USC quarterback Sam Darnold is considered an early Heisman Trophy candidate as he leads the Trojans in his sophomore year. Photo courtesy of KIRBY LEE/USA TODAY SPORTS

From season openers to the climactic games of the College Football Playoff, college football always generates plenty of interest. And this season, several new venues and a new site for the national championship game stand to create even more buzz around the sport.

The excitement around the 2017-2018 season starts in Atlanta in early September with the marquee matchups of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Games at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. That venue will also close out the season, serving as the host of the national championship at season’s end. Also new to kick off the season, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott will fulfill his desire to market college football beyond the United States when Stanford plays Rice on August 26 at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, Australia.

“There are more of those really key matchups at the start of the year, and I don’t think they’re done just for the heck of it,” said Steve Hatchell, president and CEO of the National Football Foundation, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. “I think they’re good for TV ratings and they’re good for the payoff for the schools as well.”

For this season, there will be 776 football programs participating at all college levels, two more than a year ago. “Even if you took out the top 65 from the power five conferences, you still have 711 schools playing college football because they want to,” said Hatchell. “It means something to them and it means something to their communities.”    

Atlanta Rhythm

Atlanta has always been a hotbed for college football, but this year brings two new venues that are changing the landscape of the city when it comes to football. The first is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, future home of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons, which on September 2 and 4 will host the Chick-fil-A Kickoff games featuring Alabama, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Tennessee. The stadium will also host the College Football Playoff National Championship on January 8, 2018, an event that typically is not awarded to a venue in its opening season.

“It’s unusual for a significant college event to be awarded to a city before the stadium is complete,” said Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff. “I know when I was director of the (NCAA) Final Four, we wouldn’t have done that. We would have said, ‘No, the stadium has to be operational at the time of the bid.’”

Changing the dynamic, however, was the fact that the Falcons’ previous home, the Georgia Dome, is still standing next door and could serve as emergency backup in a scenario where construction on the new stadium caused delays. “Atlanta had a world-class stadium existing already,” Hancock said. “If something had happened and the new stadium hadn’t been finished, we could have gone right over and staged it at the Georgia Dome.”

As it turns out, the kickoff games at the start of the season should provide an adequate dress rehearsal for the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide rolls in on September’s first Saturday with Alabama taking on Florida State in a sold-out primetime telecast in the first Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. Two days later, Tennessee will take on  Georgia Tech.

The final big rehearsal for the national championship game will be the SEC Football Championship on December 2, also scheduled for the new stadium. “I’ve been there many times during the construction,” Hancock said. “I’m just so impressed with the design and so impressed with the innovations. It will be a destination in itself.”

Panther Pride

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is not the only new venue in Atlanta that will be used for college football. The move by MLB’s Atlanta Braves from downtown Turner Field to SunTrust Park in Cobb County, 20 miles to the northwest, proved to be a blessing for Georgia State University.

Turner Field was built originally for the 1996 Olympic Summer Games. When the Braves left for SunTrust, the vacancy presented an opportunity for Georgia State. Since launching its football program in 2010, the team had played home games in the Georgia Dome. With the Braves’ move, GSU Athletics Director Charlie Cobb envisioned a plan to refurbish the baseball team’s venue, located only a mile from campus, rather than constructing a new football stadium from scratch.

“The Braves’ decision to leave the stadium was, I think, a surprise to everybody,” said Cobb. “It’s one of those situations where you never really thought it was even possible.”

After approval by the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia last November, the transaction that turned the property over from the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority to Georgia State for $30 million was completed in early January. The next month, the $22.8 million renovation, funded through institutional resources and private fundraising, got underway with the goal of reconfiguring the field from baseball to football. Seating capacity is being reduced to about 23,000.

“It became somewhat of a no-brainer for us and somewhat of a no-brainer for the city,” Cobb said. “Then when you throw in the development component in terms of trying to really establish a 24-7 livable community around the stadium, it’s one of the things where everything comes together. It makes sense for everybody.”

The Panthers, an FBS institution in the Sun Belt Conference, open their season against Tennessee State on August 31, led by Shawn Elliott in his first year as head coach.

“We didn’t have our own place to play football, and we’re trying to make football be a big part of the fabric of our campus,” Cobb said.

A Tennessee Frontier

Undeterred by its location in the heart of Volunteer country, East Tennessee State University in Johnson City is preparing to open a new home for its football team after the recent rebirth of the program. ETSU football had been dormant since the 2003 season, but the Buccaneers took the field again as an FCS team in 2015. The Bucs, under Coach Carl Torbush, will open in their new on-campus stadium on September 2 against Limestone College of South Carolina.

“Not everybody’s wearing orange here,” said Richard Sander, ETSU athletics director, referring to the Vols’ color. “I’m wearing blue and gold, and all you’ve got to do is walk through the community, and we have really made a dramatic impact.”

