The prospect of filling every seat at M&T Bank Stadium for Saturday's matchup between Maryland and West Virginia seemed promising when the game was first booked a little more than two years ago. Both the Terps and Mountaineers were coming off bowl games and had made coaching changes to energize their respective fan bases.
Although the game might not sell out — 55,000 tickets have been sold as of Thursday morning, according to Maryland deputy athletic director Nathan Pine — the makeup of the crowd in terms of the allegiance to the respective teams could be noticeable.
While West Virginia has been known to bring tens of thousands of fans to road games — around "90 percent" of a crowd of 45,511 to FedEx Field last year when the Mountaineers played James Madison — Maryland athletic department officials are confident that the Terps won't feel like the visiting team.
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Pine said Thursday that a surge in ticket sales this week is largely attributable to Maryland's first 3-0 start in 12 years, and he believes that most of those who have purchased tickets in the past few days — pushing sales from 46,000 last week to the current number — are Maryland fans.
"I think we're going to have a predominantly Maryland crowd there, I feel strongly that we're going to be well supported, and it's going to feel like a home game," Pine said. "I feel that if we were closer to a sellout, there would probably be more West Virginia folks in there than there are, but based on our 3-0 start, Maryland fans are snapping up the tickets."
What could also be working in Maryland's favor is the fact that West Virginia fans might not be as excited about this year's team than they have the past few seasons. Though Dana Holgorsen's first year in Morgantown, W.Va., was nearly the reverse of Randy Edsall's in College Park — 10-3 record compared to 2-10 — West Virginia lost six of its last eight games last year to finish with a 7-6 record.
"The excitement level is not what it was [going into] last year, that's for sure," said Scott Phillips, a 1986 West Virginia graduate who is now the president of the Baltimore chapter of the West Virginia Alumni Association.
The departures of quarterback Geno Smith and wide receiver Tavon Austin (Dunbar) to the NFL, as well as a 16-7 loss at Oklahoma two weeks ago, has also helped temper the expectations for this season. While the Mountaineers still have 33,000 season-ticket holders — nearly double Maryland's total — fans might be less willing to drive a few hours to watch West Virginia (2-1) on the road than they have been in the past.
"There's not as much hype as there was last year, obviously," said Mike Wells, West Virginia's assistant athletic director for marketing and ticket sales. "You were coming off an historic, record-breaking [70-33] win [over Clemson] in the Orange Bowl, which by itself would bring interest in the team. You were returning a lot of talented players to generate a lot of excitement. Then we were moving to the Big 12, a big-tme football league. You really have a perfect storm to move the hype level off the charts."
As for Saturday's game in Baltimore, Wells estimates that "things you hear from the buzz out there, you'll have more than 15,000 Mountaineer fans. You don't know if it will be 15,000 or 20,000 or 25,000 fans, but I feel like the Mountaineers will be well-represented."
Phillips also said he expects a good turnout by Mountaineers fans on Saturday.
"It wouldn't shock me to be 50 percent Mountaineer fans, that wouldn't shock me at all," Phillips said. "We have a lot of activities around the game. Because we're in the Big 12 now, and most of our road games are so far away, the Maryland game is the one game everybody can get to."
Baker Koppelman, who oversees the game's scheduling as vice president of ticket sales and operations for the Ravens, doesn't seem concerned about the size of the crowd.
"When we book these games, we kind of book them on a worst-case scenario," Koppelman said earlier this week. "We're going to be fine. We don't book games that we don't think will succeed on some level. We want to have a sellout every single time we have an event here. Some events don't do that, some do."
Koppelman said that scheduling a college football game in an NFL stadium is often a tricky proposition. The Maryland-Navy season opener in 2010 was nearly a sellout, based in large part because of the date on Labor Day weekend and the fact that the two teams rarely play.
"In college football, you're always going to have the possibility of catching teams on years when they might be in a transition or they might be having new players come in or whatever," Koppelman said. "You might make a deal two, three or four years in advance, and anything can happen with the program.
"West Virginia, we just happened to catch them in a year when two of the best players they ever had just left."