Alabama vs. Texas A&M: The Hype About The Hype
By Brett Beaird
Could No. 1-ranked Alabama vs. No. 7-ranked Texas A&M's game Saturday, scheduled for a 3:30 pm ET kickoff on CBS, become the highest-rated regular-season game in the history of college football?
Media pundits believe there's a good chance. There are many reasons for the optimism with Alabama trying to become the first team ever to win three consecutive BCS National Championships. It’s Nick Saban’s disciplined, hard-nosed defense against Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and current Heisman Trophy winner and his “point-a-minute” offense.
College football fans have been looking forward to “Alabama/Johnny Football II” since the Aggies came to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 11, 2012, and upset the Tide, 29-24. Saban himself has admitted he tweaked his recruiting philosophy to sign “fast-twitch” players who can put pressure on up-tempo offenses run by quarterbacks such as Manziel. Throw in Manziel’s high-profile, public, weekly offseason antics and speculation of a possible suspension because he allegedly received money for signing autographs, and the interest in this game could be historic in the annals of TV ratings.
The Notre Dame/Miami game Nov. 25, 1989, still is the highest-rated regular-season college football game ever on TV, drawing a 14.5 rating. This is still an impressive rating considering the population growth and major media changes since the late 1980s. The Nov. 3, 2011, Alabama/LSU game in Tuscaloosa is the second-highest rated game, drawing an 11.9. Ironically, if both Alabama and LSU are undefeated again Nov. 9, the record could be in jeopardy a second time.
Tickets to attend the game are listed at an average of $763 on the secondary market. That’s $50 more than the 2011 matchup between No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, which was then billed as the “Game of the Century”.
CBS Unveils “Johnny Cam”
The big question this week besides who will win the game is what innovations will be used to cover the game with the advent of social media and TV. One major addition to CBS’s coverage of the game is “Johnny Cam.” CBS Sports has added an extra camera that will focus solely on Manziel. Craig Silver, the coordinating producer of college football for CBS Sports, believes this will give the viewer even more insight into Manziel’s play.
"No matter where he is and no matter what part of the game it is, we'll have a shot of it," Silver said. "If he's anywhere in sight of that camera, we'll catch it.
“By the time we get to kickoff, this thing will have been talked about ad nauseam throughout the sports world. We're not judge and jury. It's not our place, especially within the body of the broadcast, to state whether he should or should not be playing, should've been suspended or should not have been suspended. The way I approach it is how has all this stuff affected him as a football player and affected his team."
CBS Sports executive producer Harold Bryant is credited with originating “Johnny Cam” when he considered using a single camera to catch the antics of former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight years ago. Silver also hinted the idea came from following former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.
"The one analogy I can make in terms of covering someone is we obviously spent four years covering Tim Tebow at Florida," Silver said. "I was always careful as a producer, and I think Verne (Lundquist) and Gary (Danielson) were as broadcasters too, to make sure we treated Tebow fairly. But let's be honest, Tebow touched the ball nearly every snap. My main goal of this game is to just remember there's a lot more going on than Johnny Manziel. He's a unique personality and we're going to use unique ways to cover him.”
Not everyone is excited about seeing the debut of “Johnny Cam” on Saturday.
"I just don't understand why there's got to be one guy singled out and put a camera on all the time,” Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. “That's not what we're about, that's not what we're trying to promote. Certainly from my standpoint, all the criticism about individualism on the football team, I don't think this helps enhance the team concept one bit."
Is 24/7 Media Coverage Too Much?
Ron Higgins is a past president of the Football Writers of America. He has been covering the SEC for the Memphis Commercial Appeal for 28 years and the SEC for more than 30 years. He is moving to the New Orleans Times Picayune this month to cover LSU and the SEC. Higgins has watched first-hand how social media has changed coverage of marquis games.
“It’s too much saturation now,” Higgins admitted. “Analysts now analyze other analysts. (Johnny) Manziel and (Tim) Tebow have been compared by members of the media a lot this summer. There is a big difference in the two. Tim’s message is about being a Christian. Everybody came to Tim; he never got on Twitter. There was a kindness to Tim. ESPN made him larger than life when he got to the pros and in some aspects tried to make him a bad guy. Tim's not a bad guy. Manziel's not a bad guy either, but he has brought a lot of the negative media on himself. Texas A&M officials have done a poor job of trying to handle this stuff. I blame Texas A&M as much for this problem as I do the kid.
“Twitter has changed coverage of games a lot. Some people cover a game or make observations of the game on Twitter. I try to do both. It has certainly changed the dynamic of how we cover games. Twitter is a tool now that a lot of media go to for their first big source to see if an event actually happened and who is covering it. Facebook has helped me actually track down people who were involved in a particular story that I wanted to interview.”
One of the new additions to the CBS broadcast along with “Johnny Cam” is sideline reporter Tracy Wolfson using social media in her broadcast. Wolfson will tweet from the sidelines for each game beginning with Alabama and Texas A&M.
“This is a unique opportunity to provide our viewers a different prospective using Instagram and some little things that we can’t get into a normal broadcast,” Wolfson said. “I can get different things into the broadcast than what Gary and Verne can't get in involved with in the booth. I'm very involved in Twitter on a daily basis anyway and I believe it will add a lot of our normal broadcasts.”
Verne Lundquist is starting his 50th year in broadcasting. He reminisced about some of the technological changes he's seen since the start of his career.
“Obviously, we didn't have Twitter in 1963,” Lundquist said. “We didn't have video tape and color, magnetic or optical sound. The technological advances and the advent of social media and its impact on what we do have been amazing in our business. This is the biggest first game of the season that Gary and I've done since our first year of broadcasting together in 2006.”
