ATHENS - The Georgia football team will get at least one more crack at a win in the Georgia Dome.
Georgia and North Carolina have agreed to a match-up in the 2016 season opener in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game, it was announced Thursday. The game, set for Saturday, Sept. 3, will pit two geographically-close programs that haven't played each other since 1971.
“I know our team, coaches, and fans will be looking forward to playing a quality opponent like North Carolina in Atlanta,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said in a statement. “It will be a national stage for a season opener and generate a lot of excitement for fans not only of both schools but college football fans around the country.”
Georgia athletics director Greg McGarity hinted at this in January. Speaking on the Bulldog Hotline radio show, McGarity said a neutral site game was "something that will be in our future," adding it could be revealed "sooner than later."
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The Georgia Dome is due to be phased out after the 2016 football season in favor of the Atlanta Falcons' home stadium. Georgia's recent history in the dome isn't good, losing the SEC championship games in 2011 and 2012, and falling to Boise State in the 2011 Chick-fil-A kickoff game.
But Georgia was eager to get back to the dome, rather than have other nearby SEC schools continue to play in the kickoff game. Alabama has appeared in a season opener at the Georgia Dome four times since 2008, Ole Miss did last year and Auburn is facing Louisville in this year's kickoff game.
North Carolina is coming off a 6-7 season, which finished with a bowl loss to Rutgers. Head coach Larry Fedora is entering his fourth season at North Carolina; he just hired Gene Chizik, the former Auburn head coach, as his defensive coordinator.
The Tar Heels' 2015 signing class was ranked 28th nationally by the 247Sports Composite. It was ranked 30th nationally in the 2014 class, and 28th in 2013.
Georgia and North Carolina have not played since the 1971 Gator Bowl, but they used to play on a semi-regular basis. That last game was in Jacksonville, and from 1947-1966 they played each other every season at alternating home sites.
“This will undoubtedly be one of the best games of the 2016 opening weekend and a long-overdue renewal of an old ACC vs. SEC rivalry,” said Gary Stokan, president and CEO of Peach Bowl, Inc. “Both programs have a rich tradition, devoted fan base, top-notch players and elite coaches – all elements of a blockbuster-type game that we can’t wait to host.”
The tickets for the game will be split between both schools, with Georgia and North Carolina selling them out of their own offices.
The news means that Georgia will only have six games at Sanford Stadium in 2016, one less than the school would prefer to have every season. They include three SEC games (Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) and three non-conference (Nicholls State, Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia Tech.)
The chief concern with less home games is the hit to the local Athens economy, estimated at around $2 million for each game at Sanford. McGarity said in the January interview that hopefully that could be offset by another concert at Sanford Stadium; country star Jason Aldean performed there in 2013.
Georgia will now have two neutral-site games that season, in Atlanta (North Carolina) and Jacksonville (Florida). Only four games will be in opposing stadiums, all in the SEC: Ole Miss, Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina.
This is the second high-profile series in less than a year that McGarity has nailed down. Georgia and Notre Dame are slated to play each other in 2017 and 2019, the first game in South Bend and the second in Athens.
“It’s great to have the opportunity to be back in Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game,” McGarity said in a statement. “It will also be a special time to rekindle a long-ago rivalry with North Carolina, a team we have not played since the Gator Bowl game in December, 1971. Georgia and North Carolina have played 30 times especially through the fifties and sixties and I’m sure it will be a very popular game among fans of both institutions.”