The Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl — one of six New Year’s Day Six Bowls — comes into focus on Jan. 1 with a matchup between Georgia and Cincinnati.
It marks the third time an unbeaten Group of 5 team has played in the bowl in seven years — and the Bearcats will try to maintain their unbeaten season against the in-state Bulldogs. It should be an exciting matchup that generates storylines about the G5’s role in the College Football Playoff structure.
Behind the scenes, however, there is a different kind of game day preparation, one that started with the disappointment created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan remembers that disappointment after the cancellation of all three Chick-fil-A Kickoff games — which were to played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta from Sept. 5-12.
A blockbuster weekend that featured matchups between West Virginia and Florida (Sept. 5), Georgia and Virginia (Sept. 7) and North Carolina and Auburn (Sept. 12) was wiped out. The goal changed from “greatest opening weekend” to “safest Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl possible.”
With that, Stokan likes to use one of his favorite phrases: “An attitude of gratitude.”
“It was good in one way that we did a lot of homework and had a lot of best practices for the bowl game,” Stokan told Sporting News. “But it was very disappointing because we put in so much work and effort with those six teams only to be told we had to cancel the games.”
A total of 18 bowl games have been canceled this year; the latest the Texas Bowl matchup between Arkansas and TCU. The Peach Bowl remains on for Friday and will serve as the undercard for the two College Football Playoff semifinals.
Stokan said weekly planning conversations with the other New Year’s Day Six CEOs and the College Football Playoff committee made that possible. Stokan also watched events with the Atlanta United in the MLS and the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The stadium seats 75,000, but for the Peach Bowl it will be at 25 percent capacity between 16,000-17,000 fans. Stokan ran down the protocols, which include seating pods of two and four.
Masks are required – and will be available at the gates. Only essential personnel will be allowed on the field. No presentations on the field are allowed, and there will be no bands, cheerleaders or mascots.
Of course, there are strict detailed COVID-19 testing protocols, too.
“We’ll test all the workers, all of our staff, all of the people getting on the field all the ESPN people and all the officials,” he said. “This has been a different kind of challenge than we’ve ever had.”
Stokan, a former North Carolina State assistant basketball coach, also created a depth chart for the Peach Bowl staff and volunteers in order to shift responsibilities in case of COVID-19 coaches.
“You always have to have a next person up mentality and have that second-team guy prepared if the first team person goes down,” he said. “We had to create a next-person up succession plan on our staff and with our volunteers in case someone had to be quarantined day of or week of. That’s unique. There’s no doubt about that.”
From that aspect, Stokan appreciates the schedule tweaking the Power 5 conferences were able to negotiate during the season. The SEC had just two games canceled in its 2020 season.
“I really do admire, it can’t be said enough, what the medical people, coaches, the ADs, the staffs the players the trainers have really done to have one game,” Stokan said. “It’s remarkable to me that we’ve been able to have a college football season.”
Stokan said the downside is not having the teams there for the entire week, and that’s not just for the Battle for Bowl Week activities. Atlanta minister C.T. Young, former mayor Andrew Young and members of the Ebenezer Baptist Church – which was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s church – typically speak to the student-athletes during the week.
“Here this year, when it’s of the greatest matters of interest, we’re not able to have that,” Stokan said. “That is disappointing.”
Despite all that, Stokan maintains a positive outlook.
Stokan also is appreciative of this year’s matchup and the implications from that game. The Group of 5 team won the two previous matchups. Houston defeated Florida State 38-24 in 2015, and UCF beat Auburn 34-27 in 2018. Stokan expects that the matchup between the Bulldogs and Bearcats should be just as entertaining.
“That’s college football, but at the end of the day both teams in Florida State-Houston and Auburn-UCF, they were ready to play,” Stokan said. “I went to every practice, and there wasn’t a team that didn’t want to be there. In any one game, anything can happen.”