- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATLANTA -- Late Saturday afternoon, Chick-fil-A Bowl president Gary Stokan sat in a lounge in the Jacksonville Airport, watching the end of the ACC championship game.
Stokan had just left Jacksonville Municipal Stadium, where he watched No. 6 Virginia Tech battle No. 11 Boston College to a 16-16 tie at the half. Now the Hokies were pulling away with a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter to win 30-16. As Stokan grabbed his carry-on bags to catch a short flight to Atlanta, he shook his head in concern.
"Now we've got a decision to make," Stokan told a reporter.
In less than 24 hours, Stokan would have to decide which teams he would invite to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on New Year's Eve. The Chick-fil-A Bowl has the second choice among ACC teams, after the league champion automatically goes to the BCS. The Chick-fil-A Bowl gets what is essentially the fifth choice among SEC teams, although sometimes its pick is higher or lower in the pecking order if handshake agreements can be reached with other bowl games.
In most years, the Chick-fil-A Bowl knows which teams it will invite before conference championship games are played, with multiple scenarios in place depending on which teams win league titles.
But in this season of upsets and uncertainty, Stokan is still wrestling over the decisions on the final day of the regular season.
"Every year, we've had a vote and knew going into the final weekend what we were going to do," Stokan said. "But it wasn't like that this year."
The Chick-fil-A Bowl's marriage with the ACC and SEC has helped it become one of the most successful non-BCS bowl games in the country. Last year, a record crowd of 75,406 fans -- bigger than crowds at the two Super Bowls played in the Georgia Dome -- watched Georgia beat Virginia Tech 31-24 in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In fact, the Chick-fil-A Bowl has sold out 11 consecutive times and ranks first in average attendance among non-BCS bowl games.
Past success is what makes Stokan's current decision so difficult. With the Hokies winning and claiming an automatic spot in a BCS bowl game, Boston College is probably the most deserving team to invite from the ACC. The Eagles, after all, beat Clemson and Virginia Tech during the regular season and have quarterback Matt Ryan, a Heisman Trophy candidate. But Stokan was noticeably discouraged by the small number of Boston College fans who made the trip to Jacksonville.
"We have to protect our ticket," he said.
It is a decision Stokan and his marketing and team selection committee have wrestled with for several weeks. For more than a month, the Chick-fil-A Bowl allowed ESPN.com unlimited access to its selection and scouting meetings, as well as scouting trips. Along the way, ESPN.com witnessed how the bowl selection process works. In many cases, touchdowns and turnovers aren't as important as TV, tickets and travel.
And in some cases, the best team for a bowl game isn't always the winning team.
Monday, Nov. 5
Nearly two months before the Chick-fil-A Bowl will kick off, about three dozen scouts and bowl officials are gathered in a conference room of the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce building near Centennial Olympic Park.
It is the first of four scouting meetings, in which former players, ex-college administrators and other volunteers debate the strengths and weaknesses of the ACC and SEC teams that might be invited to play in the game. The committee is chaired by former Atlanta Falcons coach Leeman Bennett, and includes former Georgia All-American kicker Kevin Butler and George Crumbley, who founded the former Peach Bowl in 1968 and has served on the team selection committee for nearly four decades.
It had been another weekend of upsets in college football, more so in the ACC than in any other conference. Unranked Florida State upset No. 2 Boston College 27-17. NC State beat Miami 19-16 in overtime. North Carolina surprised Maryland, 16-13. Virginia won another nail-biter, beating Wake Forest 17-16 after the Demon Deacons missed a last-second field goal.
The SEC results were more predictable. Many of the league's top teams played less competitive nonconference games. But two SEC results would go a long way in shaping the Chick-fil-A Bowl's pecking order: LSU 41, Alabama 34 and Arkansas 48, South Carolina 36.
After 10 weeks of games, the Chick-fil-A Bowl's pool of potential participants is still more crowded than a pre-holiday shopping mall. Only Ole Miss has been eliminated from consideration among SEC teams. Three ACC teams -- Duke, Georgia Tech and Maryland -- are no longer being considered.
