When the college football season begins in earnest next weekend, seven games will be played at neutral sites, reflecting a trend that began in Atlanta a decade ago.
All five power conferences will be represented in the games, six of which will be played at NFL stadiums.
The biggest of the games will match teams ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 10: No. 6 Washington vs. No. 9 Auburn in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Another will match top-25 teams: No. 8 Miami vs. No. 25 LSU in the Dallas Cowboys’ stadium. Another will feature the defending national champion, No. 1-ranked Alabama, against Louisville in Orlando, Fla.
The other such games will be No. 17 West Virginia vs. Tennessee in the Carolina Panthers’ stadium, No. 23 Texas vs. Maryland in the Washington Redskins’ stadium, Ole Miss vs. Texas Tech in the Houston Texans’ stadium and Colorado vs. Colorado State in the Denver Broncos’ stadium.
The trend of neutral-site non-conference openers started in 2008, when the Chick-fil-A Kickoff was launched. One by one, similar events have followed, collectively reshaping how college football launches its season.
The games buck the tradition, such as it is, of Week 1 mismatches in which power-conference teams pay for a visit by an overmatched opponent from a smaller league. Such stereotypical openers still exist; see Georgia vs. Austin Peay and Georgia Tech vs. Alcorn State, among others. But the neutral-site games, which offer financial and marketing payoffs, have incentivized teams to think bigger about how to open the season.
“What is it they say? ‘Imitation is the highest form of flattery,’” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl Inc., which started and operates the Chick-fil-A Kickoff. “So yeah, it’s flattering that people have copied what we have done. We’ve been copied by Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Charlotte and others.
“Certainly, it provides us with more competition to get teams to play. But having said that, we still have a lot of people calling us -- athletic directors and coaches -- who want to play in a game like this.”
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff began after a couple of other efforts didn’t work out for expanding Atlanta’s place in the college-football landscape.
Stokan first tried unsuccessfully to get the city a spot in the now-defunct Bowl Championship Series, which determined the national champion before the advent of the College Football Playoff. Then his bid to start a second postseason bowl in Atlanta for the week before Christmas proved problematic and was abandoned.
But Plan C, which got off to a good start when Alabama and Clemson agreed to play in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff in 2008, is still going strong.
Atlanta’s season-opening event has staged 13 games over the past decade, including three years in which two games were held. In 2020, the event will encompass three games and a second weekend for the first time. Just this past week, a deal was completed for Georgia, which already had committed to play Virginia in one of the 2020 games, to also face Oregon in 2022.
Although they’re not without a cost – the loss of on-campus games -- neutral-site events against compelling opponents have proven a winning formula for several reasons.
They help satisfy the College Football Playoff selection committee’s mandate for playoff-aspiring teams to strengthen their non-conference schedules. They tend to provide national exposure and generally generate good TV ratings, and they can benefit recruiting. And they work for schools financially.
The Chick-fil-A Kickoff, for example, will pay Georgia more than $4.5 million for the 2022 game and also will cover virtually all expenses except for the Bulldogs’ transportation to Atlanta. That is a better financial return than playing a non-conference home game after factoring in the stadium expenses of a home game and a large financial guarantee to the opponent. If a team schedules a home-and-home series, it can avoid the guarantee, but won’t be paid when it reciprocates the trip.
“From a financial standpoint, it’s a very healthy situation for schools that play at a neutral site -- especially for us to get in a bus and go to Atlanta,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity said. “It’s a very beneficial day for the institution.”
Stokan put it this way: “The payoffs we are providing are financial windfalls.”
A previous incarnation of season-opening neutral-site games ended in 2002 when the NCAA eliminated waivers that had permitted a limited number of teams an extra game for such events. That rule change killed off the "Kickoff Classic," which had been played in East Rutherford, N.J., since 1983, and several other games around the country.
To restart the concept, Stokan capitalized on the NCAA’s decision in 2006 to expand regular-season schedules from 11 games to 12.
Such openers have worked exceptionally well for Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose elite program -- winner of five national championships since 2009 -- will begin the season at a neutral site for the ninth time in 11 years. The Crimson Tide began five of those seasons in Atlanta, winning each time.
“Neutral-site games really launched our program at Alabama when we first came there,” Saban said.
That may have a lot to do with why so many others have embraced the concept.
> Colorado (Pac-12) vs. Colorado State (Mountain West), Broncos Stadium at Mile High, Denver, 9:30 p.m., CBSSN
> Ole Miss (SEC) vs. Texas Tech (Big 12), NRG Stadium, Houston, noon, ESPN
>No. 23 Texas (Big 12) vs. Maryland (Big Ten), FedEx Field, Landover, Md., noon, FS1
> No. 6 Washington (Pac-12) vs. No. 9 Auburn (SEC), Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Atlanta, 3:30 p.m., ABC
> No. 17 West Virginia (Big 12) vs. Tennessee (SEC), Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C., 3:30 p.m., CBS
> No. 1 Alabama (SEC) vs. Louisville (ACC), Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla., 8 p.m., ABC
> No. 8 Miami (ACC) vs. No. 25 LSU (SEC), AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas, 7:30 p.m., ABC
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