College football's new motto: Go big early, or stay home late

Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher holds up the crystal ball trophy during a celebration of the football team's national championship, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. Now Fisher's in a blockbuster opener with buzz that rivals championship matchups. (AP Photo/Tallahassee Democrat, Mike Ewen)
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher holds up the crystal ball trophy during a celebration of the football team's national championship, Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. Now Fisher's in a blockbuster opener with buzz that rivals championship matchups. (AP Photo/Tallahassee Democrat, Mike Ewen)
Published Sept. 2, 2017

The confetti had barely been cleared off the Raymond James Stadium turf when college football began to turn its attention from one of the greatest title games ever played to the biggest season opener since Rutgers and Princeton first picked up a ball 148 years ago.

No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 3 Florida State.

Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher against his former boss (Nick Saban), in a showdown of the two winningest coaches of the past seven years. The highest-ranked Week 1 matchup ever, at the Atlanta Falcons' brand-new, $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

"It almost feels like a national championship game Week 1," ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.

And it's only one half of the largest opening weekend in state history.

No. 17 Florida faces No. 11 Michigan in the Gators' first season debut against a Power Five opponent in a quarter century. UF even agreed to leave the state — something it hasn't done for an out-of-conference game since 1991 — for the chance to play at the Dallas Cowboys' colossal AT&T Stadium.

"Shoot, I'm looking forward to seeing it," Gators coach Jim McElwain said.

So are fans across the country.

The renaissance of college football's opening weekend gives the state two opening top-25 matchups for the first time. It lumps four programs with 29 national titles and 11 Heisman Trophy winners into a pair of blockbuster events. It builds budgets, boosts ratings and helps decide championships.

And it all started with one enormous disappointment more than a decade ago.

• • •

When the Bowl Championship Series voted to add a fifth game in 2004, Atlanta submitted a bid.

It was denied. Instead of adding a new site, the BCS decided to rotate the championship among its four preexisting bowls (Rose, Fiesta, Orange and Sugar).

So Peach Bowl president and CEO Gary Stokan came up with something else.

"If we can't get in the BCS on the back side of the season," Stokan said, "we're going to create a BCS game on the front side of the season."

The idea of a big-name, neutral-site opener wasn't new. The Meadowlands hosted the Kickoff Classic from 1983-2002, including No. 1 Nebraska's 44-6 trouncing of No. 4 Penn State. FSU played in similar games in Kansas City and Jacksonville.

Those kickoffs fizzled out around 2003 because of NCAA scheduling restrictions. But by the time the BCS rejected the Peach Bowl, the NCAA changed its rules again, allowing teams to play 12 games.

After Stokan's board signed off on the idea, he called Saban and then-Clemson athletic director Terry Don Phillips to pitch a top-25 matchup to begin the 2008 season.

"We had a game," Stokan said.

Soon enough, they had company. UF-Michigan and FSU-Alabama are among this season's eight neutral-site kickoffs spread from Charlotte, N.C., (South Carolina-N.C. State) to Sydney, Australia (Stanford's 62-7 win over Rice last week).

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There are many reasons for the proliferation, starting with the obvious.

"Obviously there's a revenue component," Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin said.

A big one.

FSU and 'Bama will each receive $5 million to play each other. UF and Michigan both get $6 million. For four quarters' work, the Gators will earn almost 5 percent of their athletic department's $128 million budget.

The money exists because big-name matchups spike fan interest, especially in the last weekend before the NFL takes over.

Blockbuster openers

Times file (1983)

Penn State's Mike Zordich stops Nebraska's Turner Gill here, but it was one of the few times he was stopped during the 44-6 Husker rout.

