When the Big Ten and Pacific 12 opted last week for conference-only football schedules, the logical question was whether the ACC, Big 12 and SEC would follow suit.
Few have more interest in the answer than Gary Stokan, CEO of the Peach Bowl. He and his staff also run the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games, one of which is supposed to match Virginia and Georgia on Labor Day night inside Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The series also has scheduled interconference games between Florida State and West Virginia on Sept. 5, and North Carolina and Auburn on Sept. 12.
“My staff looked at me like I was nuts,” Stokan said of the decision to expand the event from two to three games this year. “And then to have COVID-19 on top of it? We’re really challenged.”
Their challenge vanishes if all the Power Five bail on nonconference dates.
“If they go in that direction, that’s obviously their prerogative,” Stokan said Friday from Atlanta. “But I’ve got to promote how we can keep these three games.”
The ACC, Big 12 and SEC are expected to reveal their approaches to all fall sports in late July.
Stokan hopes the three adopt regular-season models that would permit enough non-league contests to preserve his three games. He also understands that if the ACC and SEC determine that each of their teams will play one nonconference opponent that the Kickoff Games would say goodbye to Florida State and Georgia — they would elect to continue their respective storied rivalries against Florida and Georgia Tech.
In that case, Stokan has proposed pairing this year’s Kickoff Games to UVA versus West Virginia and UNC against Auburn, the latter a much-anticipated quarterback matchup of Sam Howell and Bo Nix.
In his detailed pitch to the three commissioners — the ACC’s John Swofford, SEC’s Greg Sankey and Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby — and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Stokan advocated pairing Alabama against Notre Dame since the Crimson Tide lost a nonconference date against Southern California, while the independent Fighting Irish lost games against USC, Stanford and Wisconsin.
“Who knows whether it works or not?” said Stokan, a former N.C. State basketball player and assistant coach. “But I threw up a Hail Mary, and hopefully it gets answered.”
The Notre Dame-Alabama component will not work. Crimson Tide AD Greg Byrne tweeted Saturday morning that the teams will not play this season.
Stokan and Mercedes-Benz Stadium officials are scheduled to meet July 23 to continue discussions on attendance models — 25%, 30% and 50% capacity — and COVID-19 protocols. Georgia is central to pandemic politics, with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp suing Democratic Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the City Council over their mandate of masking and physical distancing.
Stokan said anyone entering the indoor stadium for a game in the series would be required to wear a mask. Concessions already are cashless, and ticketing is online. Bands and cheerleaders would likely remain at home, and the traditional team walks and tailgate zones would be canceled.
Capacity would determine how much of the contracted payouts of approximately $4.25 million each school would receive. Stokan said the Atlanta games could be staged if college football officials delayed the season until October, or even the spring.
“Everybody wants to play,” he said, “but paramount in all this is safety. If we can’t get the safety down, it’s all a moot point. … Perspective-wise, people have lost lives, lost jobs and lost businesses. We’re in much better shape in that all we have to do is plan football games. … It’s welcome to even have the opportunity to do it.”
Stokan and the Peach Bowl began staging regular-season games in 2008 and pitted Virginia Tech against Alabama in 2009 and ’13. This would be UVA’s first appearance.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall favors a conference-only approach to this season but is working toward opening against Georgia. The Bulldogs would likely supplant No. 10 Notre Dame from last year as the highest-ranked nonconference opponent the Cavaliers have faced in the regular season since Mendenhall’s arrival in late 2016.
Like UVA, Georgia won its division last year and competed in a New Year’s Six bowl, defeating Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. The Bulldogs have one of the nation’s most fascinating quarterback rooms with Jamie Newman and JT Daniels, transfers from Wake Forest and USC.