"The good news is you see 11 ACC and SEC teams in the top 25 [of the BCS standings]," Stokan told the scouts. "The bad news is they all won't be there at the end because they're going to beat each other up. We'd prefer not to have a five-loss team, but we may not have a choice as these teams continue to play each other."
At the moment, the Chick-fil-A Bowl seems to be favoring Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky from the SEC. The committee figures LSU will end up playing for the BCS championship. The Tigers are 8-1 and look stronger than any team in the country. Defending national champion Florida and Georgia also seem to be out of the Chick-fil-A Bowl's reach. So does Auburn, which will be attractive to the Cotton, Capital One and Outback bowls, if the Tigers finish the season strong.
The Razorbacks have never played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, and having tailback Darren McFadden in the Georgia Dome for what might be his final college game is enticing. But Jack D'Arcy, the scout who attended Arkansas' convincing victory over South Carolina, isn't sure the Razorbacks will want to travel east for the postseason.
"It may be a different ballgame at Arkansas," D'Arcy told the committee. "They've always wanted to go to Dallas [for the Cotton Bowl]."
The Cotton Bowl scouts attending the Arkansas-South Carolina game also seemed interested in inviting the Gamecocks, who had a 6-3 record before losing to the Razorbacks. When D'Arcy and another Chick-fil-A Bowl scout were visiting Gamecocks athletics director Eric Hyman before the game, they were shoved aside when Cotton Bowl scouts entered the suite.
"They walked up, pushed us out of the way and said, 'We want South Carolina in the Cotton Bowl!'" D'Arcy recalled.
But after South Carolina surrendered 651 yards in its third consecutive loss, the Gamecocks looked less attractive to both bowl games.
"I wanted to ask the Cotton Bowl guy after the game if he still wanted South Carolina," D'Arcy joked.
Even with its loss to LSU, Alabama was still a strong candidate to play in Atlanta in the postseason. The Crimson Tide rolled Tennessee earlier in the season and were currently 6-3, 4-2 in the SEC West in coach Nick Saban's first season. With games left against Mississippi State and Louisiana-Monroe, Saban's team seemed more than capable of reaching eight victories.
A week later, several bowl games would be re-evaluating the Crimson Tide.
Monday, Nov. 12
It wasn't a great weekend for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Four of the teams the scouting committee really liked -- Boston College from the ACC and Alabama, Arkansas and Auburn from the SEC -- each lost over the weekend. The Crimson Tide were upset by Mississippi State. Tennessee blew out the Razorbacks. Georgia blasted Auburn. Boston College lost for the second week in a row, this time to Maryland.
Still, Stokan believes Boston College might be a good fit for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Three more ACC teams -- Florida State, Miami and Wake Forest -- were all but eliminated from consideration after losing badly over the weekend.
"Boston College did beat Virginia Tech," Stokan said to the committee. "If they beat Clemson, they would be tough for us to pass."
The Eagles' competition for the ACC bid figures to be Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Frank Stiteler, a former Atlanta radio personality who has served on the selection committee for more than 30 years, reports the Hokies aren't opposed to returning to Atlanta for the second year in a row.
The Hokies' 40-21 victory over Florida State over the weekend helped their chances of coming back to Atlanta. Stiteler was in Blacksburg, Va., to see the game.
"I spoke to the Florida State chaplain," Stiteler said.
"Did you need your soul saved?" joked another scout.
"I met the provost from Virginia Tech," Stiteler continued. "He told me, 'I want you to meet my friend. He's the ambassador to Switzerland.' I didn't know what to say, so I reached into my pocket for a [Chick-fil-A] coupon. I said, 'Here, have a free milk shake.'"
After Stiteler finished his 15-minute report, Kim McQuilken, a former Lehigh and NFL quarterback and vice chairman of the team selection committee, asked him, "Frank, did you actually meet any football people there?"
