KNOXVILLE — And then a rainbow appeared over Neyland Stadium.
This was how the University of Tennessee's 118th college football season began against Utah State on Sunday evening. Undeterred by the heavy rainstorm that began soaking the UT campus less than 40 minutes from kickoff, the Big Orange Nation filled all 102,455 of Neyland's seats for a Vols home opener for the first time since 2007, then spent the next three hours loudly cheering the team's 38-7 victory over the Aggies.
"I remember when we won the national championship in 1951," said 76-year-old Knoxville native Jerry Childs, who wore UT orange suspenders and a black "Power T" ballcap. "I've been coming to games here since 1948 and I think this team has the potential to win a few more ball games than people think. I think these young players that Butch Jones is coaching are talented and hungry."
Tennessee hasn't finished with a winning record since 2009, when former coach Lane Kiffin's only Vols team finished 7-6 after a Chick-fil-A bowl loss to Virginia Tech. Every year since has produced a losing record, including three straight 5-7 finishes.
"I'm 35," said Dalton from Knoxville -- "I don't give anyone my full name the first time I meet them," he added -- "and I don't have a lot of grand expectations. I'd just like a winning season for a change. I don't think that's too much to ask."
Like Childs, Dalton also recalled a championship season from UT's past.
"Remember 1998?" he said of the Vols' last national title. "Sometimes you're on top of the mountain, but it's hard to stay there very long. We can't even see that mountain now. But that's the way this sport goes sometimes."
Kingston High School student Cameron Hardin came to Neyland expecting that climb back up the mountain to begin this autumn, mostly because of senior quarterback Justin Worley.
"We're going to a bowl game for sure with the senior leadership we have at quarterback," Hardin said. And that was before Worley engineered touchdown drives on the Vols' second and third possessions of the game.
Not everyone who filed into 94-year-old Neyland was consumed by football only.
Childs' wife, Becky, said, "I personally like the crowd, the atmosphere. I like to see what everybody's got on, all those weird outfits."
As if on cue, Huntsville, Ala., resident Kevin Glouner and his wife, Jessica, walked past, both wearing crimson University of Alabama gear.
"We were in Atlanta last night for the Alabama game," Kevin Glouner said of the Crimson Tide's 33-23 win over West Virginia inside the Georgia Dome on Saturday. "We didn't have to work on Monday so we just decided to drive up with some friends and watch Tennessee play."
Asked if they were worried for their health, what with all that crimson on, Kevin Glouner said, "We didn't pack any clothes but Alabama stuff, so this was all we had to wear."
The sight of the Glouners' attire and Kiffin roaming the Tide sideline as Bama's offensive coordinator was instantly enough to stir Jerry Childs' competitive juices.
Mindful that Alabama will travel to Neyland on Oct. 25, Childs said, "I predict we'll beat Alabama. How about that?"
It's a long time until Oct. 25. But not nearly as long as football fans throughout the nation, especially in the Southeast, have waited for this weekend to arrive.
Speaking for anyone who ever ignored a thunderstorm to cheer on his or her favorite team, Kevin Glouner said, "We're all just so happy that college football has started again."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 ...