The three previous times the No. 1 team has faced a top-five opponent:

Sept. 6, 1986: No. 1 Oklahoma def. No. 4 UCLA, 38-3

Aug. 29, 1983: No. 1 Nebraska def. No. 4 Penn State, 44-6

Sept. 9, 1982: No. 1 Pitt def. No. 5 North Carolina, 7-6

In 2012, only one season opener drew at least 5.7 million viewers (Alabama-Michigan in Arlington, Texas). Last year, five did, according to data from Sports Media Watch. Four of those were at neutral sites, and three ranked among the 11 most watched games of the entire regular season.

"Which tells you the football fans are thirsty for the start of the season," said Pete Derzis, ESPN's senior vice president of college sports programming and events.

That thirst is one of the benefits that teams begin enjoying long before kickoff.

Coaches have the entire offseason to talk about the games on the recruiting trail (to prospects who dream of playing in NFL stadiums) and the booster circuit (to donors who would rather not play directional schools).

"There's a lot of build-up for those games," said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson, whose Yellow Jackets face No. 25 Tennessee in Atlanta on Monday. "You're going to get a chance to gain some exposure."

And that exposure could pay off long after the game ends. McElwain said the looming challenge of Michigan creates "a little sense of urgency," during the offseason workouts that power title runs.

FSU's has opened in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (2014), Orlando (2016) and now Atlanta, with a Boise State matchup in Jacksonville set for 2019. All four sites happen to be recruiting hotbeds that combined to produce 18 current Seminoles.

"It does expand your brand," Fisher said. "There's no doubt."

For all of the positives mentioned by coaches and administrators, there's one unavoidable downside.

There's a good chance you lose.

• • •

The fear of defeat used to deter tougher scheduling in the BCS era. If one loss could derail a team's championship hopes, why risk it?

The College Football Playoff changed that mentality. Adding two more teams to the championship mix made it easier to rebound from one loss — if the rest of the schedule was tough enough. Ohio State's non-conference win over Oklahoma helped put the Buckeyes in the final four last year, just as Washington nearly missed the field because of its weak opponents.

"I think people realize that if you want to be in the Playoff, you have to play somebody," CFP executive director Bill Hancock said.

That doesn't necessarily mean neutral-site openers, but they're usually easier than setting up home-and-home series a dozen years in advance. Third parties can help, too, whether it's bowl executives (Peach, Citrus) or ESPN (which owns the BYU-LSU game and next year's Alabama-Louisville matchup in Orlando).

Of the 12 College Football Playoff participants so far, 10 faced at least one marquee, out-of-conference opponent in the first three weeks. Four played at neutral sites, including the last three at AT&T Stadium.

Florida's top-25 season openers

Sept. 5, 1987 (at Miami): No. 10 Miami def. No. 20 UF 31-4

Sept. 1, 1984 (in Tampa): No. 10 Miami def. No. 17 UF 32-20

Gainesville Sun (1982)

Florida's James Jones makes the winning catch in the end zone vs. Miami with less than two minutes left in the game.

Sept. 4, 1982 (home): No. 16 UF def. No. 15 Miami 17-14

Sept. 19, 1953 (at Rice): No. 12 Rice def. No. 15 UF 20-16

"Even though the proof will be in the pudding over the next 10 years," Hancock said, "I think in the short term, it's kind of amazing to me we're already seeing people realize that and hustle to change their scheduling philosophy accordingly."

The philosophy isn't foolproof. Before he was ousted for off-the-field issues, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze said his Rebels never recovered mentally from second-half collapses against FSU and 'Bama in the first three weeks. A 5-7 season followed.

But blockbuster premieres have become an integral part of the sport's landscape. Saban's Crimson Tide has marquee openers set through 2019. Two of his former assistants — McElwain and Fisher — have bought in, too; UF will face Miami in Orlando in 2019, and FSU returns to Atlanta to play West Virginia in 2020.

"I think the more different venues your kids get in — environments and atmospheres — everything becomes normal," Fisher said. "Nothing intimidates or bothers you …"

Not even the biggest opening weekend the state has ever seen.

Contact Matt Baker at Follow @MBakerTBTimes.