CHARLOTTE - On a night a few weeks ago, Steve Ackles was awake at 1 a.m. with a song in his head. And that song was "Sandstorm."
Indeed, it was the Finnish techno track that's become a standard at South Carolina football games. On an afternoon a few weeks later, Ackles - who oversees football game production for the fledgling SEC Network - shows a visitor a YouTube clip of Williams-Brice Stadium in full frenzy. That's what he wants to capture when ESPN's newest network comes to Columbia on Thursday night for its first live broadcast, a season-opening showdown between post-Johnny Manziel Texas A&M and the ninth-ranked Gamecocks.
"My biggest thing is, we come on the air, when Joe Tessitore throws it to Brent Musburger and we kick it off at 6:01, what are those seven to eight minutes going to be like?" Ackles asked. "Having done national title games, the Rose Bowl, and producing two Discover Orange Bowls, I have that feel of - OK, timing, details, music, coordination with the schools. This feels really big. This has to feel like one of those big games that you'd see on Saturday night football on ABC."
Within the confines of SEC Network's Charlotte studios, it already does. The network itself may have launched Aug. 14, but its real coming-out party is Thursday, when the eyes of the college football world will truly be on the network for the first time. Toward that end, the Gamecocks' opener is getting the full big-game treatment - two production trucks, SkyCam, an on-site airing of "SEC Nation" in the park across the street from the stadium, the No. 1 broadcast crew of Musberger, Jesse Palmer and Maria Taylor, and personnel resources typically reserved for bowl games. Big bowl games.
"I feel like it's going to be the Super Bowl," said Taylor, who played volleyball and basketball at Georgia. "You think about the SEC Network, and it's such a big game, and we're going to have 'SEC Nation' on site - all the things going into it, all the resources to make it feel bigger. It will probably be one of the bigger broadcasts I've ever done, and I've done the Orange Bowl before."
With 2013 Heisman winner Manziel now taking snaps and selfies with the Cleveland Browns, a big reason for that is the Gamecocks, coming off a third straight 11-2 season and favorites in the SEC East. USC's appearance in SEC Network's first game is due to "a perfect concurrence of events," said Dan Margulis, ESPN's senior director of college programming. "The game was there, it was a school that was willing to play on Thursday night, it's the kind of marquee matchup we really wanted to put out as our first event, and also send a signal that the network will have quality games. So it was just the right mix of everything."
Of course, it also doesn't hurt that South Carolina is the closest SEC school to Charlotte, allowing for a flurry of site visits in the weeks leading up to kickoff. "It's an hour and 20 minutes down the road, so we can actually do some pre-planning," Ackles said. "But they have a great football team that's had success the last three seasons with one of the most iconic football head coaches in the country, and an offense that should be very good. We're very happy that South Carolina is part of this."
Although the network is based in the Tar Heel State, this south Charlotte complex once exclusively home to ESPNU is now very much an embassy of the SEC. Flags with the logos of member schools hang from the ceiling of a main hallway whose walls are adorned with photos of SEC stadiums and arenas. More logos cycle on an electronic scroll in the studio which hosts "SEC Now," the network's "SportsCenter" equivalent. In another studio, Paul Finebaum is answering a question from Jonathan in Tallahassee during a live taping of his call-in program. The polarizing former Birmingham radio host now calls Charlotte home, testament enough to the power of the SEC.
"We know where the passionate fan base is, and we also know you don't follow college sports and pay no attention to the SEC," said "SEC Now" anchor Dari Nowkhah. "That's why this is in 91 or 92 million households. That's as national as national gets. .It's exciting to be part of something new that feels like it can't fail. With these fans, it can't fail."
With flags and helmets and logos around every corner - even analyst Tim Tebow was here for a media event a few days earlier - the entire place feels like one of those "Take It All In" SEC Network promotional spots come to life. "That's the basis of this network - the feel and the surroundings of every SEC school," said Ackles, a Connecticut native who produced college football for ESPN for 16 years. "Every SEC school has a person or a tradition or a landmark or a personality that you look and identify with."
Those traditions and landmarks come to life Thursday night when "Sandstorm" once again plays at Williams-Brice Stadium, cameras focus on South Carolina and Texas A&M, and the SEC Network's second - and in some ways, more important - launch begins.
"We (launched) here on the 14th to get our warmup in and get going and get everyone used to the programming," Margulis said. "And then on the 28th, it's like another launch. Football. And once the season starts, it obviously changes the face of the network."