To say the buildup heading into Saturday’s tilt between Ole Miss and No. 14 Texas is enormous is a vast understatement.
The quaint southern town of Oxford, Miss., has been buzzing about Saturday’s game for more than a year, and with the weekend approaching, residents are expecting a burnt orange invasion.
“I’m positive we’ve never seen anything like this weekend,” Oxford resident and Ole Miss graduate Campbell McCool said.
Games with LSU, Alabama and Mississippi State receive a bevy of attention and excitement in Oxford, but this one has a different feel. It’s almost historic, as one of college football’s most storied programs will venture onto the Square and into the Grove for the first time.
A town of around 40,000 people is expected to more than double in size this weekend, which has created quite the housing circus.
With hotels in Oxford and neighboring Tupelo booked for more than a year, weekend rental rates have skyrocketed.
McCool said a Texas fan gave him a “nutty offer” to rent his house for the weekend. He turned it down, but has friends who have rented their house for more than $20,000 for the weekend.
“There’s never been another game that’s remotely approached that,” he said.
“The demand for housing for this thing is clearly unprecedented for a game around here. I knew that to be the case, but I was still surprised at how strong and how high it’s going.”
But that’s how big this weekend is for Oxford and Ole Miss’ program. For a football team and fan base that has been riddled with disappointment for two years, this is a big deal. The Rebels will be facing a renowned program on national TV.
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been in a good spotlight,” senior fullback H.R. Greer said. “A lot of times there’s been a lot of negativity around the program. It’s great for the fan base and the university to be in a positive spotlight.”
That spotlight only grew with the Rebels’ 2-0 start under first-year coach Hugh Freeze. Fervor has returned. With that newfound excitement has come wild rumors about what to expect.
There’s celebrity gossip, like Texas alum and actor Matthew McConaughey renting out the famed City Grocery and Taylor Grocery for the weekend. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been rumored to show up, and so has Kevin Durant. Maybe Bevo will even hit up the Square.
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One of the rumors that can be scrapped is McConaughey buying out City Grocery. Oxford chef/restaurateur John Currence said his beloved restaurant hasn’t been rented out -- not even for the $250,000 that he supposedly turned down.
Currence actually helped start the rumor by playing along when a pesky eavesdropper misinterpreted a conversation Currence and one of his general managers had about a Texas fan supposedly being interested in paying more than double City Grocery’s opportunity cost for a night (more than $100,000).
For the last eight months, Currence kept quiet as rumors swirled around southern sports talk radio and Internet message boards about City Grocery being home to Texas fans this weekend.
The offer never came, but Currence said he wouldn’t hesitate at the opportunity to collect a six-figure check.
“If they show up with $100,000 and want to buy the restaurant out, you better … believe I’m going to do it,” Currence said.
“They come, and they pay to play.”
Currence, however, will host 500 Texas alums with a food spread near Ole Miss’ baseball stadium that will earn him between $15,000 and $20,000.
With more than 100,000 people expected in town, Oxford’s economy should see a boom, as businesses expect to see a double-digit profit increase from the weekend.
And expect quite the increase of bodies in the Grove, where two unique cultures will meet.
Cowboy hats will face Croakies and sport coats. Cowboy boots and ripped jean shorts will meet loafers and sundresses. “Hook ‘em Horns” will challenge “Hotty Toddy.” Ribs and brisket will be shared with fried chicken, shrimp and a toddy.
One of the most respectable football programs’ fan bases is in for a real treat when it wanders around the 10-acre, tent-covered Grove.
Former Oxford mayor Richard Howorth said he expects very cordial interactions between Ole Miss and Texas fans. His bookstore, Square Books, is even selling a special burnt orange ball cap for the weekend.
It won’t resemble the epic scene in Oxford in 2003 when LSU came to town to face Eli Manning with the SEC West on the line. The Square mirrored a war zone Friday night before the game, as Ole Miss and LSU fans split downtown in half, yelling and screaming at each other for hours.
Without the rivalry feel, there won’t be that bitter tinge in the air.
“This will be a nice, friendly greeting between these two teams,” Howorth said. “But I definitely think it’ll be big. There will be a lot of people. Texans are known for being proud of themselves, so we’ll have to see how tolerant we can be.”
Currence is skeptical about the magnitude of the game equaling 2003, but he welcomes the financial benefits of dealing with Texans.
“You have some people that are coming down that have some money and will spend it like crazy,” he said. “That’s wonderful.”
“Am I excited? Hell, yes. Am I excited that we’re playing a team that travels hard and spends well and is going to make an impact on our local economy? You better believe I am.”
Texas' arrival will also pump more excitement into Ole Miss’ program. It's been a rough two years, but there's a fresh feel in Oxford with a national power coming to play on national television.
An Ole Miss win might create a party not even the Grove can handle.
“It’d be a big-time win,” Greer said. “They’re a great team, and it would really spark us for the rest of the year.”