The new stadium, located in the southwest corner of the university’s campus, seats 7,000 and can fit another 3,000 in standing-room-only areas. Skybox suites are sold out. Club-level and midfield-level seating, which features box-style seats with backs and cup holders, have already been sold out. Previously the Bucs played their home games at nearby Science Hill High School.

Sander said the new on-campus facility is a significant development for the school. “I think football is the unifying initiative for students, faculty and the community,” he said. “I think it’s really important that the students can walk to the stadium.”

With a corporate partnership linked to the Food City grocery chain, a Food City Zone will be set up for tailgating and a pre-game party atmosphere.

Fresh Air in Colorado

The largest new college football stadium opening this season, a $220.1 million project, will be the home of the Colorado State Rams in Fort Collins. Sonny Lubick Field at Colorado State Stadium, with a capacity of 41,500 (36,500 seated and 5,000 SRO), will replace the off-campus Hughes Stadium, where the Rams had played their home games since 1968. Like ETSU, CSU athletics officials emphasized the importance of playing on campus.    

In the past, some alumni returned for games without visiting the actual school. “CSU fans have never really come back to campus,” said Joe Parker, CSU athletics director. “If they’re an alumnus, they’ve never really had a direct experience with the university, in some cases, since they graduated.”

Now offices and practice facilities are located in or near the new stadium, and hospitality areas will be used even when there’s no game being played.

“The first purpose is to serve the game-day experience and the patrons who have access to those areas,” Parker said. “But each of those areas have been designed with the idea of secondary hosting purpose for any special-event activities.”

Fort Collins is home to New Belgium Brewery, one the nation’s largest craft breweries. The company will sponsor the stadium’s New Belgium Porch hospitality area, where those who purchase a membership will have access to a pair of large service pavilions serving New Belgium’s beers. Beer will be served throughout the rest of the stadium as well. “We’ve got a 30-year history of responsibly serving alcoholic beverages at football games,” said Parker. “It’s part of the culture.”

The location of Colorado State Stadium is also expected to boost business throughout Fort Collins, since the stadium is accessible by public transportation. To the north is the city’s historic Old Town, which is so picturesque it helped inspire the design of Disneyland’s Main Street, USA. To the south is the Midtown area with restaurants and retail businesses.

The new era at Colorado State Stadium will open with Oregon State University as the visitor on August 26. “It’s a total reset,” Parker said. “We’re really trying to focus on our ability to create what we believe to be the most unique and special game-day experience in the country.”

Texas Two-Step

Like Atlanta, other cities are taking advantage of premier early- and late-season matchups. In Arlington, Texas, AT&T Stadium will host the Advocare Classic on September 2 between the universities of Michigan and Florida. And on December 2, the stadium that is the regular home to the Dallas Cowboys will host the long-anticipated return of the Big 12 Football Championship.

That game had been held annually from 1996 to 2010. But when conference realignment left the Big 12 with just 10 teams, the conference fell out of compliance with NCAA rules that required conferences to have at least 12 teams to have a title game. Rules have changed since then after the Big 12’s powerhouse schools found themselves out of the national title mix, partially as a result of not having a final championship game to bolster their credentials.

This season’s long-awaited return of a Big 12 championship game was met with approval by the College Football Playoff and other advocates of the game. “The championship game will provide their top teams with another game against a quality opponent,” said Hancock. “What we have learned in the CFP so far is that strength of schedule is important.”

“I think the conference championship game is good for them,” said Hatchell. “It’ll generate more revenue. It’s one more week that they get TV ratings to watch the conference. Everybody says that they need one more data point to get into the national championship. Hopefully that’ll be indeed the case, but frankly two Big 12 teams playing one more additional week is not a bad thing.”

In addition to hosting the Big 12 title game, the Dallas-Fort Worth area will also host the newly christened Frisco Bowl. The Miami Beach Bowl, formerly owned by the American Athletic Conference, was sold to ESPN and will be played on December 20 at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, a city that also recently landed the corporate home of the Dallas Cowboys. Toyota Stadium, the home of Dallas FC in MLS, is also the site of the FCS championship game. The Frisco Bowl will join three other bowl games in the region—the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl and Heart of Dallas Bowl.

Anniversary Planning

College football, though steeped in tradition, always has something new for fans. Plans are underway to mark the 150th anniversary of the sport in 2019. The NFF is hiring a staff to plan multiple events for that celebration. “We do have a lot of visuals that go back that far — a lot of the history,” said Hatchell.

Even as it seeks to honor the sport’s past, college football is growing into the future, with new stadiums, new teams, and new events that, in 2017 and beyond, will build lasting memories for new generations of fans.