Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan travels to games throughout the country each season to visit teams he thinks could end up playing in the game he presides over that year. His first trip this fall was to Ohio State’s home game against Wisconsin during the fourth week of the season.
Stokan spoke with Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith during that visit, and they had a conversation that would prove to be foretelling of what would happen a little more than two months later when the College Football Playoff field was selected.
“I knew pretty early that Ohio State was going to be in the mix. And matter of fact, talked to Gene Smith and I said, ‘You know, we've been in this thing (the New Year’s Six) nine years and I can't remember how many times Ohio State’s played in the CFP era, but we've never had a chance to host them.’ And he says, ‘Well, hopefully we get a chance to get down there this year,’” Stokan recalled. “So he prognosticated coming down and playing in the semifinal, and here we go.”
Ohio State’s appearance in this year’s Peach Bowl will be its first-ever appearance in the Peach Bowl, which has been held since 1968 but traditionally featured annual matchups between SEC and ACC schools until it became part of the New Year’s Six when the College Football Playoff was established in 2014. In the previous two seasons the Peach Bowl hosted a CFP semifinal game (2016 and 2019), Ohio State appeared in the other semifinal at the Fiesta Bowl.
As the No. 4 seed in this year’s CFP, however, the Buckeyes will be heading to Atlanta to face Georgia, who gets to play its semifinal game in its home state as the No. 1 seed.
While Stokan said he wasn’t necessarily rooting for any specific team to make this year’s game, knowing a CFP semifinal would deliver a matchup between two of college football’s best teams no matter what, he is excited to finally have the opportunity to welcome Ohio State to the Peach Bowl.
“It's great to have Ohio State number one, with all their great fan base and being able to work with Gene Smith, who I admire and like – he's a first-class guy – and Ryan Day as well,” Stokan, who has been the Peach Bowl’s CEO and president since 1998, said while appearing on this week’s Real Pod Wednesdays. “It's even more exciting and an honor to host them during a semifinal of the CFP.”
Knowing that Ohio State will be motivated to bounce back from its regular-season-ending loss to Michigan and trying to earn a potential national championship game rematch with the Wolverines only increases Stokan’s excitement to have the Buckeyes playing in the Peach Bowl.
“I've said all along I thought Ohio State had possibly the best offense in the country,” Stokan said. “I think this game will really allow Ohio State, number one to get back on the field after a tough loss against the archrival, right? Number two, to think about having the opportunity to play for a national championship. Number three is to get healthy, particularly at wide receiver and running back. And then number four, if they can win this game, not to get too far ahead and look ahead because they’re playing the number one team in the country, they could possibly revenge a loss. So Ohio State has maybe more to play for than anybody else in the country right now.”
Stokan believes this year’s Peach Bowl is well-positioned to break the attendance record at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which was set at 78,347 the last time the Peach Bowl hosted a CFP semifinal in 2019, in which Joe Burrow led LSU to a 63-28 win over Oklahoma. Stokan says the Peach Bowl has added about 2,000 more standing-room-only tickets for this year’s game, and he expects the stadium to be filled with both Buckeye and Bulldog fans on New Year’s Eve.
“Even though we've got Georgia, we think there's just gonna be as many Ohio State fans as there are Georgia fans in that stadium and around the stadium as well,” Stokan said. “It's going to be wild down there in Mercedes Benz Stadium. We’ll close the roof, so it'll make it even more loud down there on New Year's Eve.”
Both teams will arrive in Atlanta on Dec. 26, and there will be a week full of festivities for the teams leading up to the game. While the Peach Bowl will allow the teams to focus fully on football in the final two days before the game, activities for the players earlier in the week will include a tour of the College Football Hall of Fame, a visit to the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church (where Martin Luther King was pastor), visits to local children’s hospitals and a “Battle for Bowl Week” in which the teams will compete against each other in events like basketball shooting and go-kart racing.
“We use the theme of live, laugh and learn for the players,” Stokan said. “Everything we do around this bowl game is a reward for the players.”
As for fans making the trip to Atlanta for the game, Stokan says everyone should make a stop at the College Football Hall of Fame – though he admits he’s biased there as the original CEO of the Hall of Fame when it moved to Atlanta – while other recommended attractions include the Georgia Aquarium (the largest in the United States), the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, the World of Coca-Cola and Centennial Olympic Park.
“We'll have our fan fest before the game, we'll have our parade before the game. And then we'll have our team walks leading into Mercedes-Benz Stadium about two hours before the game, so a lot to do on game day,” Stokan said. “And Atlanta that time of year is great shopping, great bars and restaurants. Yeah, they'll have a great time down there. It's a great city. People really enjoy hosting people. There's a lot of Southern hospitality there, particularly around the bowl season.
“We're the fourth largest convention town in the United States behind Orlando, Las Vegas in Chicago, and four of the top six conventions in Atlanta on an annual basis are our two Chick-fil-A kickoff games, the SEC championship and Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. So people in the tourism industry know that college football is awfully important, particularly coming out of COVID and what we've been through. So they play great hosts to all the fans.”
“Even though we've got Georgia, we think there's just gonna be as many Ohio State fans as there are Georgia fans in that stadium and around the stadium as well.”– Peach Bowl CEO Gary Stokan
The Peach Bowl is scheduled for an 8 p.m. kickoff on Dec. 31 and will be televised on ESPN. Tickets for the general public are sold out for this year’s Peach Bowl, but Ohio State season ticket holders are able to submit CFP ticket requests (until 4 p.m. Friday) through Ohio State’s official website while members of the general public can buy tickets as part of travel packages being offered by Ohio State.