Sweet Home Atlanta: Crimson Tide opens at second home


Photo illustration by Hannah Saad / Photos by Hannah Saad & CW file

James Benedetto, Assistant Sports Editor

For the 15th time under coach Nick Saban, Alabama will take the familiar 200-mile trip to Atlanta to play a nationally televised football game. 

Legendary stories have been written in both the Georgia Dome and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The 2009 SEC Championship win over Florida signaled a passing of the torch in the conference and national title hunt, and Tua Tagovailoa announced his arrival in grand fashion two winters ago.

In fact, Tagovailoa’s defining throw and one of his lowest moments, his ankle injury in last year’s SEC Championship, occurred within 108 feet of each other at the east end of Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

“We’ve been there a lot,” Tagovailoa said. “For my class, this would probably be our third time playing in Atlanta. It helps because you know where the game clock’s gonna be, shot clock, you know where a lot of things are gonna be. So I think it helps tremendously.”

Having knowledge of the venue is an advantage for the Crimson Tide coaching staff and players when they go through game preparation. Tagovailoa said that even the turf is a little different than the normal turf that they play on and is something that they have to adjust to from the field that they work on in practice. 

“To me personally, I feel like it’s rough. The turf is pretty hard,” Tagovailoa said. “The turf we have in here is ‐ it’s a lot softer, I guess. It’s bouncy. The turf over there is almost like concrete.”

Unlike Tagovailoa, junior wide receiver Henry Ruggs III prefers the harder turf because he feels like it’s better to run on, but like every sports venue, there are pros and cons.  

“It’s a great environment to play in, especially with the big games we’ve played there,” Ruggs III said. “It’s a great place to play. I like to play there. The ceiling there kind of gets you, especially on special teams returning kicks.”

There is also the in-game atmosphere to deal with. Mercedes-Benz Stadium has a capacity of 71,000 fans, more than 30,000 fewer than Bryant-Denny Stadium. However, it is a domed stadium, meaning that wind and rain are not factors. But there is the aspect of shadows on the field which is an issue for wide receivers, defensive backs and special teams players.

Mercedes-Benz Stadium is also distinct from other indoor venues due to the structure of its retractable roof. It uses eight “petals” that slide open from the center, making a motion to seem like the roof is opening up like a flower.

Despite the uniqueness of the ceiling and the atmosphere of the game, for some Alabama players who are from the area it’s more than another venue. The stadium signifies a dream that became a reality. 

“I think it is a good experience for everybody. I like playing in a dome, personally,” junior safety Xavier McKinney said. “I like playing in an NFL stadium whenever we play in one. I think it helps us as far being at a neutral site. It just helps us for when we’ve got away games because technically it is not really a home game for us. I think that helps for when we do have those away games and it gets me more prepared for those.”

McKinney is one of seven Alabama players from the Peach State, having attended high school two cities away from Atlanta in Roswell. Both of the team’s freshman outside linebackers are also from Georgia, as well as tight end Miller Forristall.

Forristall hasn’t played in the team’s prior two trips to Mercedes-Benz as it has won a national championship and an SEC Championship just 43 miles from where he grew up. This time around, though, he is slated to start at tight end. 

“Oh, it’s awesome,” Forristall said. “I got to play my senior year of high school there in the state championship game. It was one of the last games in the Georgia Dome. And so now we get to go back to Mercedes-Benz every year, my family gets to come down and watch. Like my little brothers can come watch the game. How cool is that? It’s really neat.”