We live in Atlanta, which is about to become to big-game nirvana.
In a span of four years and three months, beginning New Year’s Eve, Atlanta will host (chronologically): a national college football semifinal, the college football championship game, a Super Bowl, another college football semifinal and a Final Four.
We live in Atlanta, which has long been known for big-game absence.
The city has one major pro championship to its name (Braves, 1995). The Falcons have never won a Super Bowl; Georgia last won a football national title in 1980; Georgia Tech lays claim to a shared title (with Colorado) in 1990; neither school has won a basketball championship.
The right to host a championship is celebrated by chamber of commerce people — and the accompanying creative-writing team that puts together “economic impact reports.” But it’s like living across the street from the party of the century, only to find out the guest list is limited to out-of-state guests. (But you can earn $10 per car to have people park on your lawn.)
The real question is whether any team from Atlanta or Athens has a chance to crash this series of parties. Answer: maybe.
Fans have been disappointed before. Remember 1999? The Falcons made it to the Super Bowl the season before. The Dirty Bird was born. Then things began going horribly wrong, starting the night before the game with Eugene Robinson and an independent contractor on a Miami street corner. Then came the loss to Denver.
They returned a lot of talent in ’99, the season when the next Super Bowl would be played in the Georgia Dome. There was a flickering candle in the cold, dark basement of Atlanta sports that the Falcons could make it back to the title game. But Jamal Anderson’s knee blew up and Chris Chandler broke down. Playoff hopes were dead before November. The Falcons went 5-11. Good news: They were on the couch with a blanket when every NFL owner and pampered corporate partner was whining about the ice storm.
So what are the hopes for the the next five events? I’ve ranked them in order of likelihood for a real fans’ party:
1. College Football Playoff semifinals (Dec. 31, 2019): This would be Georgia coach Kirby Smart’s fourth season, sufficient time for him to have the Bulldogs contending for SEC championships and, therefore, on a national level. Theoretically, it also would be quarterback Jacob Eason’s senior season, but if he turns out to be as good as advertised he almost certainly won’t still be in Athens. It’s difficult to get a gauge on the direction of things at Tech, but it was only two years ago when the Yellow Jackets nearly upset then-unbeaten Florida State in the ACC title game and finished with a No. 8 ranking. So no, it’s not out of the question they could make it into college football’s final four, just unlikely.
2. College Football Playoff Championship game (Jan. 8, 2018): Watch as Twitter spontaneously combusts. This playoff would follow Eason’s second season and potentially be Nick Chubb’s senior season (should he stay in college). On one hand, it’s difficult to imagine Smart orchestrating a championship run in only his second season. But nobody has ever doubted that there is talent at Georgia, only that the Dogs have a tendency to lose games they’re not supposed to and faceplant in the ones that matter most. If Smart and his assistants can beef up the offensive and defensive lines and Eason is the real deal, this is possible. No, I can’t make that leap with Tech. (Notable: LSU went 2-1 in BCS title games in the Superdome and USC played a national title game in the Rose Bowl but lost to Texas).
3. College Football Playoff semifinals (Dec. 31, 2016): Not likely. Georgia opens with a difficult game against North Carolina, but has the advantage of playing Tennessee and Auburn at home and not having to face Alabama or LSU from the SEC West. The toughest conference road game is early at Mississippi. But there are too many questions on this roster to project a national semifinals appearance, from quarterback to offensive line to the defensive front. Tech went 1-7 in the ACC last season. One-year turnarounds have their limits.
4. Super Bowl (February 2019): In the two seasons Atlanta has hosted Super Bowls, the Falcons finished 6-10 and 5-11. Ominous foreshadowing. No team has ever played the title game in its own stadium. Two teams came close to “home” Super Bowls: The Los Angeles Rams in the Rose Bowl in 1980 (they led Pittsburgh after three quarters, then somebody forgot to cover John Stallworth) and San Francisco in Stanford Stadium in 1985 (defeated Miami). I’m not here to tell you the Falcons can’t make the Super Bowl in three years. But it largely depends on three things: 1) Matt Ryan proving he can make game-deciding throws in the postseason; 2) the defense learning how to scare opposing quarterbacks; 3) coach Dan Quinn evolving into franchise savior. It’s possible. But these eyes have seen a lot of wreckage.
5. Stanley Cup finals: I needed something before the final entry, even if Atlanta no longer has an NHL team.
6. Final Four (April 2020): I don’t mean this as any disrespect to Mark Fox (Georgia) or Josh Pastner (Georgia Tech), but some things just aren’t going to be believed until they actually happen. That list: biblical miracles and the Bulldogs or Jackets going to the Final Four. Tech has two NCAA tournament wins in 12 years since reaching the national final under Paul Hewitt. Georgia has three wins in 20 years since Tubby Smith took the Dogs to the Sweet 16 in 1996. Fox has to prove he can acquire the talent necessary to go deep into tournament. Pastner, while well-connected in the AAU underworld, has stepped into a major building project and will need to survive the ACC gauntlet. Don’t expect a state entry in this one.
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