The SEC race isn't much clearer than it was a week earlier. South Carolina is eliminated from consideration after its ugly 51-31 loss to Florida, the Gamecocks' fourth consecutive loss. The committee also concedes the Gators, Georgia and LSU will probably be chosen before the Chick-fil-A Bowl selects its SEC team.
Tennessee blasted Arkansas 34-13 over the weekend, also improving its postseason position.
"With the way Tennessee played, they seem to think they're going to shoot right over our bowl," said scout George Morris, a former Georgia Tech All-American and member of the College Football Hall of Fame, who attended the Tennessee game. "They think they're coming to the SEC championship game. They just believe that's what they're going to do."
Six SEC teams (Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Mississippi State and Tennessee) remain on the table. Auburn, which lost to Georgia 45-20 in Athens the previous Saturday, remains very attractive to the committee because of its close proximity and strong tradition.
Monday, Nov. 19
It was another bad weekend for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Nerves seem to be on edge and not just because the committee's food -- Chick-fil-A nuggets, what else? -- has yet to arrive.
"Too many teams lost, we canceled the food," joked Steve Robinson, senior vice president of marketing for Chick-fil-A and a committee vice chairman.
Last week's preferred flavor -- Alabama vs. Clemson -- won't happen. Boston College beat the Tigers 20-17 at Death Valley to win the ACC's Atlantic Division. The Eagles have now beaten Virginia Tech and Clemson, two of the more attractive teams for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Worse, the Crimson Tide lost to Louisiana-Monroe 21-14 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., dropping their record to 6-5 overall.
"I don't see any way Clemson is still in our selection process," Stokan said to the committee. "They lost to Virginia Tech and lost to Boston College. I think Boston College, if they beat Miami and lose in the ACC championship game, is a viable option because they've beaten both Clemson and Virginia Tech. They've got Matt Ryan and they're a very good team. My concern with Boston College is will its fans go to Jacksonville and turn around and come back and travel to a bowl game if they lose? I'm not concerned about selling tickets, but we like butts in seats for the atmosphere."
Only three other teams from the ACC remain under consideration: Clemson, Virginia and Virginia Tech. The Cavaliers and Hokies play the following Saturday in Charlottesville, Va. The winner wins the ACC's Coastal Division and meets Boston College in the ACC championship game.
"That rivalry weekend is turning into a play-in for the Chick-fil-A Bowl," Stokan said.
On the SEC side, the report from Arkansas isn't good. The Razorbacks beat Mississippi State 45-31, but there didn't seem to be much interest from the Hogs in coming to Atlanta. And Arkansas coach Houston Nutt seems to be on his way out.
"I didn't feel a whole lot of love," D'Arcy told the committee. "The Houston Nutt thing is really heating up over there. I think they'd be a heck of a draw with the players they have, but I just didn't feel the vibes."
The following weekend sets up as a big one for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. It's the final day of the regular season in the ACC and SEC, when several traditional rivals play. Clemson plays South Carolina, and the Tigers must win to stay in the Chick-fil-A Bowl hunt. Kentucky needs to upset Tennessee to have a chance to get to Atlanta, and Auburn must beat Alabama to stay in contention.
"With the way the season has gone, you've to wait until they play their schedules out," Stokan said. "Some crazy things could still happen."
Monday, Nov. 19
For the first time all season, "Rivalry Week" didn't turn the ACC and SEC upside down. Well, unranked Arkansas stunned No. 1 LSU 50-48 in triple overtime, seemingly knocking the Tigers out of the BCS championship race. But the Chick-fil-A Bowl got the results it needed: Mississippi State beat Ole Miss. Clemson defeated South Carolina. Boston College routed Miami. Auburn held off Alabama. Virginia Tech beat Virginia in a game that could have gone either way, as far as the Chick-fil-A Bowl was concerned.
"We haven't made a decision," Stokan said. "I can't remember it ever being like this. You've got so many situations where it's going down to the last game."
