Georgia Tech’s home game Saturday against Bowling Green is unusual on a number of fronts. Tech has never played a current member of the Mid-American Conference. In fact, the Yellow Jackets, in 126 years of football, have never played any of the eight FBS schools in the state of Ohio. And, for good measure, Tech typically does not play guarantee games against FBS teams from non-power conferences.
The explanation for how this game came to be involves, among other things, Michigan, Notre Dame, Auburn and the ACC.
In 2016, Notre Dame and Michigan were working on renewing their iconic series with games in 2018 and 2019. However, to make the 2019 game happen, Notre Dame needed Tech’s cooperation to move the Fighting Irish’s 2019 game at Bobby Dodd Stadium back a year to 2020. It was part of the agreement between Notre Dame with the ACC to play on average five games against conference teams annually.
The proposed switch actually worked out well for Tech, as it would move a marquee home game to its 2020 schedule. Season tickets are more difficult to sell in even years because archrival Georgia is on the home schedule in odd years.
However, the process was taking longer than Tech’s point person for scheduling at the time, John David Wicker, would have liked. Games are often scheduled several years in advance, and Tech was facing potential holes in future schedules because of the lack of certainty with the Notre Dame-Michigan series. Wicker, now the AD at San Diego State, felt like he was running out of time and communicated that with the ACC, which was involved in the process on Notre Dame’s behalf.
Wicker told the AJC this week that it felt like Notre Dame and Michigan “kept dragging their feet.”
Wicker went ahead and arranged a plum of a home-and-home – Auburn.
“The dates weren’t ideal, but at that point we needed to fill the schedule,” Wicker said.
As he recalled, it was imperfect for some reason, possibly because the Auburn and Georgia games would have been road games in the same year. But Tech and Auburn, longtime rivals from when the institute was an SEC member, haven’t played since 2005.
Wicker informed the ACC and senior associate commissioner Michael Strickland of the agreement in place with Auburn and a plan to keep Notre Dame on the 2019 schedule.
“Things moved much quicker after that,” said Wicker, who heard back from Strickland and Notre Dame associate AD Chad Klunder in short order.
Tech was still willing to cooperate with the ACC as long as it was beneficial to its own interests, which moving Notre Dame to 2020 would be. But now Notre Dame and the ACC had real impetus to help Tech and Wicker, who needed a non-conference game for 2018.
He had first tried Arkansas, which had dates to fill after Michigan bought out its home-and-home with the Razorbacks in 2018 and 2019 to make room for Notre Dame. Arkansas declined. Bowling Green was another team that Wicker queried, but there was no interest.
The person giving him the thumbs down was Bowling Green AD Bob Moosbrugger, who, as things would happen, was a friend of Wicker’s. They had worked together at San Diego State. Moosbrugger was hired in May 2016 and, as he recalled this week, Wicker’s inquiry was one of his first orders of business. It was on his plate even before he officially began work. The reason for Moosbrugger’s response was simple.
“I told John David, I said, ‘I don’t even need to call my head football coach because my answer is no, thank you,’” Moosbrugger said this week. “’We don’t need to play Georgia Tech and the triple option.’”
Coach Paul Johnson’s offense often factored into Wicker’s scheduling efforts while at Tech.
“It’s fun to piece things together, but one of the hardest things at Tech is people don’t want to play Tech because they don’t like having to prepare for Paul’s offense,” Wicker said.
Wicker mentioned Bowling Green’s lack of interest to Notre Dame’s Klunder, who through an intermediary was able to prevail upon Moosbrugger with a three-way deal: If Bowling Green went to Tech in 2018, then Notre Dame would invite the Falcons to play in hallowed Notre Dame Stadium. Moosbrugger wasn’t crazy about it – he thought Bowling Green had a chance to play at Notre Dame even without having to play at Tech. Further, it made for an especially challenging non-conference schedule in 2018, which has included a road game at Oregon and a home game against Maryland.
“But we needed Bowling Green to save the college football world and let Notre Dame and Michigan have their series,” Moosbrugger said, tongue-in-cheek, “and Georgia Tech and Bowling Green, we made it happen.”
Indeed, Notre Dame and Michigan got their way with the Irish’s offer to Bowling Green for one game, in 2019, and the possibility for another. Wicker also managed to secure the Bowling Green game for a relatively paltry $900,000. Teams from Group of Five conferences can often command north of $1 million for guarantee games (games in which the home team pays the visiting team to play, as opposed to a home-and-home deal).
It did mean Tech had to sacrifice a home-and-home with Auburn for the benefit of moving Notre Dame to the 2020 home schedule. As it turns out, the possibility of not playing the No. 10 Tigers this season, along with No. 2 Georgia and No. 3 Clemson, might not have been the worst outcome.
“Auburn would have been a lot of fun,” Wicker said. “That would have been a cool series, that’s for sure.”
This week, the Tech-Bowling Green’s origin was still on the minds of Wicker and Moosbrugger. With San Diego State on its open date this week, Wicker will make sure to catch the noon (EDT) kickoff of the unlikely matchup he helped create.
“I love watching college football on the West Coast,” he said. “We start at 9 a.m.”
Moosbrugger was still not particularly keen on his team facing the Yellow Jackets, and particularly his friend’s role in bringing the game to reality. He said he texted Wicker to tell him as much.
Said Moosbrugger, “I said, ‘With friends like you, who needs enemies?’”
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