With a handful of reporters surrounding him, South Carolina quarterback Dylan Thompson deadpanned one of the best jokes of this year's SEC media days.
Asked about the lack of superstars in the conference this season, given the departure of players like Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel, Thompson didn't miss a beat.
"Yeah, they said Clowney had 1,000 people out there waiting on him [last year]. I think I had three," Thompson said. "So I'm closely behind."
Four hours later, Texas A&M punter Drew Kaser sat in the very corner that Manziel did a year prior. Manziel's appearance drew hordes of media members, and those who didn't hustle to his corner were left standing on the outskirts, barely able to catch a glimpse or hear the words coming from the Heisman Trophy winner's mouth, much less get the opportunity to ask a question.
Kaser's crowd last month was a fraction of the size, and the ability to walk up to the table, look the Ray Guy Award finalist in the eye and actually ask a question was much more feasible. Kaser's teammate, cornerback Deshazor Everett, summed it up best.
"I love the guy to death," Everett said of Manziel, "but the cameras follow him."
South Carolina and Texas A&M will meet to kick off the new college football season Thursday night (6 ET, SEC Network) and a new chapter in their respective histories, one with megastars in the rearview mirror. New faces are in their places, ready to generate their own nationwide buzz.
But such prominent personalities aren't easy to forget.
The buildup to the 2013 season for both teams reached a fever pitch. Texas A&M found itself in the spotlight for two reasons.
First was Manziel's on-field accomplishment of becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, doing so in the rugged SEC as the Aggies smashed expectations with an 11-2 debut in their new conference. But Manziel also crossed over from football star to celebrity, sitting courtside at NBA games, hanging with Drake and documenting it all on Twitter and Instagram for the world to see.
For Texas A&M, much of it was simply noise, with the exception of an NCAA investigation that resulted in a half-game suspension. The tangible effect came in the surge of requests -- media or otherwise -- that it received for Manziel.
"We had a request for him to come to a 3-year-old's birthday party," said Justin Moore, Texas A&M's associate athletic director for football, who became the de facto point man for Manziel's non-media requests last year. "You would just get crazy requests, thousands and thousands of things people sent in asking him to sign and send them back or 'Come to this event.' He was just such a popular figure, everybody wanted a piece of him and a piece of his time."
Alan Cannon, Texas A&M's associate athletic director for media relations, noted the Aggies issued 756 credentials for Texas A&M's game against Alabama last September. The only day Cannon can recall where more media showed up for an A&M game was the Aggies' 1999 game against Texas, which came after the tragic Aggie bonfire collapse.
Manziel wasn't the only attraction for the game against the Crimson Tide -- it was a rematch of the 2012 game, the Aggies' signature welcome-to-the-SEC win against a team that went on to win the BCS title -- but he was the biggest star that day.
While Aggieland grew more hectic, Clowney's profile also continued to rise in Columbia, South Carolina. Had he been eligible for the NFL draft in 2013, he would have been considered a shoo-in as the first overall pick. A national debate ensued over whether Clowney should even play his junior season in order to protect himself from losing the millions he was poised to make at the next level.
With size (6-foot-5, 266 pounds), speed and athleticism that seemed superhuman, he was already a decorated player, earning All-American honors and the Hendricks Award as a sophomore. But thanks to one monstrous hit in the Outback Bowl against Michigan, which has been viewed more than 5.1 million times on YouTube, expectations became almost astronomical.
He, too, was becoming a celebrity.
"He went to the ESPYs and met LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and all those guys," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. "Jay-Z, Beyonce's husband, I guess he met him. He was hanging with some big, big-time celebrities."
Both Clowney and Manziel endured challenges throughout 2013, but both wound up first-round NFL draft picks who left indelible marks on their respective programs.
The media spotlight isn't as intense now, but that doesn't mean there isn't a buzz surrounding each team. Both begin the season ranked in the top 25, and the Gamecocks are the favorites to win the SEC East after three consecutive 11-win seasons. The Aggies are breaking in a new starting quarterback ( Kenny Hill), and after going 20-6 in their first two seasons in the SEC, many are watching to see what's next for coach Kevin Sumlin's crew.
But what's life like without Clowney and Manziel?
"The other team won't have to change their offense when they play us," Spurrier said. "They'll say, 'Treat those defensive ends like everybody else.' So that'll be helpful for them. But again, we've got some young guys that are ready to play."
Sumlin made it clear that the Aggies have moved on, given the way he handled the questions about Manziel during media days in Hoover, Alabama. Flashing a smile, Sumlin made jokes when asked about his former quarterback, including: "That's a great question . . . for the Cleveland Browns."
The A&M players say they didn't pay attention to the chatter. This group is ready to show that it can win without Johnny Football.
"We really don't focus on things like that," Everett said. "Johnny was a great player and we loved him when he was here, but he's not here any more. We have to move on from that. What we're focusing on is this upcoming season and just being a better team and being that team that people don't expect us to be without Johnny. We have something to prove this year."
South Carolina defensive tackle J.T. Surratt feels similarly when the topic of Clowney comes up.
"We're going to continue," the senior said. "We've got guys on our team that are ready to show that we can make a name for ourselves. We have guys that are going to step up and take those leadership roles and make those plays. We're not going to fall off. We're going to get better."