The Virginia football team’s season opener is scheduled for Sept. 7 against Georgia at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
The high-profile matchup features the reigning SEC East champions and the reigning ACC Coastal Division champions.
After a special season, Virginia’s matchup with Georgia gives the Cavaliers a chance to open the season with a marquee victory. Unfortunately, COVID-19 is threatening to postpone or cancel that game, which is part of a week-long Chick-fil-A kickoff series featuring three nonconference showdowns.
On Saturday, Sept. 5, West Virginia is set to play Florida State. Virginia faces Georgia on Monday, Sept. 7, and North Carolina squares off with Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 12.
Last week, the Big Ten and Pac 12 announced they would play conference-only schedules in the fall due to COVID-19.
Fortunately, all six of the teams in the kickoff event play in the ACC, Big 12 or SEC. Those conferences are expected to announce their fall football plans at the end of the month.
There’s a chance those leagues try to keep the Chick-fil-A kickoff matchups alive.
“We are in a process of waiting until the conferences decide at the end of this month, the ACC and the SEC and the Big 12 what their decisions are going to be,” said Peach Bowl, Inc. CEO and President Gary Stokan, who is in charge of running the Chick-fil-A kickoff series. “Are they going to push back the schedule? Are they going to play conference-only? Are they going to play conference plus one? We’ve modeled a lot of different scenarios and sent that off to the conferences, hoping that we can get our Chick-fil-A kickoff games.”
Stokan stressed that the decision is up to the conferences, and student-athlete safety is paramount in the decision. Whatever happens, safety comes first.
One possible scenario includes conferences maintaining a few of the ACC and SEC rivalry games while moving to conference-only matchups outside of those games. That’s what Stokan calls the “conference plus one” format.
For example, Florida would still play Florida State and Georgia would still play Georgia Tech. In this example of a conference-only season plus one nonconference game, UVa would lose its matchup with Georgia. The Bulldogs would instead play Georgia Tech and all SEC games. West Virginia would lose its game against Florida State with the Seminoles facing Florida instead.
“In that scenario we’ve said, ‘OK, we can match up West Virginia vs. Virginia in our Chick-fil-A Kickoff game since they’re both scheduled to be there in Atlanta, and then continue with our North Carolina-Auburn game the next week, September 12,” Stokan said.
The event has also modeled different seating possibilities. Can the venue allow 25% of people? How about 50%? Would masks be required of all fans? Would bags be allowed into the stadium?
Other aspects, like bands and cheerleaders also need to be considered. It’s been a hectic few weeks and months for the event staff trying to determine how it might work to safely play the three football games.
“God bless my staff, they’re the best in the business,” Stokan said. “We love challenges, and that’s one of the reasons we took on three games a week. You just accept the challenge and you start to model a lot of different scenarios.”
Despite the modeling, Stokan and his staff know they aren’t in charge. COVID-19 leads the way, with the conferences making decisions based off the virus. The kickoff event follows the conference decisions.
If the event can happen safely, there would likely be restrictions for things like the College Football Hall of Fame, VIP areas and the fan zone. An event that usually garners plenty of attention and fanfare may require dramatic limits on fan interactions and activities.
There’s also the distinct possibility the event doesn’t happen in the fall. If football moves to the spring, Stokan hopes to keep the matchups for the spring season.
Stokan hopes the games can occur safely this fall. Atlanta is one of the largest convention towns in the country, and the three games would be considered three of the seven largest conventions in the city, according to Stokan.
He estimates the economic impact to Atlanta if all three games are canceled at about $100 million.
“It’s quite devastating to the hospitality industry should we not be able to have these three games as well as college football fans because this will be one of the first events back on the TV schedule for sporting events,” Stokan said.
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