Atlanta ready to serve as college football's epicenter

Atlanta ready to serve as college football's epicenter

December 23rd, 2017 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Atlanta, Georgia - Saturday, December 2, 2017. The Georgia Bulldogs defeated the Auburn Tigers, 28-7, in the inaugural 2017 SEC Championship Game at Mercedes Benz Stadium.Photo by Perry McIntyre Jr.

Atlanta, Georgia - Saturday, December 2, 2017. The...

Photo by Perry McIntyre

Although Mercedes-Benz Stadium has yet to reach the six-month mark in usage, Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan already can reflect on its good ol' days.

The $1.6 billion monstrosity was built to house the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons and Major League Soccer's Atlanta United FC, as well as the Southeastern Conference championship game, the Chick-fil-A Kickoff contests and the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Due to delays in construction, Mercedes-Benz opened in late August with a pair of Falcons exhibition games, and the first full houses occurred Labor Day weekend, when Alabama thumped Florida State on Sept. 2 and Tennessee rallied past Georgia Tech in double overtime two nights later.

"We told them that they needed to put cuts in the cement to allow the bands to get down to the field, and since the Falcons and Atlanta United don't have bands, they neglected to do that," Stokan said. "We had to take our bands outside the facility, down steps and ramps and back into the facility to get out to the field. For the SEC championship, they had steps cut in, and there were stairs that went right down to the field.

"There was also the issue of the stadium offering free refills. They didn't realize that when people got a Coke and drank it, when they went back for the refill, they poured their ice out because they wanted new ice. They weren't ready for all that ice to be produced. Until you go through an actual event, you don't know what you need to prepare for."

Mercedes-Benz will be college football's epicenter in upcoming weeks as the site of the Peach Bowl on New Year's Day between Auburn and Central Florida and the national championship game of the four-team playoff on Jan. 8. The Peach Bowl announced this past week that it has sold out for the 19th time in the last 21 years — a feat topped only by the Rose Bowl — and the national championship game could be accompanied by one of the steepest ticket demands in the sport's history.

Should Georgia defeat Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the Bulldogs would face either Alabama or Clemson in Atlanta for the title.

"I don't know if I would be able to get in that one," Stokan said, laughing. "We really can't lose, because Oklahoma has a great following as well. It's just going to be an incredible scene."

Yet Stokan doesn't want to sell the Peach Bowl short, especially given that it's the 50th anniversary game and pits the SEC West champion against the nation's only undefeated Division I team. Mercedes-Benz Stadium is the fourth venue to host the Peach Bowl, with Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium housing the first three contests before it moved to Fulton County Stadium for the 1971 season and the Georgia Dome for the 1992 season.

Fulton County Stadium and the Georgia Dome no longer exist.

"We've been to Auburn and UCF to do our press-conference invitations, and Auburn is playing for an 11-win season for only the seventh time in its long, storied history," said Stokan, who was a recent guest of "Press Row" on Chattanooga's ESPN 105.1 FM. "They have a lot to play for, especially for their seniors, and I think they're looking at this as a start to next season as well.

"Auburn could finish this season in the top five, and I think Gus Malzahn believes next year's team will be one of the better ones they've had. Of course, they open next season against Washington in our Kickoff Game, and Washington could be be a top-five or top-10 team at the start of next season, too."

The Georgia Dome hosted two Super Bowls and three NCAA Final Fours but never housed college football's national championship. Mercedes-Benz is hosting the national championship early next month, the Super Bowl in February 2019 and the Final Four in March 2020.

Since Stokan became president and CEO of the Peach Bowl in 1998, the kickoff games and bowl games have helped produce more than $750,000 million in economic impact for the city and state. He believes Atlanta will continue to be a major player for marquee sporting events, adding that the city doesn't lack for entertainment options for fans.

"In Atlanta we have so many things that are just built in," he said. "Whether you're staying downtown at the Omni or the Westin or the Marriott or the Hyatt or the Embassy Suites, you can walk right over to the Georgia Aquarium, which is the world's largest aquarium. You can walk right to the World of Coke, the College Football Hall of Fame, the CNN Center — there are so many built-in things.

"Centennial Park is right there, where all the concerts will take place, so we're blessed in Atlanta to have all the facilities we have and the continuity with the hotels and the restaurants. Whether you have tickets or not, there will be so many activities that you can participate in related to college football. It will be a great time whether you go to the games or not."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.