Dec. 31, 2004 wire reports

DALLAS -- The folks at Texas A&M could care less that the Cotton Bowl is an aging stadium, that the New Year's Day game played there starts early and that the weather is often cold, wet or both.


To the Aggies, the tradition and nearby location of the Cotton Bowl makes it a dream destination -- especially this season.

The only thing better than rebounding from 4-8 to 7-4 is getting to cap it with not only their first bowl trip since 2001, but a return to their favorite game after seven years away.

An added bonus: A&M fans will be rooting against a team dressed in orange that goes by the initials UT.

OK, so it's Tennessee, not rival Texas, and the Volunteers wear a lighter shade than the Longhorns. Still, the Texas A&M faithful will be swaying in the stands, kissing their dates after scores and trying to be as much of a 12th Man as if this game was played a few hours away in College Station.

"Kyle Field North," coach Dennis Franchione said with a smile, referring to his team's home stadium. "This is a special place and I think we will have a good contingent of maroon in that stadium on Saturday."

Game officials are expecting a crowd of 75,000, the biggest since 1978. Rain is in the forecast, but likely in the afternoon, so the 10 a.m. kickoff could be a good thing.

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer knows the supposedly neutral-site game will be a hostile atmosphere, so he prepared as if he was headed to an SEC rival's turf. Practices were held with loud noise blaring, including the "Aggie War Hymn."

Fulmer also noted that oddsmakers are favoring the No. 22 Aggies over the No. 15 Volunteers (9-3).

"We certainly respect that we are in Texas," Fulmer said.

The teams have played only once, a 3-0 victory by the Volunteers in the 1957 Gator Bowl. It was the last game that Bear Bryant coached the Aggies.

Despite their combined seven losses, both teams can consider their seasons quite successful. After all, two of Tennessee's losses were to No. 3 Auburn, while A&M lost three times to teams now ranked in the top six: Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.

The Volunteers didn't know what to expect this season as they broke in a mostly new secondary and an entirely new crop of quarterbacks. After relying on two freshmen QBs most of the season, injuries have forced them to turn to junior transfer Rick Clausen.

Clausen, whose older brother Casey started Tennessee's last four bowl games including the 2001 Cotton, won his first two starts then lost to Auburn in the SEC championship after getting the Vols within a field goal early in the fourth quarter. Freshman Brent Schaeffer could play for the first time since breaking his collarbone Oct. 30.


The focus of the Tennessee offense probably will be running backs Gerald Riggs Jr. and Cedric Houston. Houston is 57 yards from giving the Vols two 1,000-yard rushers for the first time.

A&M has done a good job against elite runners this season, holding Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma State's Vernand Morency and Kansas State's Darren Sproles under their averages. The exception was Texas' Cedric Benson, who had 165 in the season finale.

Strangely, Benson's big day helped get the Aggies to Dallas.

The Longhorns' solid victory was a factor in getting an at-large berth into the BCS. Without it, Texas would've been Cotton-bound and the Aggies would've gone to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego.

While a trip to the sun and sand is ideal this time of year, A&M backers prefer staying close to home. For instance, quarterback Reggie McNeal's mother doesn't fly, so his parents would've had nearly a 20-hour drive from East Texas. Now they can be home for dinner.

Despite all the Aggies have accomplished this season, turnaround-specialist Franchione is hardly finished. He's kept players motivated by reminding them A&M has lost its last four Cotton Bowls; the last win was in 1988.

"This team has done a nice job of having a special season in a lot of ways," he said. "This would certainly be a game that if we're able to win, it would be something that could set them apart from all the other teams just a little bit."