Boston College and Virginia Tech will play in the ACC championship game in Jacksonville, Fla., the following Saturday. If the Eagles win, the Hokies will return to Atlanta for the second season in a row. If the Hokies win, things get more complicated. Stokan has had positive discussions with Boston College athletics director Gene DeFilippo, but Chick-fil-A Bowl officials remain concerned about the Eagles' traveling fan base.
Stokan changes his weekend plans to attend both the ACC and SEC championship game. He wants to see how many Boston College fans make the trip to Jacksonville.
"I'm going to watch them play and see how they do," Stokan said. "I'm going to see what the injuries are. I want to talk to people and see if I can get a feel for how many people they'd bring to Atlanta. We do know we'll take Virginia Tech if they lose."
Before the meeting is adjourned, the committee gives Stokan authority to ultimately decide which teams will be invited to play in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Saturday, Dec. 1
Stokan prepares for his Saturday doubleheader. After watching the first half of the ACC championship game, he'll return to Atlanta to catch the second half of the SEC game. At the ACC game, he remains very concerned about inviting the Eagles. He meets with DeFilippo and ACC commissioner John Swofford before the game. By most accounts, there are fewer than 5,000 Boston College fans in attendance.
"It's not good," Stokan said.
Stokan leaves the ACC game at halftime and hurries to Jacksonville International Airport, where he has a 4:44 p.m. flight to Atlanta. The SEC championship game kicks off at 4 p.m.
If Tennessee surprises LSU, Stokan is confident he will have a chance to invite Auburn to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The Tigers have become the favorite team among most committee members.
But if LSU wins, Stokan fears Auburn could be selected before the Chick-fil-A Bowl make its selection from SEC teams. If Auburn is picked by the Outback Bowl or Cotton Bowl, for instance, the Volunteers might be the best team left on the board. But Stokan isn't sure how many Volunteers fans would return to Atlanta for the second time in less than a month.
"We don't know what the loser's situation is going to be," Stokan said.
At the SEC title game, Stokan meets with SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack, who oversees much of the league's postseason bowl operations. Stokan is assured that the Outback Bowl will protect Tennessee from falling far if the Volunteers don't hang on and beat LSU. If the Tigers lose, Stokan is told they'll go to the Cotton Bowl.
LSU rallies from a 14-13 deficit in the fourth quarter and wins 21-14. After No. 1 Missouri loses to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game and No. 2 West Virginia is stunned by Pittsburgh at home, the Tigers are suddenly back in the BCS championship race.
Stokan goes home confident that he'll get the teams he wants.
Sunday, Dec. 2
Stokan reports to his office shortly after lunch. He calls Womack to make sure nothing has changed. When Womack tells him the Outback Bowl will indeed select Tennessee, Stokan calls Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs to inform him the Tigers will be invited to the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Stokan also calls Mississippi State A.D. Larry Templeton and Kentucky A.D. Mitch Barnhart to tell them their teams weren't selected.
The ACC choice still hasn't officially been made. Since the Chick-fil-A Bowl selected Miami in consecutive years in 2004 and 2005, Stokan feels he can't afford to select a school that might not sell its required ticket allotment of 17,500. The Hurricanes sold fewer than 10,000 tickets in each of those years, making the Chick-fil-A Bowl a soft ticket. After discussing the situation with Robinson and Chuck Fruit, the Chick-fil-A Bowl's chairman of the board, he decides to select Clemson over Boston College.
"The BC thing ate me up for a week," Stokan said. "The factors on the field were very favorable to Boston College. But when you look at this thing, you have to take into account the players, the administrators, the relationships with the leagues and the financial commitments. The city really depends on us because we're one of the top 10 conventions. We have an obligation to hotels, restaurants and retailers. Taking all of that into consideration, Boston College and the ACC understood our decision. If it would have been another year or a different situation, where we weren't so responsible to our local ticket holders and community, the decision might have been different."
In the end, Stokan's decision proved to be the right one for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Clemson sold its allotment of 17,500 tickets in less than 24 hours. Auburn's pool of 15,700 tickets was gone by Tuesday morning.
Once again, the Chick-fil-A Bowl was a sellout.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.