Who will Virginia play in the season opener? Georgia or West Virginia?

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: Mercedes Benz Stadium

If Virginia’s season-opening game against Georgia can’t be played on Labor Day, will the Cavaliers still play in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and who would be their opponent?

Everything is up in the air heading into the final week of July, when decisions will likely be made on whether there will be a football season, and if so, what kind of schedules will be played and when might the season start.

Gary Stokan, CEO and president of the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and director of the season-opening round of games in Atlanta, has brainstormed for more than a month on every possible scenario.

It was Stokan who came up with the idea more than a year ago to host three games in three days over Labor Day weekend to kick off college football: North Carolina vs. Auburn, Florida State vs. West Virginia, and capped off on Labor Day evening with Virginia vs. Georgia.

In more than 150 years of college football, no venue has attempted to host three games in three days. Because of the pandemic, it may not happen this year if conferences opt to play a shortened schedule that could be restricted to league games only. The Big 10 and Pac-12 have already gone that route, but the ACC, SEC and Big 12 won’t make a decision until the end of July.

Stokan is ready for almost any scenario, however if those three Power 5 conferences adopt the same plan and play league games only, then his Labor Day weekend will be in jeopardy.

“I know philosophically, the ACC, SEC and Big 12 would like to play all 12 games,” Stokan said in a telephone interview this week. “We’re still optimistic about playing all three games.

“If the conferences don’t play any nonconference games, obviously that wipes us out, but if they allow one nonconferene game, that would take care of the problem.”

Virginia fans have eagerly awaited the opener against Georgia since news of the matchup leaked out more than a year ago. The SEC has indicated that it is exploring scheduling options that would take Georgia out of that game because if that conference goes the route of only one nonconference game, the Bulldogs want to hold onto their longtime rivalry contest against Georgia Tech.

In a perfect world, Stokan would love to feature the UVA-Georgia game, but if that isn’t possible, the Monday night ESPN primetime slot has to be filled an an ACC team.

If his game loses Georgia because of the Georgia Tech game, then Stokan would likely put Virginia vs. West Virginia into that slot. North Carolina would still play Auburn in one of the other three-day game slots.

The ACC said it would announce its decision on whether to play a full schedule or shortened schedule at the end of July. Commissioner John Swofford and the league’s 14 schools, in addition to Notre Dame, are trying to decide on whether the season should be delayed with a start in October, whether to play conference games only, or conference games plus one nonconfence game.

Part of the problem is taking care of Notre Dame, an ACC partner in football (the Irish play six games a year vs. ACC teams), and the longtime rivalry games between four ACC and four SEC schools.

“I know the four ADs from the ACC and four from the SEC are pushing to play those rivalry games,” Stokan said.

Georgia Tech-Georgia, Louisville-Kentucky, Clemson-South Carolina and Florida State-Florida are games than none of those schools want to give up, which only adds to the already complicated issues of playing the season. Then there’s the Notre Dame part of the equation.

Stokan sees a possibility in a conference plus-one scenario of UVA vs. West Virginia, North Carolina vs. Auburn. That would also likely mean that schools from the ACC, SEC and Big 12 would opt to keep a game against another Power 5 team, such as NC State vs. Mississippi State, Texas vs. LSU, Tennessee vs. Oklahoma, Missouri vs. BYU, Vanderbilt vs. Kansas State.

“Notre Dame would need the most help because the rivalry games would take place with Florida-Florida State, Kentucky-Louisville, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson,” Stokan said. “Notre Dame would lose three games, so what I’ve suggested is the ACC puts Syracuse — who lost a game, Miami — who lost Michigan State, and Alabama — who lost USC, on the Notre Dame schedule so that would make up those three games with Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech (who the Irish would lose to those ACC-SEC rivalry games). It’s basically the ACC would play all their conference games plus one Power 5 game.”

UVA’s plus-one would be West Virginia on Labor Day weekend.

That is, unless the ACC, SEC and Big 12 decide to delay the start of the season, which is what Stokan would do.

“If I were a commissioner, I would push the season back to October,” Stokan said. “And I would go with the schedule I just gave you (the Labor Day weekend games would be pushed back a month). You would still have an open date in case you have a cancellation during the season.”

Under that scenario, the league championship games would be moved back to Dec. 19.

Stokan is meeting with Mercedes-Benz Stadium reps on Thursday, where scenarios will be discussed along with what the stadium capacity, ticket sales, safety protocols and other topics will be covered.

“We have contengencies for our contengencies,” Stokan chuckled. “We’ve talked about 25 percent capacity, 30 percent, 50 percent. Contracts would change, payouts would change, costs would change. The number one goal would be to have the safest environment we can provide for everyone inside our stadium. So we’re talking no bags versus plastic or clear bags for fans. There probably would be no bands or cheerleaders. We wouldn’t have our team walks or have a tailgate zone before the game.

“We would have had three sellouts of 72,000 fans for each game, but at say, 25 percent capacity, you’re probably talking approximately 17,500 fans being in the stadium.”

For media, there would probably be a Zoom press conference after the game, so no personal contact between players, coaches and media.

Originally, Virginia’s share of the revenue from playing Georgia would have been $4.25 million, but that will change. The game does not receive TV money but depends on sponsorship and ticket revenue in order to pay teams.

Obviously the payouts for any team participating in this year’s game will be down from that original figure because sponsorship money will likely be down and attendance will be as well.

The Power 5 conferences are planning to adhere to the same Covid-19 virus testing protocols, which would present a better opportunity to play a conference plus-one or conference plus-two schedule because the Group of Five and FCS schools likely wouldn’t be able to conduct the same kind of testing modules as the Power 5 conferences.

Should Virginia end up facing West Virginia in the season opener in Atlanta, it would be the first time the two have met since the 2002 Continental Tire Bowl in Charlotte. UVA won that game by a 48-22 score under Al Groh. The Cavaliers own a three-game winning streak over the Mountaineers dating back to 1984.

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