The road to the College Football Playoff started here and Georgia State got a head start on the rest of the competition — which only seems fair given the Panthers’ credentials — with a wild 38-37 victory against Abilene Christian in front of an announced crowd of 10,140.
Today, the heavyweights start to join the race.
The Georgia Dome crowd will swell significantly when No. 18 Mississippi faces Boise State tonight. On Saturday, No. 2 Alabama fans figure to pack the home of the NFL’s Falcons for its opener against West Virginia.
No. 1 Florida State begins defense of its national title in Texas against Oklahoma State at the home of the Dallas Cowboys. By the time Labor Day night rolls around and Miami welcomes Louisville to the Atlantic Coast Conference, every ranked team will have played.
There will be a few big games: The post-Manziel era begins for No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 9 South Carolina tonight, and No. 16 Clemson is at No. 12 Georgia on Saturday.
And there will be plenty of mismatches: No. 8 Michigan State against Jacksonville State; No. 3 Oregon vs. South Dakota; and No. 19 Arizona State facing Weber State, to name a few.
But it all started rather humbly Wednesday night in Atlanta.
At a small parking lot across the street from the Georgia Dome, a few dozen students tailgated. There was a football being chucked around. A game of cornhole being hotly contested. Most were wearing Georgia State’s royal blue somewhere on their bodies.
A huge grill and a DJ were set up, courtesy of Georgia State, and the marching band and cheerleaders came by to help with the entertainment.
Brandon Rosenstein, 21, a senior at Georgia State, and his group of friends were doing their own cooking under a small tent.
“I’ve always been a ’Dawgs fan,” he said, referring to Georgia’s Bulldogs. “But when I came here I became a Panthers fan, too.”
This is Year 4 of Georgia State football and the first as a full-fledged member of FBS and the Sun Belt Conference. Playing against a full FBS schedule for the first time last year, the Panthers went 0-12.
“One win,” 19-year-old sophomore Emil Nirkis predicted for the Panthers. “I don’t even know who we’re playing (Wednesday).”
In the heart of SEC country, this felt a long way from the SEC.
A few thousand fans dotted the lower tier of the dome at kickoff, some wearing Abilene Christian purple. The Wildcats moved up a division to FCS last year and fared OK, going 6-5.
On an early third-and-goal, the PA announcer implored the fans to get loud, and they did their best. The Panthers came up with a stop and forced a short field goal.
The first touchdown by an FBS team of the 2014 season was a 34-yard pass by Nick Arbuckle to Joel Ruiz, who did a mini-somersault into the end zone to give Georgia State a 7-3 lead.
Arbuckle was sensational in his first start for Georgia State. The junior college transfer passed for 413 yards and four touchdowns, and led a 72-yard drive in the final 2:41 that included two fourth-down conversions.
Wil Lutz lined through a 26-yard field goal with 4 seconds left and Georgia State snapped its 16-game losing streak.
“We have a one-game winning streak now,” second-year coach Trent Miles said.
No, the Panthers won’t be contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. If Florida State is No. 1 in the 128-team FBS, Georgia State is still likely to finish much closer to No. 128 than the final four.
But for a night, the Panthers had the stage — and ESPNU — all to themselves.