playoff has elevated our game. We have come a long way, baby.”
The Peach Bowl started in 1968 and gained momentum in the 1990s by moving indoors at the Georgia Dome and signing contracts with the ACC and SEC to ensure regionally attractive matchups. The bowl got another boost in December 1996 when it secured its first — and still only — title sponsor, Chick-fil-A.
But the bowl didn’t reach the upper tier of college football’s postseason until 2013, when the College Football Playoff was created and six bowls were selected as rotating hosts of the semifinals: the Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach.
That required the Peach to abandon its ACC-vs.-SEC format, but it put the Atlanta game on equal standing, at least as far as the CFP is concerned, with college football’s oldest and most historic bowls.
Under this arrangement, the Peach Bowl and each of the others in the playoff rotation host a semifinal game once every three years. The Peach hosted its first semifinal in the 2016 season (No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Washington at the Georgia Dome), hosts its second this season and will host a semifinal again in 2022 and 2025, which is as far as the current playoff contracts run. Atlanta also hosted the playoff’s national championship game, which is played outside the bowl system, for the 2017 season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
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In the years when it doesn’t host a semifinal, the Peach Bowl is assigned highly ranked non-playoff teams by the CFP selection committee, such as last year’s top-10 matchup of Florida vs. Michigan and the 2017 season’s pairing of No. 7 Auburn vs. undefeated Central Florida. But it is the every-third-year semifinal that makes the playoff affiliation a winner for the Peach Bowl, as demonstrated by several metrics:
• The Peach Bowl drew a national TV audience of 21.6 million viewers for its 2016 semifinal game. By comparison, the average TV audience for non-semifinal Peach Bowl games since 2014 is 7.18 million viewers. This year’s game — matching the two most prolific FBS teams in total offense, separated by just 2/10ths of a yard per game — is expected to rival or exceed the 2016 TV audience. “To think about a Peach Bowl having 20 to 25 million viewers is a little unfathomable, really,” Stokan said.
• Peach officials say more tickets have been sold for the LSU-Oklahoma game than for any other game in the bowl’s history. A crowd approaching 77,000 is expected, including 1,500 fans who purchased standing-room-only tickets. The 2016 Peach Bowl semifinal had an announced attendance of 75,996, while the non-semifinal Peach Bowl games since 2014 have averaged 70,457.
• The 2016 semifinal was covered by 501 credentialed media members, compared to an average of 304 for non-semifinal Peach Bowls in recent years.
• While economic impact studies are hotly debated and often disputed, the Peach Bowl claims an impact of $61.9 million from the 2016 semifinal, compared to an average of $41.45 million for its recent non-semifinal games.
Another difference is in how the teams approach a playoff semifinal compared to other bowl games. Because the stakes are so high in a semifinal, playoff officials and the participating teams’ coaches reserve more time for players to focus on game preparation and less on bowl-sponsored activities.
“The request to us was that during semifinal years, ‘We want the players to have a bowl experience, but we also want focus on winning the game because we’re playing for the opportunity to play for a national championship,’ ” Stokan said.
The LSU team is scheduled to arrive in Atlanta on Sunday and the Oklahoma team on Monday — six and five days before the game. But Peach Bowl officials will limit activities they’re planning for the teams to three days, compared with five days other years. The bowl’s abbreviated schedule for the teams next week includes a welcome dinner and tours at the College Football Hall of Fame, an outing at Andretti Indoor Karting & Games and a basketball shooting challenge on a floor set up at the team hotels.
The Peach Bowl can thank geography for landing the No. 1-ranked team. After determining the four playoff teams, the CFP selection committee assigns its Nos. 1 and 4 seeds to one semifinal site and the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds to the other. It gives preference to the No. 1 seed, typically putting that team at the site most convenient for its fans, which in this case meant sending LSU to Atlanta. Nos. 2 and 3 seeds Ohio State and Clemson will go to Arizona to play in this season’s other semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl.
Since joining the playoff lineup, the Peach Bowl has had no say in the selection of its teams, yielding that responsibility to the CFP committee in both semifinal and non-semifinal years. When the committee unveiled this season’s four-team playoff field Dec. 8, Peach officials gathered to watch on TV at The Battery Atlanta.
“It was like Christmas morning,” Stokan said, “when you open up (a gift) and see No. 1 and No. 4 up there with Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl next to them.”
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