Atlanta has been good for Alabama.
It’s easy to see why. Some of Alabama’s most memorable football moments have come there:
• Crushing Clemson in 2008 and announcing to the world that Alabama was back.
• Ending Urban Meyer’s Florida dynasty and making Tim Tebow weep.
• Tua Tagovailoa becoming an instant legend and immortalizing ‘second-and-26.’
• Jalen Hurts coming off the bench to catapult UA past Georgia last season.
Atlanta is the destination for the Crimson Tide, whether it’s season openers (like Saturday’s against Duke), SEC title games or College Football Playoff games. And it’s a place where they feel comfortable.
“Atlanta, I feel like that’s my home field,” Alabama linebacker Terrell Lewis said. “I don’t get pre-game jitters when I’m there. I feel like I’ve been there more than Bryant-Denny (Stadium).”
It’s also a pretty special experience for Alabama players.
“We’ve gone back since my freshman year,” senior tight end Miller Forristall said. “Every year it’s a perennial thing. It’s always a lot of fun to play in such a cool stadium, whether it’s the old Georgia Dome and now Mercedes-Benz. It’s such a cool experience to play there in front of the fans. Especially for an opening game. You couldn’t ask for anything better.
“I got to play my senior year of high school in a state championship game. It was one of the last games in the Georgia Dome. So now we get to go to Mercedes-Benz every year, my family gets to come down and watch. My little brother gets to come over and watch the game. How cool is that?”
The Georgia Dome was demolished and replaced with Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which opened in 2017. Alabama has played three games there and won all three, including the CFP title game against Georgia for 2017 championship. That’s the game Tagovailoa led the Crimson Tide to a second-half comeback that ended with a second-and-26 walk-off touchdown completion to DeVonta Smith in overtime.
It was a special moment for Alabama and Tagovailoa for sure, one they will cherish and remember. The next trip to Atlanta for Tagovailoa was about as memorable as a root canal – painful and hard to re-live. Tagovailoa wasn’t terrible in a rematch with Georgia in the 2018 SEC title game, but he was not his normal, All-American, Heisman Trophy finalist self. He threw for 164 yards with two interceptions and left the game early in the fourth quarter with an ankle injury, setting the stage for Hurts’ dramatic heroic finish.
“Football is just like life, that’s how it is,” Tagovailoa said. “You are going to have some good and you are going to have some bad. This is an opportunity for me to learn from the good and the bad and bring them together. I’m hoping this Saturday won’t end up like the SEC Championship Game.”
Playing in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta is the goal for all SEC teams, (Alabama and Florida have 12 appearances), but winning a title in Atlanta is the ultimate achievement (Alabama leads with eight SEC title wins). Playing a game in Atlanta in the first game of the season helps a little bit with getting the Crimson Tide accustomed to Mercedes-Benz Stadium and all its idiosyncrasies.
“It helps because you know where the game clock is going to be and knowing what kind of field turf we are playing on as well,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s not normal field turf if you ask me. To me it’s rough and hard. The turf we have here (at the indoor practice facility) is a lot softer and more bouncy. The turf there is almost like concrete.”
Nick Saban enjoys trips to Atlanta, and any neutral site for that matter, because of how it helps the team prepare for the future. Particularity road games or any upcoming neutral-site games that involve the College Football Playoff.
“We are going to play an SEC team on the road early in the season and I think for a lot of players this is an opportunity, even though it isn’t necessarily a road game, it prepares them to play on the road,” Saban said. “You are going to travel, you have to focus, you are in a different place, playing in a new stadium. So all the external factors that sort of affect your ability to focus on what you need to be doing, this is an experience to do that.”
The biggest benefit to Alabama playing in Atlanta for a season opener, as opposed to anywhere else, is the fans. They are more willing to make the trip to Atlanta than Arlington or Orlando and the data backs that up.
In 2018 The Tuscaloosa News looked into ticket allotments for Alabama football games. In regular-season, neutral-site games played in Atlanta since 2013 (Virginia Tech in 2013, West Virginia in 2014, and Florida State in 2017) Alabama had no ticket returns. Alabama had 31,201 tickets allotted for Virginia Tech, 31,095 for West Virginia and 28,027 for Florida State.
Alabama saw ticket returns for the other neutral-site games: 4,326 returns vs. Wisconsin (Arlington, 2015), 210 returns vs. Southern Cal (Arlington, 2016) and 4,160 returns against Louisville (2018, Orlando).
Neutral-site games have been big for Alabama since Nick Saban took over in 2007 and it gives Alabama a nice paycheck ($4.5 million for last season’s game against Louisville).
“I think it’s great from a program exposure standpoint,” Saban said. “We’ve had a lot of games in Atlanta, we’ve had some in Dallas, we’ve had some other games in other places, that have given the program a lot of exposure, which I think is really important. I think when you play a good opponent early on the whole focus in the offseason, spring practice, fall camp, is always a little better because players feel they’re going to be challenged in the first game.
“That’s something I think helps their competitive spirit throughout that preparation time.”
With Alabama scheduling more home-and-home opponents for the future (Notre Dame in 2028-29, Oklahoma in 2032-33, Texas in 2022-23) there may be fewer trips to Atlanta, or any other neutral site, for season openers. It also has neutral-site games against Southern Cal (2020) and Miami (2021), but it’s obvious the fan base wants more home-and-home series.
“We have heard, loud and clear, and we’ve shown with our actions that we are looking for more high-quality non-conference games at Bryant-Denny,” Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne told The Tuscaloosa News last year. “Because games are scheduled so far in advance, it’s hard to get those done.
“We are working on others, but it is a challenge to find years and dates that work out on both ends. So we’re having a lot of discussions about potential games 12 to 15 years out.”
Reach Edwin Stanton at 205-722-0226, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter, @edwinstantonu2