College football: Aggieland in frenzy over marquee game against 'Bama
College Station, Texas • Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin showed up for his radio show a tad late this week, blaming practice. "We have a little bit more work this week," he said. "Don't know why."
Ahem. It's No. 1 Alabama, of course, which visits No. 6 A&M on Saturday, giving the Aggies the dream Southeastern Conference mega-showdown they wanted when they ditched the Big 12 before the 2012 season. A&M surprised the mighty Crimson Tide last November in Tuscaloosa, 29-24, to set up this much-awaited rematch.
The Big Game, perhaps the most anticipated here ever, is the source of a building frenzy in town. Aggie fans started filing into the Wings 'N More off University Drive at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday to save seats for Sumlin's 7 p.m. show. Touted by the school as "commander in chief," the second-year coach is adored by many fans. "We all do," said Tony Ford, the restaurant manager, "for what he's done for our football program."
Helmets from SEC schools are displayed above the bar, somehow creating the mental picture of old Baylor, Texas Tech and other Big 12 helmets collecting dust in a closet. The bartender suggested Ocean Potion a drink of a bluish color that perhaps only college students could gulp. A father and son, a former student and current student, shared dinner while discussing the game. The place was packed, and it will only get crazier as game day nears. The Bryan-College Station Convention and Visitors Bureau guesses as many as 90,000 visitors will swamp the region, and the media interest is believed to be the largest ever.
"Jason from Bryan" got to ask Sumlin a question about handling the sensational buildup to kickoff.
"You ignore the circus," Sumlin told him. "But you still want to ride the ride."
Athletic director Eric Hyman said A&M's intent is to position the program to play these kinds of games annually. The support is evidenced by the $450 million redevelopment of Kyle Field, which will expand the stadium from 83,000 seats to 102,500, the biggest in the state and the SEC, scheduled for completion by the 2015 season.
"There's electricity in the air, and that's what college football's all about," Hyman said. "In the history of Texas A&M, this is probably a high moment of interest. We'd like to be able to do this on a consistent basis â¦ not to be a once-in-a-lifetime kind of affair."
The popular ESPN College GameDay is broadcasting Saturday from the on-campus Simpson Drill Field. The game is airing on CBS at 2:30 p.m. Last year's A&M game at Alabama on CBS drew a 6.1 rating which equals 9.6 million viewers and ranked fourth for most eyeballs on a college football game last season. That was when quarterback Johnny Manziel became the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy. "Oh my gracious," longtime broadcaster Verne Lundquist exclaimed after one unexpected touchdown, when Manziel regained his own bobble and threw for the score. "How about that!"
Manziel has only become more famous, and polarizing, which makes for great TV.
The area's 35 hotels and approximately 3,200 rooms sold out for this weekend a couple of hours after the schedule came out, said Shannon Overby, president of the area CVB. She said SEC fans come to town earlier and stay longer, as they're coming from farther distances. And this game in particular â¦
"The hype started after the upset last year," she said. "We keep hearing Alabama is out for blood and now coming back for the rematch on our turf."
A normal game typically brings in somewhere from 50,000 to 75,000 visitors. With the rooms full, visitors are spreading out to Huntsville, Waco and Houston.
Royce Hickman, president/CEO of the Bryan/College Station Chamber of Commerce, guessed the economic impact of the game will reach the $20 million range.
"This is far above average," he said.
A recent study estimated the impact of each game day on the region as $15.2 million, but the study was conducted in A&M's final Big 12 season in 2011. A new study is on the way but not yet started.
Thousands are expected to come to town, Hickman said, just to enjoy the atmosphere, without actually buying tickets to the game.
Tickets were going for an average of $763 on the secondary market, on Tiqiq.com, which Forbes called the most expensive for a regular-season game since it's kept track over the last four years. According to ticket site StubHub, the median price for the game is $550.
Shelby Honeycutt, a sophomore from Houston, picked up her student tickets Wednesday morning from the Kyle Field ticket office. As an underclassman, she's stuck way up in the third deck, in section 324. The seniors camped out in line for hours before they could pull the best tickets Monday morning.
"I just want to go," Honeycutt said. "It's going to be crazy, louder than usual."
Aggie apparel stores around town are ready.
Among the selections are T-shirts reading: "Roll Tears Roll," and "We Control the Tide."
There are almost as many "Beat The Hell Outta Bama" signs around campus as audible howdys.
One could also buy a BTHOESPN shirt, thanks to the network's reporting on the NCAA's recent investigation into allegations Manziel sold autographs.
A shirt at the front of the bookstore at the Memorial Student Center in the heart of campus reads, "Chapter Two," and features the houndstooth hat of legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, the former Alabama and A&M coach, next to Sumlin's modern A&M visor.
"I want them to be as excited as they've ever been," Sumlin said of Aggie fans, "and I want this place to be as loud as it's ever been Saturday afternoon."
A large number of recruits will be in attendance, with A&M trying to take advantage of its national perch and being the only SEC team in the state, even as "former" rival Texas is floundering early.
"We give players in this state a choice," Sumlin said.
The Aggies' recent surge even had senior safety Toney Hurd tweeting that A&M was the new university of Texas.
"We have a lot of swagger and confidence," he said. "I feel like we're kind of taking over the state."
Texas coach Mack Brown responded, telling reporters, "We are the University of Texas in this state and will be, regardless of what some kid tweets."
Brash, one of the hottest teams in the country since going 11-2 last season, A&M will have to back it all up once again Saturday. Hurd also predicted A&M's 12th Man at Kyle Field the swaying, towel-waving, stadium-moving sort will get to Alabama. The Tide has only won three of the last four national titles.
"With the 12th Man behind us each and every play," Hurd said, "I feel like Alabama will definitely be intimidated. It's electric."
Even better, it's only a day away.