Louisville players run onto the Georgia Dome field for last year’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff game against Auburn. (HYOSUB SHIN/HSHIN@AJC.COM)

How Chick-fil-A Kickoff changed start of college football season

When Alabama and Clemson played in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the Georgia Dome eight years ago, the matchup was a rarity for college football’s opening week: two big-name, nationally ranked teams from rival power conferences.

The pairing bucked the trend of Week 1 mismatches that had come to define and diminish the start of the season.

It also started a counter-trend.

“Now, this year, we’ve arguably got the best first week of college football games in history,” said Gary Stokan, who started and runs the Atlanta game that changed how college football launches its season.

In addition to the latest installment of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff — Georgia vs. North Carolina, ranked Nos. 16 and 20, respectively, in the preseason coaches’ poll, at the Dome on Sept. 3 — this season’s opening-weekend schedule includes four other high-profile non-conference games involving ranked teams at off-campus sites.

On Sept. 3, coaches’ No. 1 Alabama will meet No. 17 USC at the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium, No. 3 Oklahoma will meet No. 13 Houston at the Houston Texans’ stadium, and No. 6 LSU will take on Wisconsin at the Green Bay Packers’ stadium. On Sept. 5, Labor Day, No. 4 Florida State will play No. 12 Ole Miss in Orlando.

All of those games are patterned after the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, college football’s longest-running active “Kickoff” event.

Such non-conference games have proliferated in recent years because they satisfy various constituencies.

They appeal to TV networks by generating higher ratings than the stereotypical season opener in which a major program pays for a visit by an over-matched opponent from a lesser league.

They appeal to athletic directors because the payouts are at least comparable to a home game without requiring a return trip to the opponent’s stadium.

They appeal to coaches by boosting strength of schedule — an important consideration for those with aspirations of reaching the College Football Playoff — and bolstering recruiting.

They appeal to players who want to face marquee opponents on big stages, to fans who want to watch such games, and to host cities looking to fill hotels and restaurants.

“I see these neutral-site games continuing to grow,” said Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., “because they make sense for everybody.”

They make sense to FSU coach Jimbo Fisher, whose team will follow this year’s opener against Ole Miss in Orlando with next year’s against Alabama in Atlanta, because they motivate players through long, hot summers.

“I think they get your attention very quickly,” Fisher said at ACC media days. “Anytime you have a big-time opponent like that, your offseason is ramped up. It’s a natural instinct. Coaches don’t have to say a word. Kids know it. They know the importance of the game. They know the competition.

“It makes your off-season, in my opinion, so enhanced. … You get better. If you’re not, you get bit right off the bat.”

A previous incarnation of season-opening neutral-site games ended in 2002 when the NCAA eliminated waivers that had allowed a limited number of teams an extra game to play in such events. That rule change killed off the “Kickoff Classic,” which had been played in East Rutherford, N.J., since 1983, and several similar games around the country.

To reinvent the concept, Stokan seized on an opening created in 2006, when the NCAA expanded regular-season schedules from 11 games to 12. That meant teams were looking for one more non-conference opponent and might have flexibility to play at a neutral site.

“Prior to that, with nondescript opening games, the TV ratings weren’t very good until about the third week when the conference games came on,” Stokan said.

Reviving the Kickoff game concept wasn’t Stokan’s first idea when he set out to enhance Atlanta’s place in the college-football landscape.

First, he tried to get the Peach Bowl a spot in the (now defunct) Bowl Championship Series. That failed.

Next, he tried to start a second postseason bowl in Atlanta. That didn’t work out, either.

His third idea proved to be the charm: “I said, ‘Let’s flip the season and create a BCS-type game on the front side of the schedule.’”

Alabama was ranked No. 24 and an underdog to No. 9 Clemson in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff in 2008, Nick Saban’s second season as Crimson Tide coach. Alabama won handily, immediately vaulting 11 spots in the polls, and Saban has credited that game for helping jump-start his program’s turnaround.

The game’s payout to its teams in 2008 was a combined $4.17 million. Georgia and North Carolina are projected to receive a combined $7.25 million from this year’s game.

The business model is pretty simple: The game’s revenue comes principally from ticket sales and sponsorships. (The TV money belongs to the conferences of the participating teams under their broader contracts with the networks.)

Although “Kickoff” games are technically at neutral sites, that can be a misnomer: Four such games this season match a home-state team against an out-of-state team.

As Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze, preparing to face Florida State in Orlando, said at SEC Media Days: “I did get a kick out of our AD telling me it’s a neutral-site game. I explain to him that anytime you … have to use silent cadence, it shouldn’t be considered a neutral site. … We’ll just prepare like we do for a road SEC game.”

From the Chick-fil-A Kickoff, the concept of marquee non-conference openers spread quickly. The “Cowboys Classic,” now called the AdvoCare Classic, began in 2009 in Arlington, Texas. Houston started its game in 2013. Charlotte held a game in 2015 and has others lined up for 2017-19. Orlando and Green Bay joined the party this year.

“Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?” Stokan said with a smile. “So everybody has copied us, which is nice to say, but it has made it more competitive to get teams.”

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