Countdown to kickoff: Oh Atlanta, Alabama and college football hear you calling

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University of Alabama sophomore tight end Miller Forristall is going home this weekend, and in the best way possible.

He’s from Cartersville, Ga., one of a long line of Peach State products who have played for the Crimson Tide. He grew up watching the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome, but on Saturday will be participating in the first college football game played at new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“That’s pretty cool,” he said about being part of history.

It’s something the Crimson Tide have grown accustomed to, like making themselves at home in Atlanta.

Since Nick Saban arrived in 2007, Alabama has played 11 times there over 10 years, and has only lost once — the 2008 SEC Championship Game, which it avenged the subsequent season. Coach Nick Saban also won three times there coaching LSU, making him 13-1.

He’s won five SEC titles in Atlanta, gone 4-0 in Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games and last year won the Peach Bowl semifinal against Washington. All within driving distance of Tuscaloosa, Ala.

Ironically, it’s also where Alabama was not known for playing prior to Saban. While the Peach Bowl is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it never landed the Crimson Tide as a participant until last season’s semifinal.

But with the SEC Championship Game moving from Legion Field in 1994, Alabama started to become more of a fixture, followed by the kickoff games, which are like having an extra bowl at the beginning of the season. Nine of the 12 kickoff games have sold out, including all featuring the Crimson Tide.

 2008 (24) Alabama 34, (9) Clemson 10
 2009  (5) Alabama 34, (7) Virginia Tech 24
 2010  (16) LSU 30, (18) North Carolina 24
 2011 (5) Boise State 35, (19) Georgia 21
 2012 Tennessee 35, (25) N.C. State 21
(14) Clemson 26, (24) Auburn 19
 2013 (1) Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10
 2014 (18) Ole Miss 35, Boise State 13
(2) Alabama 33, West Virginia 23
 2015 (6) Auburn 31, (25) Louisville 24
 2016 (18) Georgia 33, (22) North Carolina 24

Saturday’s showdown between No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Florida State is the biggest yet (8 p.m. ET, ABC), and being billed as the greatest season opener in college football history.

“We love Alabama,” said Peach Bowl President/CEO Gary Stokan.

And Alabama loves Atlanta, as this game will mean a lot to everyone involved.

The players

The score was already 33-9, and Florida was desperately trying to stay in the game. With 1 minute, 24 seconds until halftime, it was facing second-and-9 at its 49, when Crimson Tide middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton took his final snap of the season.

The call was a short pass under the coverage to the left, with tight end DeAndre Goolsby letting pass rusher Tim Williams get by him to be picked up by a teammate and making the catch in space. Trying to prevent a first down, Hamilton closed and planted his leg, but when the receiver cut back inside his right knee gave way.

Hamilton immediately went down in a heap, grabbing at the knee that would require surgery.

“The way he got the injury was kind of bizarre,” said Rashaan Evans, who replaced Hamilton and will now play alongside him. “Like I’ve never seen anybody tear their ACL like that.”

A couple of plays later Goolsby scored a touchdown to cap a 92-yard drive, but Florida was shut out in the second half of the 54-16 loss.

Although it won’t be in the same stadium, as the SEC Championship Game was held in the Georgia Dome, it’s fitting that Hamilton’s career will resume in the same city.

“He’s been waiting a long time,” linebacker Anfernee Jennings said. “He missed the national championship and he missed the spring game. He’s very ready to go hit somebody.”

Although Alabama will have numerous players making their first starts, 10-plus freshmen making their Crimson Tide debuts, and a team eager to get back on the field for the first time since the national championship loss, Hamilton might the most anxious of them all.

When the injury occurred, Hamilton was third in team tackles with 64, including 9 for a loss and 2 sacks. He had 2 interceptions, including 1 earlier in the game against Florida.

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Alabama linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton is helped after suffering a knee injury in the SEC Championship Game (Getty Images).

On a team that feels it has something to prove, he does on a whole different level.

“I actually came back more explosive according to the stats from that little GPS thing I wore,” Hamilton said about the Crimson Tide’s Catapult tracking system that monitors players on the field and during practices.

“I feel good, better than ever. I’m just excited to get back on the field in an actual game. I’m ready to go.”

The team/school

The payout for Saturday’s game is $ 5 million. Not total, but for each team, which is compounded by their not having to spend to fill out the schedule.

This season, Alabama will pay its three non-conference opponents $ 3.5 million to make the trip to Bryant-Denny Stadium, and it would be more if one wasn’t a BCS team the Saturday before facing Auburn in the Iron Bowl.

According to information acquired from an open records request made by SEC Country, Alabama has averaged $ 2.5 million in payouts since 2014. It’s partly due to the rising going rate, and there not being too many programs eager to make the trip.

