ATLANTA | With the game this city is proclaiming as the greatest college football opener in history, it would seem only natural to get into the spirit by visiting the College Football Hall of Fame.
After all, a few of the players and certainly the two coaches on the field at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday when top-ranked Alabama plays No. 3 Florida State are likely to be enshrined one day.
“This is tiding us over so we don’t explode before the game starts,” said Charles Gilberti of DeLand, a 2010 FSU graduate.
“Our coach better be in here one day,” Alabama fan Deborah Simmons of Lucas, Texas, said of the Tide’s Nick Saban. “He’s already got a statue [outside Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa].”
At the peak of Friday afternoon at the Hall of Fame building, located down the street from the spanking new venue in which the two teams will battle, FSU garnet and gold and ‘Bama Crimson was the dress of the day. There wasn’t a single fan wearing another set of colors to be found as they got ready for game day by immersing themselves in the history of their respective programs.
Kimberly Beaudin, the vice-president of marketing and communications for the Hall of Fame, said the attendance on Friday and Saturday will rival any two days preceding the Peach Bowl or the SEC Championship game.
“We’re getting crowds as good as any of our peak periods,” she said. “But this is the greatest opener in college history, right? People are excited.”
There has never been an opening game between two of the top-three teams in the preseason Associated Press poll. While fans didn’t really start coming to Atlanta until Thursday or Friday, they said it still has the feel of a bowl or even a national championship game.
“It’s similar … the atmosphere to these opening games has been very much like a bowl,” said Andrew Simmons, who has attended the last three opening games in which the Tide has played.
The game has been anticipated so much that one Florida State fan said she tried to mitigate the team’s three losses last season with the knowledge that the Alabama game was coming.
“It’s been on our minds every day,” said B.J. Gilberti. “It’s been a coping mechanism. I’d tell myself, ‘well, we lost that game, but it will be okay if we can beat Alabama next year.’ ”
There’s also the novelty of being the first college game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
“That’s really an honor, to be at the first college game there,” said Skip Prange of Pensacola. “We’re optimistic. I feel we stand a very good chance of winning the game if the breaks fall our way.”
“Jimbo has built this team to beat Alabama,” said 1978 FSU graduate Chuck Bones of Ft. Lauderdale. “I like our chances.”
Alabama fans, with four national championships in 10 years under Saban, speak in more confident terms.
“We’re going to dominate,” said Lynn Trull of Gordo, Ala.
Soaking all of that in is Peach Bowl Inc., CEO Gary Stokan, whose organization launched the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Game in 2008. He said analysts have projected that the FSU-Alabama game, the SEC championship, the Peach Bowl and the College Football Playoff national championship game will stir up more than $100 million in economic impact for Atlanta this year, and that the ‘Noles vs. Tide, the SEC title game and the CFP title game will be among the top-five events in the city in terms of bringing in visitors.
“Game day is going to be an awesome atmosphere for everyone involved in college football,” he said.
The host association and fans from both schools and in Atlanta believe the game has a national championship feel. But what of the participants?
They’re trying to keep their emotions muted until kickoff.
“We can’t ignore that it’s definitely a bigger game, but the coaches don’t want us to emphasize that this is the only game,” said FSU defensive end Josh Sweat. It’s a big game. Everyone knows it is.”
The record for the two highest-ranked teams in an opening game was No. 1 vs. No. 4 (twice), so the Seminoles and the Tide are breaking new ground.
And fans for both schools don’t have to stare wistfully at the calendar any more.
The Greatest Opener is finally here.