When fans see Peach beside a team’s bowl destination the initial thought is it had to settle for the second tier.
Not any longer.
It may take some getting used to, but the Peach Bowl shares the same stage as the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, Rose and Cotton. With the creation of the College Football Playoff, the Atlanta-based bowl became part of the New Year’s Six, meaning it will host a College Football Playoff semifinal every three years and pair two highly ranked teams the other two.
When Florida State was designated to play Houston in the Dec. 31 Peach Bowl, it marked the Seminoles’ fourth consecutive “major” bowl, something it had not achieved since a 10-year run from 1991-2000.
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The Peach Bowl overcame a rocky start to make a slow but steady climb up the bowl hierarchy and land in a coveted spot in the playoff system, which is in its second year.
“We all felt like we had done everything we could do,” said Gary Stoken, the bowl’s president and CEO. “Our strategy worked in making the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl successful.”
The Peach Bowl’s history starts with an 18-year period in which the game muddled along, usually with unappetizing matchups and typically hindered by bad weather while playing at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
“It seemed like our title sponsor was ‘weather-plagued’ because every article written started with weather-plagued Peach Bowl,” Stoken said.
Then, a series of events following the 1985 Army-Illinois game brought the game to what it is now.
“We had about 22,000 people, terrible weather, there was about a foot of mud,” Stoken said about the ’85 game.
The bowl was on life support and executive director Dick Bestwick pleaded for support, telling the city the plug would be pulled without help from the business community. Up stepped Delta Airlines with a $100,000 check and the bowl had life.
Then, slowly but surely, the Peach Bowl began to blossom. Other businesses came aboard. In 1992 the game moved to the new Georgia Dome, eliminating any weather concerns. The year coincided with securing a contract to pair the SEC vs. the ACC. In 1997 Chick-fil-A come on as a sponsor.
Now on solid footing, the bowl started showing up pretty regularly on New Year’s Eve and occasionally on New Year’s Day or Jan. 2, and attracting customers. The bowl sold out 17 straight years starting in 1997.
Then two crucial decisions really put the Peach Bowl on the College Football Playoff committee’s radar.
The bowl got behind the kickoff classic and the game, which pits two marquee teams and has become the unofficial start to the season, debuted in the Georgia Dome in 2008. The game will feature Florida State and Alabama to start the 2017 season.
Then, when the College Football Hall of Fame was looking for a new home, Stoken, who joined the Peach Bowl in 1998, went to the bowl and suggested kicking in $5 million to entice it to Atlanta. A 94,000-square-foot building was erected in downtown Atlanta and opened in August 2014.
Suddenly, Atlanta, which also had the SEC championship game, had become a college football hub.
“Then they looked at us, the kickoff game, the success of the bowl game, moving the College Football Hall of Fame, I think they saw a real commitment to college football,” Stoken said.
Soon after, Stoken received a call from Michael Kelly, the COO of the College Football Playoff, with one question: If Stoken returned Peach to the bowl’s name — it had gone by the Chick-fil-A Bowl since 2006 — they would join the Cotton Bowl as the two new members of the New Year’s Six.
The request was simple enough and the Peach had hit bowl bonanza.
Now, the bowl has become a desired destination. Not only will the Peach Bowl host a semifinal game next year, but the city got behind the bowl’s bid to host a national championship game and it was granted for Jan. 8, 2018.
“It’s as good an environment as there is in college football,” Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher said. “It’s a very dynamic place to play, one of my favorite places to play.
“Hopefully, we’ll be back there next year for the semifinal game.”