2014 Florida Atlantic ($ 1 million), Southern Miss ($ 1.4 million), and Western Carolina ($ 480,000)
2015 Middle Tennessee ($ 1.5 million), La.-Monroe ($ 1.6 million), and Charleston Southern ($ 500,000)
2016 Western Kentucky ($ 1.3 million), Kent State ($ 1.5 million), and UT Chattanooga ($ 500,000)
2017 Fresno State ($ 1.4 million), Colorado State ($ 1.5 million), and Mercer ($ 600,000)

So, the money’s nice, but it’s not the biggest reason why Saban likes playing so often in Atlanta. There’s the competition, the prestige, the exposure and even the new stadium. But those things factor into something else — recruiting.

“You always want to play on the big stage as you’re being recruited,” Forristall said. “Knowing Alabama plays on the big stage and in those big games, you want to go play against the best. That may have been something that swayed my decision.”

Another venue Alabama likes to frequent is AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which also has an annual kickoff game. Have you noticed how many players the Crimson Tide have from the Lone Star State? There are 10 scholarship players on this year’s team from Texas, including starting quarterback Jalen Hurts, plus walk-ons.

Saban’s first experience with Atlanta as a coach dates back to his initial season at LSU in 2000, when the Tigers struggled through the first half of the season and even lost to UAB, 13-10. They bounced back to 7-4, with the coach lobbying for what he thought was the best possible bowl invitation.

“My committee didn’t want LSU,” Stokan said.

That’s because in 1996 LSU  played Clemson in the Peach Bowl. While Clemson sold out its ticket allotment, LSU didn’t seem too interested. Saban promised to rally the fans and promote the game. He came through. Within a day of the pairings being announced, LSU sold a record 16,421 tickets. It also beat No. 15 Georgia Tech, 28-14

“I stuck my neck out for Nick and he’s a loyal guy,” Stokan said.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game and Alabama was at the top of the wish list of potential teams, plus Saban sort of owed him. The Crimson Tide handled No. 9 Clemson and sparked the dynasty run that’s still ongoing.

“He said, ‘Yeah, we have to win Alabama recruiting and we have to finish second in Georgia, and if we do we’ll play for a national championship,’” Stokan said.

The city

There wasn’t a specific plan, per se, but an idea that grew over time, the roots of which included a conversation between former Alabama athletic director Mal Moore and Stokan.

It was 2002 and they were at the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., for the annual enshrinement ceremony. While walking through its halls, Moore turned to him and said, “Gary, there’s nothing of Bear Bryant.”

The Hall had been in Notre Dame’s back yard since 1995, but it wasn’t drawing many fans or corporate sponsorships. Attendance had gone from approximately 115,000 to 65,000 and its future looked as stagnant as an Indiana winter.

Stokan made up his mind: “This belongs in Atlanta.”

He started working on a relocation proposal but the city was already behind a move to create a NASCAR Hall of Fame. It stayed on the back-burner until NASCAR opted for Charlotte, N.C., and then began the push. It took four years to become reality in 2009.

“We’re just blessed,” he said. “We’re in a great city. I call it the college football epicenter, mecca and capital because the passionate fans from all of the ACC and SEC schools live in metro Atlanta. I think we have the No. 1 or No. 2 alumni base of all those schools living in metro Atlanta, plus it’s an easy drive.”

Meanwhile, other major pieces fell into place. The SEC Championship Game became so successful it was copied by other leagues. While the Peach Bowl hoped to be a bigger player in the BCS, it went the opposite direction when the NCAA approved a 12-game regular season by creating a big event at the front end of the schedule.

Finally, with the creation of the College Football Playoff followed by the NFL’s Falcons building their impressive $ 1.5 billion home, Atlanta’s transformation was complete. Not only will Mercedes-Benz Stadium serve as the site for the biggest season opener in college football history Saturday, but host the National Championship Game for the first time.

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Mercedes-Benz Stadium in August 2016 vs. June 2017 (Shehan Jeyarajah/SEC Country)

“We wanted the tenants that were going to come in here and play to feel like this was their home field, this was their stadium, and that’s how we designed it,” Falcons CEO and president Rich McKay said.

“We truly tried to design it with the SEC in mind. We tried to design it with the College Football Championship in mind. We tried to design it with all of the major events in mind.”

Alabama could benefit the most this season, with two more potential visits if it can win its fourth straight SEC West title, and advance in the playoff for the third straight year. It would be fitting considering how it and Atlanta have benefitted so much from one another of late.

While Alabama has been the kings of college football, with four national championships under Saban, Atlanta has developed into not just the epicenter, mecca, or capital of the sport, but the home of college football.

“It’s been a great run, a great journey,” Stokan said. “It’s pretty cool.”

The post Countdown to kickoff: Oh Atlanta, Alabama and college football hear you calling appeared first on SEC Country.

Christopher Walsh – SEC Country

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