KNOXVILLE — At 3 o'clock Saturday morning, 19-year-old Timothy McNabb rose from his slumber in South Pittsburg, piled a couple of buddies into his 2005 Chevy Silverado and with a little help from caffeine-heavy Mello Yello headed 150 miles northeast to the University of Tennessee campus.
The UT-Florida football game was still more than 12 hours from kickoff.
"We just wanted to get a good spot for 'GameDay,'" McNabb said of ESPN's highly popular live college football preview show.
"We barely saw a car until 20 miles south of Knoxville. Then all we saw was UT fans. It was crazy."
It hadn't been crazy like this in Knoxville since 2004, which was also the last time the Vols had beaten the Gators on the gridiron.
But three hours from kickoff, the entire campus seemed to be a sea of pale orange, more than 104,000 fans ready to pile into Neyland Stadium as soon as the gates opened.
That only 4,000 of them were Florida fans -- UF sent back more than 4,000 tickets for the first time in memory -- didn't seem to overly concern Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley.
"There are probably a lot of factors for that," he said. "It is what it is. But hopefully the 4,000 or so Florida fans who are here will make their presence felt. This has always been a great rivalry, a great environment, and I expect it to continue to be."
At least one factor could be the economy, though scalpers said tickets with a face value of $75 were fetching $150 two hours before kickoff.
"Everybody's got to be aware of that," Foley said. "We're actually blessed in this part of the country to belong to a conference filled with large stadiums that are still mostly filled with fans and lucrative television contracts. But to say you're going to turn a blind eye to the economy would be foolish."
So has Florida lowered prices in its concession stands as UT has this season?
"We haven't lowered them," Foley said. "But we haven't raised them, either."
What was raised this week was the profile of the Atlantic Coast Conference after Notre Dame agreed to join the league in every sport but football, though the Irish will face five ACC foes each football season.
"It' a significant change in the landscape," Foley said. "It's good for Notre Dame. It's good for the ACC."
But for Saturday, Neyland Stadium overflowing with orange, it was best to have a seat for the Vols and Gators.
Or as McNabb observed as he watched a college football game live for the the first time in his life, "I'm overwhelmed. The size of the stadium, the crowd. It's huge."
It's SEC football, apparently still economy proof in the best of rivalries.
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...