Right at home in the Dome


Past results and future matchups in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game:

2008: Alabama 34, Clemson 10

2009: Alabama 34, Virginia Tech 24

2010: LSU 30, North Carolina 24

2011: Boise State 35, Georgia 21

2012 (two games): Tennessee 35, N.C. State 21 and Clemson 26, Auburn 19

2013: Alabama vs. Virginia Tech

2014 (two games): Boise State vs. Ole Miss and Alabama vs. West Virginia

Call it the Alabama football team’s home on the road.

The Crimson Tide will play in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at the Georgia Dome on Aug. 31 for the third time in the season-opening event’s six-year history, this time against Virginia Tech in a rematch of the 2009 game. Alabama will make it four appearances in seven years when it returns to the event in 2014 to play West Virginia.

When Alabama played Clemson in the inaugural Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in 2008, the Crimson Tide was in rebuilding mode. It returns this time with three national titles in the past four seasons, including each of the past two.

Alabama keeps coming to the game because it provides a nationally televised opener against a marquee opponent without having to do a home-and-home deal, pays as much as the Crimson Tide would make by playing in Tuscaloosa and, perhaps most important, provides a foothold in one of the nation’s recruiting gold mines.

“These neutral-site games from a business standpoint work out,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It’s great for exposure for your program.

“I’m sort of thinking we need to play 10 quality opponents (each season). Without playing one of these games, it would be very difficult for us to do that. It’s always been a great experience for our players to play in Atlanta, Dallas, different places. Hopefully, we’ll be able to continue that in the future.”

The Atlanta game’s connection with Saban dates to 2000, when Saban, wrapping up his first season as LSU’s coach, lobbied hard for a berth in the postseason Chick-fil-A Bowl and Gary Stokan, then in his third year as head of the bowl, pushed hard for his selection committee to invite the Tigers. LSU won the game, 28-14 over Georgia Tech.

“Later I went to see (Saban), and he said, ‘Everybody we were recruiting watched that game, and we closed and signed every one of those kids,’” Stokan recalled. “And that recruiting class was the class that in the 2003 season won the (BCS) championship.”

Fast-forward to 2008, by which time Saban was in his second season at Alabama and Stokan was expanding the Chick-fil-A Bowl’s properties to include the season-opening game. The initial matchup: Alabama vs. Clemson.

“Nick said, ‘Gary, we’ve got to come play in your game. We’re trying to get this thing turned around at Alabama, and to play a ranked opponent like Clemson would be good for us,’” Stokan recalled.

Alabama, which had posted a 7-6 record under Saban in 2007, upset No. 9 Clemson 34-10, sending notice of a program again on the upswing. Alabama agreed to return to Atlanta to play Virginia Tech in the 2009 Kickoff game, which the Crimson Tide won 34-24 to launch its first of (so far) three BCS championship seasons under Saban.

Before Alabama started that run, Stokan said, “(Saban) told me, ‘If we can win recruiting in Alabama and we can finish second in Georgia, we’ll play for national championships.’”

This will be Alabama’s first appearance in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game since 2009. The Crimson Tide was not available in 2010 and 2011 because of a home-and-home series with Penn State, and the Crimson Tide’s opener last season against Michigan was played in the larger Cowboys Stadium (now AT&T Stadium) in Arlington, Texas.

Stokan said there were discussions early on about bringing the Alabama-Michigan matchup here, but he said a change of coaches and athletic directors at Michigan sent the game in another direction.

“The new AD wanted, in order to move a home game from Michigan where they have 110,000 seats, a whole heck of a lot of money,” said Stokan, whose game pays around $2.5 million. “We just couldn’t make it make sense financially.”

Alabama then committed to play in Atlanta in the 2013 and 2014 openers.

Alabama won’t open the 2015 through 2017 seasons here. The Crimson Tide is slated to play Wisconsin in AT&T Stadium at the start of the ’15 season and, barring a schedule change, to play home-and-home games against Michigan State in ’16 and ’17.

But beyond that, “we’re talking with Alabama about future years now,” Stokan said.