Gary Stokan has become a matchmaker. The president and CEO of the Peach Bowl has to be in his position. Stokan is in desperation mode with the coronavirus potentially impacting all three of his Chick-fil-A Kickoff games in the with college football trying to figure out when and how to play its 2020 season.
Stokan sprung to action once the Big Ten and Pac-12 decided earlier this month to play conference-only schedules. Those nonconference kickoff games in Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium feature three high-profile contests in a week: Florida State vs. West Virginia (Sept. 5), Georgia vs. Virginia (Sept. 7) and Auburn vs. North Carolina (Sept. 12).
"Playing only conference games certainly doesn't help us," Stokan said. "When I saw that, I said, 'I should get to work here seeing if it's even possible.' … We've got three games to put on. I don't want to lose them."
With all Power Five conferences seemingly trending toward a shortened regular season amid COVID-19, Stokan said he "promoted" the idea of a "plus one" schedule to commissioners of the SEC, ACC and Big 12. In other words, a standard conference schedule with one additional nonconference game. That would add up to nine regular-season games for the SEC and ACC. For the Big 12, it would be 10 games.
The "plus one" structure would preserve traditional SEC-ACC rivalry games this season in a limited schedule -- Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, Kentucky-Louisville -- that would otherwise be lost in a conference-only format.
In that scenario, Stokan already knows he could lose Florida State, West Virginia, Georgia and Virginia from his kickoff showcase.
It's a weird twist on addition by subtraction that would allow Stokan to be that matchmaker, creating a pool of possible new opponents for the Sept. 5 and Sept. 7 games. The Auburn-North Carolina game theoretically would not be impacted.
Florida-Florida State and Georgia-Georgia Tech are obvious games that would affect the kickoff games. West Virginia and Virginia don't have a comparable nonconference Power Five game and could be matched up in one of those kickoff games, Stokan said.
Stokan also said the commissioners of the three conferences told him they will take his proposal "under consideration." Interpret that how you want. The commissioners are trying to save their sport. Stokan is trying to save three games.
"As we stand here today, what I believe with our conversations with commissioner [Greg] Sankey, the SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC are on the same page as far as our collective desire to be patient before making any decisions," Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek said last week. "You look at some of the in-state rivalries that exist, especially between the SEC and the ACC, it makes sense that Clemson should play South Carolina, Georgia should play Georgia Tech and Florida should play Florida State. Just eliminating those games because you want to play a conference-only schedule, at least at this point, does not make a great deal of sense."
Started in 2008, the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff is currently the longest-running neutral-site season-opening event in college football.
"You gotta work; you gotta promote stuff," Stokan said.
The "plus one" idea isn't exclusive to the one-time NC State basketball player. Sources have indicated to CBS Sports both the Big Ten are Pac-12 have at least considered adding a 10th conference game to their current nine-game conference-only schedule.
One Big Ten source told CBS Sports that his school has been given a list of five league opponents from the opposite division for a possible 10th game.
One Pac-12 athletic director told CBS Sports that his league is in a similar position. "I think we're closer to 10 [conference] games than we are nine," the AD said.
While the stated intent of the SEC and Big 12 is to find a way to play their full seasons, COVID-19 realities may make a shortened season inevitable.
"I think that's a real possibility," one Big 12 AD said. "We're much more like likely to be a conference [schedule plus one] Power Five opponent than we are to be [facing a Group of Five] nonconference opponent."
"If we get to the point where the doctors say, 'You've got two wheels of the train off the track, and you're looking like you're going to have a wreck,' we're going to listen to them," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
That means perhaps the Big 12 waiting until early August when players are actually practicing, Bowlsby said. "When we put helmet and pads on, I think that gives you the best look of what the season looks like."
Initial indications from the SEC and ACC were that the conferences waiting until next week to make their decisions.
"You hear the 8-plus-1; you hear the 10-plus-1," North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. "I don't have any idea what I'm doing with the scheduling. [I'll play what AD Bubba Cunningham] tells me to play."
The Big 12 plays nine conference games as the only Power Five league with a round-robin schedule. The SEC and ACC play an eight-game conference schedule. Each of the 28 teams in those combined leagues had scheduled a Power Five nonconference opponent prior to the Big Ten and Pac-12 acting. (Notre Dame and BYU are considered Power Five nonconference opponents by those leagues.)
Alabama coach Nick Saban has long advocated for his league playing more Power Five nonconference opponents.
If the Big Ten and Pac-12 do nothing more, a plus-one schedule for the three other leagues would at least give them a competitive advantage.
An additional Power Five game in a shortened season would conceivably give the SEC, ACC and Big 12 that extra "data point" for the College Football Playoff Selection Committee to consider.
A plus-one season the Big 12, for example, would likely keep two high-profile nonconference games in Tennessee-Oklahoma and Baylor-Ole Miss.
That might be looking too far ahead as a season is looking less likely by the day. There is an NCAA Board of Directors meeting Friday during which, CBS Sports has learned, the association could cancel all fall championships. That would include the FCS, Division II and Division III playoffs. Some FBS sources are lobbying the board to hold off.
The New Mexico governor asked both New Mexico and New Mexico State on Wednesday to refrain from playing contact sports in the fall. Meanwhile, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick told ESPN he would like to see the season delayed and shortened.
Still, if a season is played, these three conferences would lob somewhat of a middle finger at the Big Ten, which multiple sources said surprised its Power Five counterparts by breaking ranks and going with a conference-only schedule early in the process without communicating its intentions.
"I think the Power Five are all considering that, so the Big Ten decided they were going to jump out," one Power Five AD said. "That purely, to me, was desperation."
Whatever happens, the process is being played out in stages. The commissioners are trying to buy as much time as they can before canceling the season or moving it to next year.
The conference-only season, then, may be a "placeholder" for the public to digest before the next decision must be made. The commissioners have already indicated the start of the season could be delayed. It could also be played over two semesters or perhaps moved completely to 2021.
For now, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are already facing criticism over breaking nonconference game contracts.
"The question I haven't had answered is, how do you drop one set of games and then add games back in without finding yourself in breach of agreement?" Bowlsby said.
If there is a shortened season, the next question is when to begin it. Neither the Big Ten nor Pac-12 committed to a start date when they announced conference-only games. The specific schedules have not been released either.
Some Power Five conferences have already looked at extending the window for playing games to 16 weeks – from Aug. 29 "Week 0" to conference championship games on Dec. 19. (The scheduled date for the end of the regular season is Dec. 5.)
For example, the Big 12 has already checked into availability of the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium on both Dec. 12 and Dec. 19. Such a window would account for six open dates in a 10-game season when postponed games could be made up.
Even if the season's start was delayed until Oct. 3 -- the first Saturday of the month -- Dec. 19 championship games would still provide a 12-week window.
"The Big Ten going to conference-only, the biggest advantage by far is being able to start on time and spread the games out," Bowlsby said. "You have room for the make ups and stumbles that you're inevitably going to have."
Assuming a shortened season, adding a ninth or 10th game would provide more inventory for the TV rights holders who were already dealt a blow by the Big Ten and Pac-12 decisions.
"The games have got to get in for television more than anything," a Power Five AD said. "If we can get those games in, we would not lose that money. The thing we've got to be careful is to not put our student-athletes at risk just to get games in."