Lundquist’s on-air partner, former NFL and college quarterback Gary Danielson, understands the “game within the game." He compares “Manziel mania” to “Tebow mania” since he started broadcasting with CBS at the same time Tebow started his career at Florida.
“You can't take your eye off him (Manziel) once he is on the field,” Danielson said. “He commands your attention during the game. I came into the league at the same time when Tebow came into the league. You didn't need to go through the traditional media to do a story on Tebow. Tim was polarizing in an interesting way. He was nearly too good to be true to some people. He displayed his faith on a regular basis and some people couldn’t handle it.
"During this time, the media was really changing too. Over 300 talk shows exploded to 1,000 talk shows on radio and TV. You have to follow social media now. If you don't follow social media now, then everyone is laughing at you. He's (Manziel) Dennis Rodman when he's not on the field, but he can play so well. His vision, competitiveness, and ability to see plays before they happen are unique. He gets the ball to the playmakers and that makes him so successful.”
Richard Deitsch of SI.com Sports Tech asked Danielson how compelled he feels to discuss Manziel's off-the-field activities during the CBS game broadcast. Danielson compared it to the former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton situation in 2010.
"You can’t ignore it,” Danielson said. “Verne is valuable in his expertise, and Craig Silver, too. We went through the Cam Newton stuff when we were doing the Auburn games. We have a lot of experience with this. So you have to address it. It is part of your job. You can't look like you are avoiding it. Other studio hosts can put it in a little different perspective. I think when we do it, we have to tie it to the football game."
ESPN Will Cover "Johnny Mania" Too
ESPN has been live in College Station, Texas, for three days before the game. Practically all college football programming (College Football Live, College Football Daily, ESPN College GameDay and even SportsCenter) will originate live from College Station, Texas.
ESPN coordinating producer Lee Fitting, who oversees College GameDay, does not want to go “nuts” over Johnny Football, but he realizes that ESPN had to be in the middle of the action.
"I can promise you the show won't turn into 'Manziel Mania' for three hours,” Fitting said. “I’m sure the viewers will get their fill of Manziel at some point. Will we cover every angle of the game? Yes. But we will not go overboard."
Sports fans saw what ESPN did with Johnny Manziel when it came to "oversleeping" at the Manning Passing Academy. Their Manziel interview turned into the biggest sports story for two days.
Fitting is not anxious about his popular College GameDay crew getting booed by the anticipated 30,000-50,000 fans expected to fill around the College GameDay set Saturday morning.
“I'm not concerned about any negative reaction by the crowd Saturday morning,” Fitting said. "More than likely, there be a few more boos than normal. Will the kids be yelling at our guys more than normal? Yes, but that's all theater. Trust me, through the years, Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard have heard it all."
The scene for College GameDay will include another pregame show: the College GameDay radio show, which is unique for ESPN. Fitting explained this setup is similar to the one when Florida traveled to College Station last year for Texas A&M’s first-ever SEC game.
"This game will be one of our most hyped games. It's up there for a September game," Fitting said. "Every year we have monster games of this magnitude. Two years ago some people were calling the LSU-Alabama game the Game of the Century. But to have a game like this in September with as many different storylines is great. There will certainly be a little different type of buzz this week."
Coverage From The Respective Campuses
How are the staff writers for the respective schools handling the information overload for the next “Game of the Century?"
“I’ve personally been preparing for this game since last spring,” said Olin Buchanan, staff writer for TexAgs and former college football editor for Rivals.com. “We knew this game had potential to be a huge game and I've been doing some background work for quite some time. Of course, one of the big angles that we and others have talked about is the Alabama coaching staff having an entire offseason and a bye week to prepare for the game.
“ESPN and CBS personnel have been on campus since earlier in the week. The Texas A&M sports information department has issued more credentials than any game in history of the athletic department. The only game even close to this was in 1999 after the bonfire that collapsed during construction, killing 12 people, 11 students and one former student, and injuring 27 others. There was a lot of attention from national media to see what impact the tragedy would have on the Texas and Texas A&M game.”
Kirk McNair, editor of BamaMag.com, indicated he has not prepared any special coverage of this game.
“Fox Sports, our parent company, is ramping up their coverage with more reporters and different angles, but we're not,” McNair said. “We realize it’s a very important game, but our focus has been how Coach Bryant bridged the two schools with his coaching tenure at A&M and Alabama. In fact our special feature this week was the 100th anniversary of Coach Bryant’s birthday on Sept. 11. The biggest tie for us in this game is Coach Bryant. His coaching tenure at Texas A&M, the 'Junction Boys' angle and of course Gene Stallings being one of his former players at A&M and head coach at both A&M and Alabama.
“It’s hard to believe the teams have played against one another in football only five times. Bama leads the series, 3-2, but the biggest wins for the Crimson Tide may have come in coaching tie-ins. And the winner in that arena has clearly been Alabama. Although there was some outrage in the Alabama camp when Dennis Franchione slipped out of Tuscaloosa at the end of the 2002 season to take the head coaching job at Texas A&M, there was also some solace in that Bama had probably done a little better when the Crimson Tide enticed Paul Bryant to leave the Aggies and come to his alma mater as head coach in 1958.”
Will Alabama vs. Texas A&M be the next college football “Game of the Century?" Only time will tell, but the major networks, Internet sites and social media will package and sell it to America with that promise.
Early in the season it seems a bit of a stretch to say these are the two best teams in the nation. Neither team looks unbeatable, but that lends to some of the attraction to the game. Unfortunately we will have to wait until November or January to find out the answer.