Atlanta Georgia

Why are Pac-12 teams suddenly willing to play Auburn and Georgia in Atlanta?

When No. 6 Washington takes the field against No. 9 Auburn at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday, it’ll mark the first time that a Pac-12 team has played in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in its 11-year history.

That could have happened 2 years ago with USC. Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO and President Gary Stokan told me last year about how he had drawn up the USC-Alabama matchup. Both parties had agreed to a neutral-site game, but USC wasn’t on board with coming to Atlanta. The Trojans believed it was too much of a home-field advantage for the Tide.

Instead of playing in Atlanta, they settled on a true neutral site in Dallas … where Alabama still won 52-6.

Fast forward to 2018. Washington knows that Auburn has a clear geographical advantage in Atlanta, yet with massive Playoff implications, the Huskies were willing to make the cross-country trip.

Earlier this month, Oregon followed suit. The Ducks agreed to perhaps an even more daunting task by coming to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to face Georgia in 2022.

So why are Pac-12 teams suddenly willing to come to Atlanta for a game that’s not exactly neutral? Stokan shared some of the inner workings as to how that came to be.

Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start with Auburn-Washington.

For Auburn, obviously playing a headliner neutral site game in Atlanta makes all sorts of sense. It’s less than 2 hours away, there are massive recruiting benefits and its a chance to play at the same venue as the SEC Championship 3 months early. That’s why Auburn is playing in this game for the third time.

As for Washington, that’s a different story. Its roughly a 5-hour flight across 3 time zones.

Those negotiations started when Stokan went to the West Coast for Pac-12 Media Days before the 2016 season. He had been reading about Washington getting preseason flak from the media for a nonconference schedule that consisted of home games against Rutgers, FCS Portland State and Idaho.

Stokan knew Washington’s third-year coach, Chris Petersen. While Petersen was at Boise State, his squad went to Atlanta and beat Georgia in the 2011 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game (Boise State also played in Atlanta in 2014, but that was the first year without Petersen).

So Stokan had a plan when he talked with Petersen at Pac-12 Media Days.

“I said Chris, ‘I’ve got Auburn in 2018. I know you’re taking some heat on your schedule. This would be a great upgrade to your schedule. We could make it a fair payout,’” Stokan said. “(Petersen) said, ‘Yeah, we’d like to do it.’”

That put the wheels in motion. Washington then got off to an undefeated start to the 2016 season, but it was still getting hammered for its weak nonconference schedule. In the first Playoff poll, it was ranked No. 5 behind a 1-loss Texas A&M, which sparked plenty of conversation about the Huskies’ résumé.

“The timing of this couldn’t have worked any better for Washington or for us."
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO and President Gary Stokan

Two days later, first-year Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen finalized the reported $4.2 million payout deal to play Auburn (then No. 9) in the 2018 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta.

“The timing of this couldn’t have worked any better for Washington or for us,” Stokan said.

Admittedly, Stokan got a bit lucky. Washington fans got a feel for Atlanta when the Huskies played against Alabama in the Peach Bowl Playoff semifinal later that year. At the time when the matchup was set up, they had superstar skill players in Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin. Both stayed for their senior seasons and ultimately fueled a preseason No. 6 ranking for 2018.

But Stokan bet on Petersen turning around Washington — the program was only coming off a 7-win season when negotiations began — because of what he did at Boise State.

In a nutshell, that’s how that matchup came together.

As for Oregon-Georgia, that’s actually more of an SEC thing than a Pac-12 thing. Well, and like Washington, it was a Playoff thing.

Stokan knew Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens from his days at Kentucky, where he was the deputy director of athletics. In the beginning of 2018, Mullens took over as the Playoff selection committee chair.

Like Washington in 2016, Oregon will start 2018 as a ranked team, No. 24, but with a weak nonconference schedule that also features a matchup with FCS Portland State. In fact, ESPN’s Chris Low ranked Oregon as the No. 1 easiest nonconference schedule in 2018. Easier than Georgia’s.

Two months later, it was announced that Oregon and Georgia would face off in the 2022 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

Stokan couldn’t help but think that Mullens’ new role with the Playoff selection committee had something to do with that.

“(Oregon A.D. Rob Mullens) is putting his money where his mouth is."
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl CEO and President Gary Stokan on Oregon facing Georgia in Atlanta in 2022

“He’s putting his money where his mouth is,” Stokan said of Mullens.

The headliner matchup, Stokan said, also had something to do with the relationship of first-year Oregon coach Mario Cristobal and Kirby Smart. They coached together on Alabama’s staff from 2013-15. Cristobal (below) took part in two Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games while he was at Alabama, where he saw the benefit of what the nonconference game was for a team with Playoff aspirations.

Credit: Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon actually could have played the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game as early as 2019. Like USC-Alabama, Stokan had the Auburn-Oregon concept drawn up as a rematch of their 2013 BCS National Championship. Unfortunately like USC, Oregon pushed to have the game played in Dallas instead of Atlanta when they agreed on a deal in 2015.

Stokan hopes that school of thought is over with the Pac-12 schools. There are still hurdles that he has the work through to make a Pac-12 trip to Atlanta a more common occurrence. With the Pac-12 having a 9-game conference schedule, teams essentially only have 1 nonconference showdown to schedule that’s away from home (they need 7 home games for season-ticket holders).

Surely average payouts of $5.2 million (dating to its inception in 2008) does more than enough to ease the blow for all Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game participants.

Perhaps more important for truly shifting the narrative that it’s an SEC home game would be a non-SEC team winning. The conference is riding a 7-game winning streak in the annual kickoff game. Auburn was actually the last SEC team to lose, back in 2012.

It’s no secret that a year after getting left out of the Playoff, the Pac-12 wouldn’t mind if Washington’s cross-country trip to Atlanta proved to be victorious. Either way, it’ll be lucrative. Maybe it’ll fuel even more Pac-12 vs. SEC headliners with Playoff implications.

That wouldn’t be such a bad deal at all.

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